First draft of history: Meet our hero, Mr Sorghum Mqombothi

05 February 2017 - 02:00 By Fred Khumalo

Umqombothi, resilient relic of an ancient civilisation, has seen off overzealous missionaries and racist opportunists, writes Fred Khumalo. But what of its fate in the stampede for rare whiskies and wines?

Durban’s first beer hall in Victoria Street — since demolished — became a flashpoint during political and social uprisings over the years.
Durban’s first beer hall in Victoria Street — since demolished — became a flashpoint during political and social uprisings over the years.

Like all characters worth their weight in gold, our hero has been reviled by some and revered by others.

He has been blamed for the breakdown of families — but were it not for him, say others, they would not have been able to send their children to school and university.

Some say this chap made the majority of our people into impotent zombies at the mercy of apartheid apparatchiks; others say: "Look, were it not for him, the townships as we know them would have long collapsed!"


Meet our hero, Mr Sorghum Mqombothi — quite a likeable chap if you understand him, but also easy to mistake for the poor cousins who pose as him and proceed to do untold damage to those who fall for their tricks.

You and I are made of flesh and bone, of fibre and liquids. We have a soul. Mr Mqombothi, on the other hand, is made of maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water. But, hey, he also has a soul — or so say his defenders.

Mr Mqombothi is a resilient relic of an ancient civilisation that has been buffeted by winds ranging from religious zealotry to political manipulation — and survived.

But why the sudden interest in the humble beverage?

Mr Mqombothi, known by different names in various cultures in South Africa, recently became the 4,000th passenger on the Ark of Taste, Slow Food's international catalogue of food products at risk of extinction.

I see you raise your brows at the mention of the word "food".

"From the biochemical or physiological point of view it may be admitted that kaffir beer does contain from the grain germ and also from the yeast content, vitamin B complex and a small amount of anti-scorbutic vitamin C. There is perhaps also more nourishment in it than purified alcoholic drinks such as whiskey and European beers and wines."

Those are the words of Dr AB Xuma, a medical doctor trained in England and the US, testifying before the Kaffir Beer Commission in September 1941.

Umqombothi, or kaffir beer as the white administrators called it, had by that time become a major political football.

We have to claw even further back in time to appreciate how this came about. When missionaries first made inroads into African societies in the early 1800s, it did not take them much time to wean Africans off their "heathen" influences — everything ranging from dress to architecture.

But when it came to traditional beer, the missionaries fought a losing battle. The argument was always propounded, successfully, that traditional beer was part of African cuisine. The missionaries moved to other battles worth fighting.


Some of the earlier serious clashes between white authorities and brewers of African beer happened in the 1920s when minor diamond diggings sprang up in the Bloemhof, Schweizer-Reneke, Wolmaransstad triangle in the old Western Transvaal.

Authorities clamped down on beer brewing there, ostensibly because it had given rise to crime and prostitution.

Families pleaded with the authorities for the right to continue brewing. A compromise was reached: families could apply for special permits whenever they wanted to brew for a special traditional ceremony.

In his authoritative The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985, Charles van Onselen writes: "The commercial brewers were an occupational hazard for [traditional brewers and their families] since, to avoid police detection, they sometimes buried four-gallon tins of beer in the veld, returning to collect the supplies later, under the pretext of being dutiful wives who were merely out collecting fuel."

The strategy of concealment would evolve and become highly sophisticated over time, especially after the brewing transferred from traditional cultural backwaters to the larger metropolitan areas where there was a growing concentration of black people.

The large tin containing the brew would be buried a metre or two under the ground. It would be covered with a lid and then with earth.

The 1950s song Khawuleza, made famous by Miriam Makeba, is a tribute to the child look-out who shouts: "Fihlani amagogogo, mama, nanka amaphoyisa" — Hurry up, mama, and hide those tins, the police are here.

But that would be much later.

With the sudden black population explosion in urban centres such as Johannesburg, the government had an epiphany.

In its 1937 amendment to the Urban Areas Act, the government insisted that municipalities either introduce beer monopolies or allow licensed brewers to supply beer.

The manager of the Department of Native Affairs jumped at the opportunity, declaring: "With effect from 1 January 1938, the City Council has exercised a municipal monopoly from the sale of beer. The municipal monopoly promises to be lucrative and it may be remarked that any profits accruing from the sale of kaffir beer must be paid into the Native Revenue Account."

The profits were beyond everyone's wildest dreams: in the year after beer halls were opened, the Johannesburg City Council made a profit of over R65,000. The following year, the profit stood at R127,502.

The opening of the legal beer halls did not shut down illicit brewing. It only put impetus into this sector, making it more creative.

Illicit brewers started making short-cut versions of beer, which had higher alcohol content.

Skokiaan, later to be immortalised by Louis Armstrong in the song of the same name, was made of sugar, yeast, water, malt. Other, stronger brews were isishimeyane, made from sugar cane, yeast, cooked potatoes and brandy. The brewer might also add methylated spirits.

While the traditional stuff took up to four days to ferment and be ready for consumption, the short-cut versions could be ready overnight. If the police pounced on a beer den and successfully confiscated the supplies, the shebeen queen would shrug and start preparing beer that would be ready by the following day.

Law-abiding blacks were angry at the proliferation of illicit brews. Es'kia Mphahlele, the late academic and doyen of South African letters, would tell in his autobiography Down Second Avenue how his grandmother brewed the authentic version of the beer to make money to send him to school.

He writes: "Women brewed some of the most terrifying compounds. 'It's heathen!' Grandmother said indignantly. 'My beer's pure and healthy food a man's stomach needs ... God will help me make money to send my children to college."

While the traditionalists fought it out against the "chancers", the government continued laughing all the way to the bank.

The Kaffir Beer Commission of 1941 came as a result of widespread outrage among influential Africans and some of their white liberal sympathisers who were worried that the opening up of beer halls would have a lasting detrimental effect on the black community.

What was shocking was that the beer halls were located under the same roof as milk bars where communities collected state-subsidised milk supplies. As Xuma observed: "The principle seems to be, if natives want milk for their children they must drink more beer. If they want adequate health and social welfare services from municipalities with beer halls, they must drink beer.

"It is a policy of vice paying for virtues ... would decent Europeans ... recommend for their wives, sons, and daughters, milk-bars, cafes, restaurants and soup kitchens in bottle stores?"

Xuma's appeal, contained in the book AB Xuma: Autobiography and Selected Works edited by Peter Limb, was that the control of the production of beer should, at the very least, revert to black businessmen, with the strict proviso that the premises not be linked to milk bars. It fell on deaf ears.


The National Party government, when it came to power in 1948, only built more beer halls.

Commercial enterprises later obtained licences to brew "traditional beer" sold in cartons. Famous brands included Ijuba and Ubhejane (mainly in what is now KwaZulu-Natal) and Chibuku in other parts of the country.

National Sorghum Breweries entered the market with a bang in the 1990s, taking the humble brew to new heights. It sold strawberry- and vanilla-flavoured sorghum beer. Huh? It sparked interest and raised eyebrows — but died what was for many a welcome death.

Illicit brews held their own, as did traditional brewers. The skill of brewing was passed from mother to daughter. In this writer's case, his father (born in rural Ixopo) was the one who passed the skill to his wife (born in urban Cato Manor).

Yes, it's a rare skill that demands patience. With the resurgence of black pride, it's ironic that this humble brew seems to be taking a back seat in the stampede for rare whiskies and wines in black communities.

But then, what is the meaning of freedom, if not the right to choose, unimpeded by laws and regulations, what you want to consume?

Mr Sorghum Mqombothi, let them froth at the mouth in their denunciation of you as a backward brew, but you and I know that when the chips are down, they always come back to you. Behind those closed doors, away from the chandeliered houses in the fashionable suburbs, they continue to draw sustenance from you.

For this is Africa.

Khumalo's new book, 'Dancing the Death Drill', is now in bookstores (Umuzi, R230)