Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 08:52

In the mid to late 1950s the United Party controlled Johannesburg City Council (JCC) and the Nationalist Government were thrown into crisis when a white man was murdered outside the Mai-Mai Beerhall to the east of the City. Patrick Lewis, the Chariman of the Council’s Non-European Affairs Committee, provided the following description of the incident:

Two Europeans returning from the Turffontein Race Course one Saturday afternoon stalled the very old motor car they were riding in near the Mai–Mai Beer Garden in City and Suburban just at the time when patrons were pouring out after closing time. The Europeans ordered the passing crowd to push their car to get it re-started, but the Bantu objected to the terms in which they were addressed and an argument started culminating in blows being exchanged, and finally the one European was so seriously assaulted that he died, but the other managed to run away.

The Department of Bantu Administration and Development (BAD) responded to the incident by ordering the JCC to close all central beerhalls and build alternative facilities in African areas in line with the Government policy of Separate Development. In order to understand the disagreement between the Council and the Government it is important to trace the seeds of the controversy.

In 1937 the amendment of the Native (Urban Areas) Act made it legal for Africans to brew their own beer in locations or native villages where local authorities did not erect a beerhall. In 1938, rather than allow home brewing, many local authorities on the Witwatersrand including Johannesburg erected their own production and distribution infrastructure. Over the years the practice attracted a great deal of criticism but Johannesburg forged ahead arguing that the Council monopoly had advantages including the following:

  1. preventing the ‘deterioration of health, morals and crime’ by minimising illicit brewing and providing a standard quality product
  2. preventing overindulgence by maintaining control over supply and demand
  3. keeping Africans off the streets during their lunch hour
  4. easing the financial burden of providing health, welfare, recreation and housing services.

Mainly due to the difficulty of finding suitable land, Johannesburg’s Beer Halls were located in industrial areas where a large number of Africans were employed. Only four were built leading to overcrowding and a number of unpleasant incidents. The Central Beerhall was the largest in the city serving an estimated ten thousand patrons per day by the mid 1950s and drawing numerous complaints from nearby white ratepayers. The Apartheid government was clearly unhappy about the large number of Africans drinking in ‘European’ areas and told the City that it wanted all beer halls to be relocated to Soweto.

W.J.P. Carr, the Manager of the Johannesburg Non European Affairs Department (JNEAD) had given some thought towards improving the situation but a letter from the Secretary for Native Affairs on 8 November 1956 demanded action:

As a result of recent disturbances at the Central Beerhall in Johannesburg the Department has given careful consideration to the advisability of locating institutions such as beerhalls, which are at the same time sources of potential danger, elsewhere than in central European or densely populated areas. As you are no doubt aware it is departmental policy that all institutions such as beerhalls catering for the needs of urban Natives should be situated in areas specially demarcated for Natives.

Indeed the Department no longer sanctions the erection of beerhalls save where these are erected in accordance with policy in the location. The same remarks also apply in regard to Native hostels and recreational facilities. ...it is considered that the time is now opportune for the City Council to consider the desirability of removing all such institutions to the Native townships.

It is appreciated that this can only be a long-term policy but to commence with the City Council should be urged to give consideration to the early removal of the Central Beerhall. The removal of the other beerhalls should receive consideration when the hostels are removed and the Native population in the central area is reduced by the implementation of the ‘Locations in the Sky’ legislation. The primary object should be eventually to establish all the beerhalls in the South-Western Native complex.

In response Carr presented a potential solution. He showed how planning was already in place for beerhalls at the new hostels at Dube and Nancefield and suggested that additional smaller beerhalls be constructed in the African areas to reduce overcrowding. He emphasised the importance of keeping the Central Beerhall open until alternative facilities became available and speculated that the loss of profits from closing the central beerhalls could be made up by the establishment of beer gardens and off-sale facilities in the locations. A central concern highlighted in the report was the high probability that Africans living in ‘European’ areas would turn to shebeens and dangerous concoctions if deprived of a convenient source of African beer. Carr argued strongly that this would create far more problems than those created by the beer halls and believed that the solution was to maintain a presence in the ‘European’ areas of the city.

At the same time he acknowledged the controversial nature of this suggestion:

...it would appear contrary to the Government’s policy to establish Native beerhalls in European areas and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find sites in the town where new smaller beerhalls can be established so as to relieve congestion in the four large ones existing, but this point is of sufficient importance to justify verbal representations being made on a high level to the Department of Native Affairs.

The Council supported the Manager’s concerns and adopted the following resolution:

That, in order to prevent the emergence of shebeens in the central area, the Manager, Non European Affairs Department, be authorised, in conjunction with other appropriate departments, to select and negotiate for the acquisition of two or three small beerhalls in predominantly industrial areas and that he be further authorised to make representations to the Native Affairs Department to obtain Government approval for this proposal, which, if necessary, could be on a temporary basis.

As this resolution openly opposed Government policy the Nationalist leader in Council proposed a motion to remove it. The United Party used its large majority to push the recommendation through but unsurprisingly Government approval for the plan was not forthcoming. A year and a half later after sustained government pressure one of the assurances given by the JCC was that it would cooperate with the BAD and accept the principle that in certain cases hostels, beerhalls and other institutions and amenities should be replaced with similar facilities in Native Areas.

Grasping the significance of the murder described earlier and the dangers of a knee-jerk reaction from the BAD Lewis immediately issued a statement to the Press to reinforce the Council’s position:

We are naturally gravely concerned about an incident such as that on Saturday. But it would be neither feasible nor sensible to uproot all the beerhalls in the city. Johannesburg’s natives consume 10 million gallons of kaffir beer a year. This proves their need for the brew, which is prepared under the best possible conditions and is virtually a food. Thousands of the beer-drinkers live and work in the city’s environs both during the week and on the weekend. If they were deprived of this beer just at a stroke it is certain that they would turn to illicit and dangerous brews. The Council thinks a sensible alternative to the large, crowded beerhalls would be to have smaller beerhalls in the city at strategic points. Thus big congregations of natives at one point would be prevented.

Minister of Bantu Administration and Development Michel Daniel Christiaan de Wet Nel Nel responded swiftly to events and ordered the Central, Mai-Mai and Wolhuter beerhalls to be closed before 16th June 1959. In addition to this he ordered that in the interim beerhalls in white areas should be closed on Sundays and that construction work on beer gardens in the African areas begin immediately. In doing so he rejected the Council’s plan – to maintain a decentralised presence in the ‘European’ areas - inline with Government policy. The Star criticised Nel for ignoring the advice of the ‘men on the spot’ as well as the reality that tens of thousands of Africans still lived in the white areas for the convenience of their employers.

On 27 February 1959 the Council met to discuss the Minister’s instructions. Lewis requested that the contents of the meeting be kept from the Press as previous leaks had increased tensions between the levels of Government. Despite this The Rand Daily Mail  was able to secure details of the meeting and reported that the Council had decided to approach the Minister to make further representations. Eben Cuyler (leader of the National Party in the Council) argued that since the English Press had reported on the matter he would now reveal ‘what the United Party had up its sleeves’. Die Vaderland subsequently informed its readers that the Council had decided to request that the Malan Commission – investigating the supply of liquor to Africans - be expanded to include an investigation into the sale and supply of beer. It accused the Council of employing delaying tactics with the aim of pressuring the Minister to pass legislation to remove beerhalls. While the request for the Malan Commission to look into the matter was rejected the Council began construction of beer gardens in the African areas with the full support of the BAD.

Lewis expressed his gratitude to Department officials for their assistance and cooperation but at the same time voiced his concern that the needs of Africans in the white areas had not been met. Lewis repeated his concerns at every opportunity including a candid speech to the Rotary Club of Johannesburg in April 1959:

If the beerhalls are to be closed can it be expected that the present patrons will suddenly change their habits, go without what they regard as their midday meal, reserve their thirsts for when they return to the Townships in the evening, and if they should live in the city are they suddenly going to drink ginger pop? I think the answer is to be found in some famous words of George Bernard Shaw – “not bloody likely”. When it is considered that the return fare from Johannesburg to Orlando at the weekend is 1.10d. and that the travelling time would be a minimum of one and a half hours, I think it more than likely that it will be the shebeens that will get the patronage. It is my fear, and that of members of the Council, that the sudden closing of the central beerhalls will cause terrific resentment in the minds of the African people and that it will result in an increase in the patronage of shebeens and the illicit sale of European liquor. It is my contention that the unfortunate incidents that have occurred in the vicinity of the beerhalls will be nothing to that which will follow if the beerhalls are closed and the shebeen traffic gets under way.

Negotiations between the Council and BAD continued behind the scenes and at a watershed meeting on the 5th June a Council deputation, led by Lewis and Carr, made a final appeal for the BAD to consider the perilous implications of not catering for Africans living in the ‘European’ areas. The Minister stood firm on his decision that the large beerhalls should go but in a momentous move he gave his permission for the Council to operate two to three small beerhalls on an experimental basis in industrial areas.

The Minister received widespread praise for his overall conduct and for granting this concession. Lewis commended Nel by saying:

The Minister displayed an awareness of the complexity of the problem and discussed the practical issues in a spirit of helpfulness. Indeed our reception by the Minister in Cape Town when we flew to see him on the matter was that we would not discuss the matter on political lines but purely on the merits. We deeply appreciated his understanding of our problems.

Things moved rapidly once agreement was reached. Top officials from the BAD immediately toured the proposed sites and gave their approval. The Council put its construction teams into action and miraculously after four days of flat out work three new beerhalls were ready to serve customers. Lewis described this achievement in a speech to the Council in 1960:

I remember well the crisis we had on June 16th last year when the Central Beerhalls had to be closed and the Minister gave us permission to open new ones in the worked-out mining area. We were given the seemingly impossible task of constructing the new ones in three to four days. The officials of the Council responded magnificently and the change over went off without a hitch. Those who were in on it regarded it as a miracle.

The successful resolution of the crisis was largely due to the leadership and commitment of Patrick Lewis and his growing relationship with the Minister. The Rand Daily Mail commented as follows: 'In getting permission to establish the small city beerhalls Mr Patrick Lewis, Non European Affairs Committee leader, has achieved what even his friends said was impossible'.

The beerhalls crisis continued for a few months with Nationalist Councillors protesting loudly against the concessions granted by the Minister (as they were contrary to Government policy). Backed by the Afrikaner Press they launched a campaign to ‘fight to the bitter end’ and secure the removal of the new beerhalls. Cuyler even publicly appealed to Verwoerd to overrule Nel’s decision.

In dealing with a number of complaints emerging from white residents near the beerhalls the Minister revealed the extent to which he had been convinced by Lewis’s representations. While insisting that he would not hesitate to close the beerhalls if they were a threat to the peace and safety of nearby residents he added the following caveat: 'I must however be careful to put an end to one evil and create a greater evil in its place'.

This piece forms part of a larger piece of work on the relationship between the Johannesburg City Council and Central Government during the early stages of Apartheid.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed by individuals and organisations are their own and do not in any way represent the views of The Heritage Portal.

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