Sweet Home Farm, a township on Cape Flats in South Africa, must have been named by someone with a sense of humour. It consists of some 4,000 flimsy shacks squashed together on a former rubbish dump and is home to 8,000 people if you read the official figures, however it’s closer to 16,000 if you try to actually count them.
With unemployment running at 60% it is desperately poor. There are no roads, just narrow dirt tracks between, and sometimes through, the shacks. But there are 111 pubs, all illegal because in South Africa you can only set up a licensed premises on commercial land, and since Sweet Home Farm is an 'illegal' settlement there is no designated commercial land.
These kind of pubs, operating outside of any regulatory regime, are named ‘shebeens’, after illicit Irish drinking houses and began to spring up in the early 20th century when apartheid introduced prohibition for the black population.
Apartheid has ended but the shebeens remain as part of the unofficial economy, and they have lately become the subject of a study led by Andrew Charman, a researcher at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation.
Charman's talk at the recent Drinking Dilemmas conference organised in Cardiff by the British Sociological Association Alcohol Study Group was fascinating and surprising. His team has mapped and analysed the shebeens of Sweet Home Farm and found a highly sophisticated on-trade marketplace, strictly segmented according to customer type.
Each tiny shebeen serves a niche market. The operators modify their offer to attract precisely the kind of customers they want, using drinks range, music, entertainment, games, food, opening hours, even door policies.
One subject of close study is a 'drinkertainment' venue with branded bottled beers, sport on the telly and a pool table to attract young men. Another is a kind of brewpub where traditional sorghum beer (I've tried it - it's horrible) is made in a side room and gospel music played, bringing in an older clientele. And yet another homely house serves families, sequestering a rare patch of grass where children can play.
Their illegal status is wittily brushed aside. A hand-written advertisement on one shebeen reads: “I sell beer. Please don't tell anyone”. And it's all done without the aid of professional marketing. The segmentation seems to have evolved 'naturally' as the unlicensed publicans pay attention to the needs of their local communities.
This shows it's not just about selling alcohol. The shebeens perform a necessary set of services to sustain a society based on mutual support. Because homes are so small they are the only places where people can congregate and socialise.
But drink is the linchpin. The common reason to come together. Charman's Sweet Home Farm study hints at a quite fundamental role for the pub, at the heart of what it means to be human.