It was a struggle to survive in the city. Workers' wages did not keep pace with the cost of subsistence, and most black families lived below the bread line.

Black workers' wages

Black families often had to supplement their incomes with the help of women and children. Black women, in particular, demonstrated their resilience and determination in carving out a life for themselves and their families in the cities. Before the mid-1930s, it was difficult for black women to find work in the formal sector.

Domestic service tended to be reserved for men and employers were prejudiced against black women. This can be partly explained by the fact that African women did not have to carry passes until the 1950s, and were thus not as easily controlled as African men.

As a result, black women had to rely on work in the informal sector. They became beer-brewers, or ran shebeens. Many took in washing or became hawkers, while others turned to prostitution. In this way, they were able to close the gap between wages and the cost of subsistence. They were also able to achieve some kind of economic independence through these informal activities.

  1917 1927 1937 1944

Average monthly wage

R7,50 R8,00 R8,50 R15,50
Poverty Datum Line iR8,00 R13,00 R13,50 R25.85


Up until 1956, only African men had to carry passes. A pass represented a means of controlling workers. At the end of a period of employment, an employer would write a reference in the pass. If the worker had not been completely hardworking and willing, it was likely that he would not receive a good reference and then it would be enormously difficult for him to find another job. Clearly, employers could not hold this kind of threat over women because they did not have to carry passes.

Thus, in order to survive in the city on near starvation wages, black workers had to engage in economic activities in the informal sector. These included the sharing of resources, beer-brewing and the running of shebeens. It was largely black women who engaged in these economic activities. As a result of these activities, a distinct working class culture developed in the townships, based on beer-brewing and shebeens.

This culture of survival contained within it inherent contradictions. The ability of black workers to supplement their wages through engagement in informal economic activity meant that employers were able to justify paying them low wages. They argued that black workers were supplementing their income through informal economic activities and that there was no need to improve their wages. (L. Callinicos, Working Life, p.)


The most common and profitable form of earning a living for women was beer-brewing. In the rural areas, beer-brewing was a task that many black women excelled in. Beer brewing did not only provide additional income for shebeen owners and their families. It also enabled them to provide livelihood for those unemployed (often extended family members) in return for some kind of labour in shebeen owners' businesses. This gave rise to a class in Sophiatown referred to as "diepamokoti", which literally translates to hole diggers. This is probably due to the fact that "diepamokoti" had the added task of digging holes and concealing beer during police during raids.

Traditional beer had a low alcohol content, and was usually brewed for the many celebrations, such as harvesting, births, weddings, and initiation ceremonies. In towns, many women began to brew beer as a way of supplementing the family income. Town beer soon began to change its nature. In the towns, beer became stronger and stronger. Brewers found that they could charge more for a drink with a 'kick' in it. Stronger beer was also quicker to prepare, which lessened the chance that it would be discovered by the police. There were a variety of 'conconctions'.

The fact is that the women who sell liquor cannot risk preparing their beer on Wednesday so that it will be ready for consumption  on Saturday or Sunday because the police are likely to come, raid and destroy the liquor and arrest the possessor, who must either pay a fine or serve a term of imprisonment.

Now, in order to get the kaffir beer ready for use on Saturday afternoon, something like methylated spirits must be put into it to give it a kick a few hours before men come from work on Saturday and Sunday. The usual process requires three or four days, which is too long and risky. The concoctions are added to make a get-ready-quick sort of drink in intervals between the police raids.

Dr Xuma, medical doctor in Sophiatown and leader of the ANC (Source of interview unknown).

The dangers of brewing

Women were able to make a fairly decent living from beer-brewing. In the 1930s, women earned between three pounds seventeen and six, and four pounds sixteen shillings, from beer sales in a week. These were higher earnings than the average wages earned by men in the manufacturing industry at the time.

Despite these "high" earnings, brewing beer was a dangerous way to make a living. In the towns, brewers and their customers were automatically criminals - it was against the law for Africans to brew or drink beer. Police constantly raided the locations and townships looking for beer and arrests for illegal beer-brewing were common among township women. In addition to a very high fine or jail if they were caught, brewers also lost the product of their work. Bloke Modisane, a resident of Sophiatown, writes of his mother's experience:

My mother accepted her life, and I suppose, so did the other shebeen queens; they chose this life and accommodated the hazards. My mother wanted a better life for her children, a kind of insurance against poverty by trying to give me a prestige profession, and if necessary would go to jail whilst doing it." (B.Modisane, Blame Me on History, p. )

There is no doubt that many women were able to send their children to school and provide them with better lives on the proceeds of beer-brewing. Ezekiel Mphahlele remembers the degree of economic independence that beer-brewing offered women.

The same old cycle. Leave school, my daughter, and work, you cannot sit at home and have other people work for you; stand up and do the white man's washing and sell beer. That's right - that is how a woman does it; look at us, we do not sit and look up to our husbands or fathers to work alone; we have sent our children to school with money from beer selling...(E. Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue, p.44)

Women would often work together to protect themselves against police harassment. The stokvels, which were mutual aid societies, were an important example of this. As Leah, one of the characters in Peter Abrahams' novel, Mine Boy, explains: They are all women who sell beer. And if one is arrested they all come together and collect money among themselves and bail out the arrested one. They are here to collect money for those who were arrested yesterday. (P. Abrahams, Mine Boy)


Town brewing, with its dangers, its pleasures and its profits, helped to create a new working class culture, especially at weekends. Shebeens were an important means of survival for musicians and shebeen queens. Shebeen queens were able to earn the money needed to care for their families, and musicians were able to exist independently and avoid working in the mines or the factories. Shebeens were also places to relax and escape from the harsh realities of urban living.

At night, and especially on the weekends, a shebeen queen's house would be cleared of its furniture, and turned into a shebeen. A group of musicians would be hired to play music, and beer, cigarettes, and stew would be readily available. There was usually an entrance fee of about five cents. In effect, the shebeens were the 'pubs' of Sophiatown. They provided people with a place to meet and to escape the frustrations of their every day lives.

Can Themba, a resident of Sophiatown, described this aspect in the following way:

The table was spired with bottles of brandy, gin and beer; and we were at the stage of high discourse, much like the majestic demons in the burning pit. For a moment, as I looked at those young men around me, the luxury of a mild flood of conscience swept over me. They had all at one time or another had visions: to escape their environment; to oppose and overcome their context; to evade and out-distance destiny by hard work and sacrifice, by education and native ability, by snatching from the table of occupation some of the chance crumbs of the high-chaired culture. Lord, it struck me, what a treasure of talent I had here in front of me. Must they bury their lives with mine like this under a load of Sophiatown bottles? (C. Themba, The Will to Die)

In Sophiatown, there were different kinds of shebeens catering for different kinds of people. Can Themba describe a shebeen for a poorer type of person:

..there are those that are just out to make money, and damn the customer. They are dirty, and crowded, and hostile. The shebeen queen is always hurrying you to drink quickly, and swearing at somebody or other. "You buggers act as if you've licenses to drink!" She sells everything, brandy, gin, beer and skokiaan, hops, hoenene, Barberton, pineapple, and even more violent concoctions.

Then there were the shebeens that catered for a more 'respectable' class of people. Drinkers were treated according to the value of their drink - sherry drinkers in a bare room, on a hard bench; brandy drinkers in comfortable chairs in the lounge. This is another description by Can Themba of one of these 'respectable' shebeens:

Quite a fine place too. A little brick wall, a minute garden of mostly Christmas flowers, a half-veranda (the other half has become a little kitchen) with the floor of the veranda polished a bright green. Inside, the sitting room may be cluttered with furniture, but you sink comfortably into a sofa as one of the little tables that can stand under the other's belly is placed before you, and you make your order. Half a jack of brandy!

Don Mattera, speaking of Sophiatown shebeens, says:

...for example, there are certain shebeens meant only for the elite, for journalists and the elite, like the Thirty Nine Steps and Back of the Moon, in Gold Street; and like the House of Truth, Can Themba's joint, was only for the intellectuals. But now and then the roughies would come in, and they'd have to talk roughie language.

Shebeen parties were often all-night affairs - once the nine or ten o'clock curfew bell had sounded no Africans were allowed on the streets. Constant alertness was essential. If the police came during a drinking session, a signal would be given by the look-out. Bottles would be hidden, and new reason found for the gathering; a meeting with a minute book and matters arising always worked well. But shebeens also provoked violence and fights were a common feature at these parties. Tensions flared easily - the frustrations of a week's hard work, the iniquities of being black in a segregated city, combined with too much drink, easily led to brawls. Stabbings and severe injuries were not uncommon in the shebeens.

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