When Tycho van der Hoog (26) was looking for a topic for his dissertation for his research master in African Studies, his supervisor said: beer.
“I thought it was a joke”, Van der Hoog smiles, but he soon found that “whole libraries were dedicated to the subject” when he visited Namibia to do field research and investigate the archives. “It was a story waiting to be told. I walked into the archives – there’s never anyone there – and almost choked on the clouds of dust.”
He spoke to “key figures in the beer industry”, sifted through the archives and discovered a dark past. “Namibia Breweries, the only brewery in Namibia, was officially founded in 1920, when the country was a mandated territory of South Africa.
At the time, an agreement was made with the League of Nations (the United Nation’s predecessor, ed.) that the black population was not allowed to drink beer, or have beer in their possession. It was even laid down by law, strictly enforced by the white Afrikaners, and anyone caught with beer was fined or sent to prison, a regular occurrence.
“Nearly 58 per cent of all criminal cases concerning black people involved alcohol, while drinking illegally constituted 89.4 per cent of all fines.”
Moreover, the law meant that black people brewed beer illegally. However, the government was aware of that too: in the space of six months, government officials discovered 352 illegal breweries, all of which were destroyed.
Much time and manpower was needed to enforce the law, and its enforcement grew increasingly complicated as time passed. “You see, there were more and more interracial marriages, so beer vendors could not see whether someone was really black or not”, Van de Hoog explains. In addition, the black population brewed their beer from a very wide variety of products, including dried peas, a very popular food. “So, if a black person wanted to buy dried peas, the shops were ordered by the government to say that they were out of stock. Of course, that didn’t go down too well with the shopkeepers.”
In the fifties, the government introduced a compromise: every township was allowed a “beer hall” where black people were permitted to drink “kaffir beer”. “It was extremely humiliating: it was tasteless and very watery beer.” Besides, the profits went to the apartheid state. “So drinking it meant boosting apartheid. It was a depressing idea.”
The law was only abolished in 1969.
“It was a radical change. Out of nowhere, countless makeshift bars, shebeens, appeared: extremely rickety places with corrugated steel roofs. People still go there to drink beer.” In 1990, Namibia was given its independence. “Nowadays, it’s the country’s most important industry”, remarks Van der Hoog. “Beer is a source of pride for the Namibians. It wins golden medals in competitions every year, often scoring better than German breweries. Namibia is a real beer country.”
Tycho van der Hoog, Breweries, Politics and Identity: The History Behind Namibian Beer
Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 128 pp., €25