Up to Their Old Tricks: Beer in South Africa


by Justin Willis

Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa (African Systems of Thought),
by Anne Kelk Mager,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 232 pp.

There is already a considerable scholarship on alcohol in South Africa, which in many ways has guided the development of academic work on alcohol elsewhere in Africa. Until recently, this has largely concentrated on the period from the 1880s to the 1970s, and initially it was particularly concerned with the long and largely unsuccessful struggles of the state to regulate or entirely suppress the making and drinking of liquor by Africans. More recent work has moved beyond  what Chuck Ambler has called the “control-resistance” model–in which the production and consumption of liquor by Africans was understood solely in terms of struggle against the state–to a more nuanced concern with the economic and social place of alcohol in South African society. Anne Mager’s new book further develops this scholarship, moving the focus firmly to the second half of the twentieth century and to the consumption of bottled or canned beer. This was a kind of alcohol which Africans had for decades been legally forbidden to drink; but by the 1980s, African consumers made up 80 percent of the market. This enormous change is the backdrop to Mager’s important and innovative study.

This is in part a social history, as the title suggests, concerned with the ways in which beer has acquired certain kinds of social significance–often as a result of the machinations of advertisers, but occasionally in defiance of them. As such, as the title suggests, Mager’s analysis is particularly concerned with the way that beer has been associated with masculinity, and the book’s approach to this is an important contribution to the field, significantly developing the idea of “sociability” which Juha Partanen’s work introduced into alcohol studies in Africa. But the book is also a kind of corporate history, because the history of this kind of beer in South Africa is really the history of one company, South African Breweries–or, to give the beast its current formal name, SABMiller plc. 

Previous scholarship has explored the relationships between capital, state power, and bottled beer elsewhere in Africa–Michael Schatzberg’s work on Zaire being an excellent example. But Mager is dealing with a much larger and more successful company than any other brewer on the continent, and it is perhaps unsurprising that SAB ends up taking over the book, rather as it aspires to take over Africa’s beer market–appropriately, the heading on the back cover of the book rephrases the title to foreground commerce rather than masculinity. Mager tracks SAB’s intimate if conflict-ridden relationship with state power over an extended period, and shows both how the company reached a kind of accommodation with Afrikaner capital after a bitter struggle and how it consistently subverted racial drinking laws in the pursuit of profit. She also explores how the company marketed beer in the 1960s and 1970s, when sale to Africans had become legal but drinkers and company still operated in a system whose logic was that of racial difference. Along the way, Mager has considerable fun with her material, from the exaggerated fears which accompanied “Liquor Day”–when the ban on Africans drinking “white” liquor ended–to the sometimes inept and almost always tacky advertising of beer to both black and white drinkers, which placed a strong emphasis on male sociability, sports, and masculinity.

SAB’s domination of the story is perhaps, rather ironically, exaggerated by the company’s protective attitude to its records. Mager was not permitted any substantial or consistent access to these, and so instead she has had to rely on other kinds of material: newspaper reports, advertisements, and the records of SAB’s legal battles. The latter are an abundant source, for SAB went to court repeatedly: against various competitors, against the government, against trade unions. By the time we reach the account of SAB’s battle with Namibia Breweries in the 1990s, it seems hard to disagree with Mager’s comment that SAB were “up to their old tricks” again (p. 128). In places, these accounts leave the text feeling a little descriptive, and SAB appears always as the key actor, an endlessly inventive manipulator and competitor: suing its rivals over brand names; turning beer into an aspect of a commoditized post-apartheid heritage; introducing new production techniques by buying off the trade union. Arguably, the reader could have been given a little more guidance as to the  significance of this: what does it tell us, for example, about the relationship between capital and state in South Africa, and how far does it revise the vision of state-capital collusion offered in Michael Fridjhon and Andy Murray’s Conspiracy of Giants (1986)? The language of the company invades the text at some points, so that the terms used to describe new production processes, for example, sound as though they come straight from SAB’s own publicity.

There is fascinating material on social change in this book, and the discussion of drinking and male sociability offers a significant contribution to the field. The discussion of the changing economics and sociology of the shebeens in the 1960s and 1970s is particularly interesting, and suggests that SAB’s vigorous projects of self-reinvention and expansion were actually open to subversion or redirection in popular practice. Mager’s introduction argues that “commercial power had its limits” (p. 6) and that “beer advertisements responded to social changes” (p. 65)–that is, they did not drive them. This is an important point, but  because the story is partly built around these adverts, it sometimes seems that perhaps they were doing more than responding. Overall, the prominence of SAB in the narrative means that what starts off as a cultural history ends up at least partly as a critical corporate history–with the epilogue discussing the latest, American, frontier in SAB’s drive for markets. Once again, SAB’s success has involved multiple legal actions and some underhand advertising. Up to their old tricks again–and evidently, they are very good at them.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews  |  

About the Author:

Justin Willis is Professor in the Department of History at Durham University. His work has been largely concerned with identity, authority and social change in eastern Africa over the last two hundred years. He has conducted extensive archival and oral historical research in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Sudan, has held research awards from the ESRC, AHRC, and Leverhulme Trust.