A New Dawn for Jozi Shebeeners

Town planning must keep up with the changing needs of our population

In the last issue of Spotong magazine, I highlighted the plight of liquor traders in townships and shebeen permit holders.

The main issue was the municipal by-laws which are obstructive to many shebeen permit holders, preventing them from obtaining liquor licences because they find it difficult, if not impossible in some instances, to be issued what is termed local authority approval (LAA).

South Africa faces challenges when it comes to creating jobs and developing sustainable small business. In an attempt to escape from these socio-economic conditions and to reduce their severity and impact on society, individuals opt to start informal businesses, which more often in townships are in the form of a shebeen. This business then becomes a buffer providing families with an alternative source of income.

Outdated town planning schemes have not kept up with these changes and fail to address the issue of home businesses.

The situation has since dramatically changed, with a sharp decline of employment or jobs for the ever-growing population in urban areas.  The prevailing situation is one which forces individuals, generally black people and specifically black women, into shebeen businesses for survival due to unemployment and increasing poverty levels, while operating in the informal sector of the economy.

Outdated town planning schemes have not kept up with these changes and fail to address the issue of home businesses. Many municipalities' town planning schemes, especially in the 1980s, were focused on land use and development control measures that emphasised the separation of land use in support of modernist planning and enforced the Group Areas Act to separate citizens into racially defined group areas. These laws are largely unchanged apartheid-era laws on urban land, favouring the rich and influential segment of the population. That is what they were set up to do and that is what they still do.

Township liquor traders who ply their trade in their residential properties are survivalist entrepreneurs. These are micro-businesses that do not grow beyond providing employment and income for the owner and immediate family. Many township-based liquor traders are pushed into opening shebeens by factors including unemployment, low-income jobs, low educational levels and social marginalisation. They are forced into these types of business by the poor socio-economic conditions they live in.

By contrast town planning schemes are left behind and out of touch with the reality of unemployment, poverty and the resultant impairment of dignity. The City of Johannesburg applies 12 different town planning schemes, each of which is rooted in outdated principles and assumptions; although these schemes are being reviewed and the draft land use scheme of 2017 is currently in place, but still needs to be tabled to the council.

It is important to understand the important role played by municipalities in applications for a liquor licence. The current legislation, the Gauteng Liquor Act 02 of 2003, under section 23(4) reads: “Applications for taverns, pool clubs, pubs, liquor stores ... shall be accompanied by unequivocal approval by the relevant department or the relevant metropolitan or district council, in addition to any zoning or planning or environmental laws requirement.”

Simply put, you cannot apply for a liquor licence, at least for a listed business under section 23(4), without the approval of the municipality.


As mentioned, the City of Johannesburg had numerous town planning schemes applicable to properties within the municipal boundaries of the city. Until recently, the city had followed section 24(1) of the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 which states the following: “A municipality must, after public consultation, adopt and approve a single land use scheme for its entire area within five years from the commencement of this Act.”

Subsequently, the City published the draft land use scheme of 2017, which has been circulating for public comments as per the legal requirement. Members of the public are encouraged to submit written comments and make inputs. 

Under the use zones, residential 1-4 will have primary rights varying from dwelling houses, to dwelling units and residential buildings while they also have a secondary right to land use such as religious purposes, places of instruction, guest houses, spaza shops and taverns/shebeens.

It is noteworthy that under the draft, shebeeners will enjoy the right to use land to trade in liquor in a residential zone area, even though such a right will be considered a secondary right, which will most likely require the consent of the municipality. This is a positive step towards accommodating liquor traders in townships.

This inclusion should be welcomed, although with caution, as this is only a draft. No doubt this inclusion to afford secondary land use rights to trade in liquor in residential areas will be fiercely challenged by those opposed to having liquor sold in residential areas.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note the definition of a shebeen under the current draft as “a residential building or dwelling unit … designed or adopted for the sale of liquor, but shall not include the use of social gathering and or consumption of liquor on the site and or preparation and consumption of food: provided that the dominant use shall remain residential for the occupant of the said dwelling and subject to compliance of health and safety by-laws.”

This definition is a far cry from the one of the Gauteng Liquor Board, which defines a shebeen as “any unlicensed operation whose main business is liquor and sells less than 60 cases of beer per week". The fact that two government authorities have two very distinct definitions of the same business is problematic. Furthermore, the Gauteng Liquor Act defines a tavern as "a place whose main business is the supply of liquor, food and various forms of entertainment”.

When you carefully consider the definition of a shebeen in the City of Johannesburg draft land use, it makes no distinction between a shebeen and a tavern, while on the other hand the Gauteng Liquor Board does make such a distinction, notably one being a place of business supplying liquor (presumably licensed) the other being unlicensed and limited in quantity.

While I have commended the inclusion of a secondary right to land use of residential premises, the draft legislation does not expand on the use of this right like it had expanded on house shops or spaza shops or home enterprises, professions and/or occupations. Generally, liquor traders are not discussed enough in the draft and one can only hope that more can be done to clearly express the role and place of liquor traders in the current draft of the land use scheme of the City of Johannesburg.

Town planning schemes must aid economic growth and social inclusion. Many funders do not fund businesses dealing in liquor. This makes it next to impossible to grow your business.

Despite being categorised as a nuisance and unsustainable businesses, township liquor traders who trade in residential premises continue to offer employment (to the owner at least) and a source of income to many families and therefore act as a buffer to poverty to many. Some of the shebeens have been operating for many years and are run as family businesses. It is vital for local governments to formally recognise shebeens as legitimate businesses which exist and will continue to exist, to assist them to shift towards becoming viable businesses that are formally registered and recognised as part of the formal economy.