In a bar and grill on Louis Botha Avenue there sits a tale of how a man and his family came to own a heritage site honoured by the City of Johannesburg.
A cheerful man wearing a blue-striped shirt walks into the Radium Beer Hall on the corner of Louis Botha Avenue and 9th Street in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. He makes his way to three men seated at the bar and pats on the back one of them in a green shirt. The three say simultaneously: ‘Hey Manny!’ They all share a few words and then Manny leaves them to greet more patrons sitting at tables near the entrance.
It is a Saturday afternoon at the Radium. Proprietor Manny Cabeleira (65) speaks to the bartenders and waiters, ensuring that the venue is running right on track for the night. As the sun begins to set, rain starts to shower the street. The heavy downpour outside, on Louis Botha Avenue, is masked by the loud music played by a band, Black Harbour, as they perform for the crowd.
A white-haired woman sitting in the dining area swings her hips and raises her hands in the air to the beat of dark blues. Despite the band’s loud music, a few men at the bar have their eyes glued to a soccer match on TV. At midnight the laughter and music fade away at the Radium as the night comes to an end.
The night’s crowd has long disappeared when the Radium’s atmosphere eases into the silence of a Sunday morning. A white bakkie pulls up alongside the venue. It belongs to Miguel Cabeleira, the Radium’s manager, who steps out of it. A young boy and a woman emerge from a small sedan parked in front of the bakkie. The woman, wearing black leggings and a pink tank top, hands Miguel a blue school bag and a gym bag. He and the woman slowly make their way to the Radium as the boy runs, excited, to the entrance of the bar.
“Dad, can I help you open up the bar today?”
“Yes of course you can, my boy,” Miguel answers.
Sunday afternoon winds down while four men fill the Radium with jazz.
On Wednesday a noticeable aroma of burning incense billows out of Yogi’s Den, a clothing store that neighbours the bar and grill, welcoming the bar’s patrons just before they enter the Radium.
A loud voice pierces the room as Manny greets a bartender, two waiters and a customer propping up the bar.
“Good morning, everyone. We need to start bringing in more beautiful looking people to brighten up this place,” he jokes as he strokes his round belly.
The Radium does begin to brighten up when a waiter switches on the lights.
Seated at a sticky table, Manny tells the tale of how he came to own the Radium, and of the adventures his family has experienced over the past three decades.
An institution enriched with history
The Radium Beer Hall was passed down from family to family after its establishment in the 1920s. The Khalil family primarily ran the place as a tea room in 1929, and at night it doubled as an illicit shebeen catering to black customers.
“After the Radium obtained a malt and liquor licence, a Slovenian football player, Joe Barbarovich, and his brother came to own the bar in 1944,” Manny says as we sit in the dining area which was once a ladies’ section during Barbarovich’s ownership.
In 1971 Manny, at the age of 17, walked into the Radium for the first time one night with his friends, ordered a few beers and enjoyed the evening. Little did the Portuguese teen know he would later come to own the Radium.
“Years later I came to know Joe through my brother-in-law, and we then built up a friendship,” he says.
Having sold his fish-and-chips restaurant on Bree Street, Newtown in Johannesburg, Manny was looking for a new venture.
“Joe, who had early onset Alzheimer’s, was telling me how he wanted to sell the Radium. I told him, ‘Why don’t you sell it to me?’ Then he asked, ‘What do you want to do with the Radium?’ Then I said, ‘How long have you been here?’ Joe said 40 years, then I told him I wanted to be here for the next 40.”
In February 1986 Manny became the proud owner of the Radium. With arms stretched wide, one finger pointing to the many provocative newspaper headlines covering the bar’s stage while his other hand gestures to the bar counter that once belonged to the demolished Ferreirastown Hotel, Manny shows me the Radium that he built.
Meet the Cabeleiras
Emigrants from Madeira, an island located off Portugal, Manny’s family – with him aged five years old – arrived in South Africa.
“The first school I went to was Yeoville Boys. I could not speak a word of English, and I learned it very quickly,” says Manny.
“The transition from Portugal did not really affect me at all. I grew up here, went to school here, got married here, had all my children here and I have not left,” says Lina Cabeleira, who immigrated to South Africa when she was four years old.
Raising three children while owning a bar put a strain on the Cabeleira family.
“The hours were hard. It did take a lot of strain and the lifestyle was pretty difficult. I had to do everything on my own, take the kids to school and take care of them. Manny was a good dad and he was visible – but not enough,” she says with a shrug and a sigh while looking out of the window across the bar counter.
“We got divorced after 25 years, because I went off the rails,” says an apologetic Manny as he looks at Lina, who is seated at the corner end of the bar. “It was an amicable thing; not that she did anything wrong. We are still the best of friends and she is the mother of my kids, all throughout.”
Looking back at the drugs he took and the infidelity that cost him his marriage, Manny explains the dangerous lifestyle the Radium brought to his family as they grew older. He spoke about his brief drug use and the effect it had on his life.
“Miguel took my place as manager 10 years ago after I had cancer, and helps Lina to look after the place,” Manny says as he lifts up his shirt and points to a scar running horizontally across his abdomen and ending where his belly button used to be.
Manny now runs a bed-and-breakfast, where he also lives, located behind the Radium.
“After my health took a hit, I decided to take things slower,” he says. Manny comes into the Radium from time to time to check up on the bar’s progress. Lina says Manny still calls the shots, regardless of his unstable health.
The Cabeleira children had a family-oriented life, growing up in Glenhazel, Johannesburg. Their mother often took them to visit her family in Kyalami and they grew up with their cousins and other extended family members.
Now in their mid-30s, Marco and Miguel have kids of their own, except for the last born, Deniz. Miguel is the only one among his brothers who decided to go into the family business.
What life was like growing up in a bar
“I was just one year old when my father acquired the Radium. This place has become second nature to me,” says Miguel as he sips on a bottle of beer before starting his shift on a Tuesday evening.
The first memory that comes to Miguel’s mind whenever he thinks of the Radium is the smell of smoke.
“I remember whenever you would walk in here, even if it was just for five minutes, you would walk out smelling like cigarettes,” Miguel says as he looks up at the ceiling, which was once green but is now dark grey due to the smoke interacting with the paint.
The Radium’s walls are covered with memorabilia that resembles a proud family’s living room: From newspaper clippings to old photographs of the Radium’s past, to the dusty beer bottles on the shelf by the bar. The Radium looks like a time capsule of the memories the Cabeleiras made with various people who have come and gone at the Radium.
Growing up, the Cabeleira children were never known as “the kids with a bar”. It was when Miguel was in grade five that he and his brothers grew popular at Glenhazel Primary School.
“A number of the Savannah ads were shot at the Radium, and that is when people started to recognise us,” he says.
“The people at the Radium are truly part of
Owning the Radium for roughly 33 years, the Cabeleira family could not help but make an extended family of their own there.
Chef Charles “Charlie” Mbamba, whom Miguel considers his “second father”, has worked with the family since 1994.
The Mpumalanga-born man worked as a driver in Mpumalanga, transporting vegetables, before he met the Cabeleiras.
“My older brother, Mario, in fact was very good friends with Manny. That is how I came to know them,” the 57-year-old said.
“Mario and Manny worked together at the fish-and-chips restaurant Manny owned in Bree Street, Newtown, and then they came to Louis Botha Avenue in the 1980s where Mario owned a store next to the Radium,” Mbamba tells me.
After acquiring the Radium, Manny added a few touches of his Portuguese heritage to the menu, Madeiran cuisine such as espetada and prego rolls are still served at the Radium.
“When I started working at the Radium I did not know how to cook, let alone cook Portuguese food,” the old man chuckled.
Manny taught Mbamba how to cook Portuguese food, thus creating a long friendship.
“I truly feel at home when I am at the Radium,” says Mbamba, who lives in Pretoria with his own family.
“He is like my second father. He would pick me up from school and even scold me whenever I got in trouble,” says Miguel as he embraces and laughs with Charlie.
The Cabeleira family have tried to cater to the ever-changing Louis Botha Avenue community, through the Radium.
“We try to serve the community by making this place as welcoming as we can. We want this place to make people forget the troubles of the world once they enter the door, and a place of friendship once they exit the door,” says Lina Cabeleira.
Yet the Radium’s staff members are the only representation of Louis Botha reflected inside the bar.
The legacy of the Radium
Like his father, Miguel has moved back to Orange Grove to be closer to his six-year-old son.
“My son gets so excited when he comes to the Radium, he even wants to be the boss one day,” says Miguel.
The lifestyle of owning a bar is not something Miguel wants for his son, however. Growing up, he barely saw his father and would not want the same fate for his son’s future children.
“I do have great memories here at the Radium, but it consumes all your time,” Miguel says.
Although Miguel and his son’s mother are not together, the 36-year-old does his best to make time for his son. Picking him up from school and spending time with him during the day before his shift starts are moments Miguel cherishes.
After owning the Radium for 33 years, The Cabeleiras are undecided on the future of the Radium Beer Hall.
“Who knows if we will be here for the next five days, let alone the next five years?” says Lina. Despite Louis Botha’s economic decline, Manny and Miguel remain hopeful of the Radium’s future.
As she sits at the corner of the bar, a spot always occupied by her husband, Manny, when he managed the venue and by her son, Miguel, who manages the bar alongside her, Lina takes a moment and says: “If I were to do it all over again [owning the Radium], yes, yes I would. I would not trade anything.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Manny Cabeleira, the owner of the Radium Beer Hall, a place honoured by the city of Johannesburg, says “the reason why I welcomed blacks into the Radium is that it was the right thing to do”. Photo: Tumelo Modiba.
In Kliptown, Soweto’s oldest residential district, the Oushun family has played a significant role in the community for over 50 years. Peter Oushun has made it his mission to keep the art of drinking traditional beer alive. The 87-year-old man’s tavern remains the longest standing tavern, providing solace to the employed, unemployed, young and old community members of Kliptown.
“Kan ek ‘n plein een kry? (Can I get a plain one please),” a 66-year-old coloured woman by the name of Margret Wax asks the bartender. He passes her a one-litre carton of Chibuku plain through a small window with metal burglar bars. She shakes the carton, opens it up at the top corner, careful not to tear the paper fabric of the carton. She then takes a big sip of the sour, thick malt fermented drink and sighs in relief. A thick white foam remains on her upper lip.
“Chibuku must be drunk sitting down,” Peter Oushun says to her as she makes her way to take a seat next to him. He is the owner of the shop and has a habit of mingling with his customers as they indulge in drinking traditional beer at his tavern every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
It is 11 a.m. on Sunday, September 29. Of the taverns that are open for those returning from church services, only one is busting with life. Oushun Place on Beacon Road seems to be the place to be. Vibrant Kliptownian customers come in one by one, old with a few young ones, either ordering a Chibuku plain or the banana flavour which is the most requested by customers.
Customers sit on benches in the dark tavern with just the light from the sun making its way through the doorway. They sit in groups conversing and laughing about their stories from the weekend as if replicating the traditional customs of families conversing over a jug of traditional umqombothi. The tavern is simple and the atmosphere is peaceful. Everyone is laid back and relaxed, sipping their own “khathun” (carton) of Chibuku.
Margret continues to drink hers. She doesn’t seem bothered by the fact she is the only woman drinking in the tavern at that time. She has been one of Peter’s loyal customers since 1976.
“I prefer Chibuku more than bottled beer. Bottled beer is acid,” she says. Peter nods his head in agreement just as he is about to give a breakdown of how he believes that Chibuku can change Africa’s problems.
The 87-year-old man loves to talk about the traditional beer business that took him and his family from rags to riches.
Beer built my home and family
To the left of the bartenders’ window, there is a black gate which divides the tavern from Peter’s home, in the style of many of the homes connected to businesses in Soweto.
There are two doors. Behind one is the storage room for all the Chibuku bought from South African Breweries (SAB), and the other leads to Peter’s home.
Peter sits in the sitting room on a green leather sofa watching the crime channel via his DStv decoder on a big plasma television. On the walls hang photos of his family and quotes about African culture and freedom.
A rotating fan blows cooling air, although he is dressed in a winter hat, black sweater and thick red woolen trousers.
“You know I started this business with just five cases in 1976,” he says. Peter explains that in those days, people didn’t want to drink Chibuku. “It was very low among the coloured people.
They used to call it kaffir beer.” He knew an Indian man named Chunara who owned a Chibuku store which was closing down.
“I am going away, coloured people don’t drink this,” Chunara had said to Peter.
At the time Peter had just left his job as a vendor selling sweets on the train. He then bought the land and shop from Chunara.
According to Peter’s granddaughter and heir, Shoenelle Ogbonmwan, Peter slept in the empty shop for six months trying to protect it from thieves. It was the year that beer halls in townships were burnt down.
“I then went to Langlaagte to speak to the white man,” Peter continues. “I asked him, ‘How can I promote this business?’” The ‘white man’ offered him five cases to sell. “I went there to a coloured street called Pampam to promote it there, especially to young people, and it was sold out. I went back and sold 10 cases. I asked for more until I ended up with 5000 cases.”
One of the tavern employees comes in and asks Peter if he is ready to have his lunch. She brings him some biryani and beetroot.
“But, you see, people undermine me; they think ama-khathun,” he says laughing, as he holds a spoonful of food. “Everybody undermines me but they don’t know kanti I’m doing it! Do you see my home? Even my children in town have nice houses because of this business. I’ve got one who drives a BMW and the other has a nice house in the suburbs. It’s all because of me!”
Shoenelle confirms this when she says, “He bought me my first car, my first townhouse, because of this shop.” Oushun Place has sustained three generations: Peter, Peter’s daughter Shyanne, and her daughter Shoenelle.
The beer necessities
It is now 1pm. Different faces can be spotted back in the tavern, many of them elderly coloured men. They stare at me with bewildered eyes.
They seem to be wondering what a 23-year-old girl black girl dressed in polka-dot a skirt, holding a camera and notebook, could be doing in this tavern?
Marget is sipping her third round of Chibuku. This time she is seated at a table with two gentlemen, very quiet men who have travelled from Johannesburg to Kliptown for a drink at Oushun Place. I join them, and Peter joins us.
“You know, ever since I have been drinking this, I do not get constipation,” Margret says, looking at me with a wise, wrinkled face, and eyes with the irises circled with grey lines. Peter jumps in the conversation to add more benefits of Chibuku.
He has philosophies about them written up on the walls inside and outside the tavern. “Sorghum beer is good for pregnancy, breastfeeding and high blood pressure”; “One Africa One Hair, One nation”; and “Chibuku, one mashangane, the beer of Africa”.
n 2014 the Gauteng Liquor Board (GLB) introduced new regulations which significantly affected Oushun Place. One was that, “Taverns and pubs have been merged into a single category licence” and another, “Shebeen licence traders will only be allowed to sell alcohol until 10 pm. during the week”.
These were attempts to curb noise pollution in residential areas and to limit negative exposure of children and residents to beer.
Peter does not agree. He insists that because Chibuku is a traditional beer it should not have the same regulations as regular alcohol.
“Chibuku is a breakfast for blacks before they go to work!” he says passionately.
“I’m not selling beer, I am selling sorghum!” he added. Through this logic, it makes no sense for the tavern to open at 10 a.m. As a result of his belief Peter says he once had to sleep in jail because he refused to get a liquor licence.
“Oupa will always believe that Chibuku beer is natural. He even refused to get a licence because of that,” Shoenelle says. “We lost a lot of money because of that. They took away 250 crates every second day,” she adds.
Peter even wrote letters to the presidency. In one letter, written on May 20, 2009, titled “Promoting sorghum beer” and addressed to President Jacob Zuma he advocates for sorghum beer and its benefits.
Written in blue ink, and neat cursive handwriting, a section of the letter reads: “I was the one who promoted this sorghum through clinics, suggesting to them that it cures illnesses regarding high blood pressure and kidney problems as well as ulcers.”
According to production manager of United National Breweries (UNB), where Chibuku is brewed, Chibuku falls under alcoholic beverages because of its percentage of alcohol after the fermentation period.
“It produces a maximum of 3% to 3.5% of alcohol after 3 days,” he says.
“We don’t sell it as alcohol but because of the properties it has it is classified as that,” he adds.
According to a report from Eye Witness News in July 2017, “Government wants to tighten the screws on the production and sale of malt and sorghum beer, including traditional African beer.” This may cause further problems for Peter’s business.
However, after the jail incident, Shoenelle says they managed to “pull through” and finally obtain a liquor licence and Oushun Place became a big name with UNB.
“They [UNB] offered Oupa to become a distributor for the whole of Soweto, but he declined,” she says. She blames his decision on being very “set on his ways”.
Preserving African traditions and cultures to Peter is of utmost importance. But what’s even more important to him is his loyalty to his customers. They love Oushun Place. It is one place that they seem to get a break from all the troubles they experience. At least one community member thinks so.
A local security guard named Patrick Shongwe says the tavern is always packed.
Even in Soweto they do sell this drink but here [in Kliptown] it is very popular,” he says as he waits to collect his shoes from the shoesmith neighbouring Oushun Place. Although Patrick doesn’t drink, he is convinced that the community members drink as a way to escape from their problems.
“The problem is that they are not working, that’s why they can enjoy themselves. And it’s cheaper, unlike buying beer. So whatever they get, that amount they buy the beer,” he says waving one hand in the air while the other tries to fit his refined shoe on his foot.
Unemployment is a huge issue in Kliptown. According to the most recent statistics from Wazimaps and Stats SA, as of 2011, Kliptown’s unemployment rate is more than 60%.
This is evident as young and old people can be seen loitering along the streets. That’s if they aren’t Chibuku drinkers. “Crime is very rife here; you cannot take chances, especially at night,” Patrick adds, as he carries his shoes away.
Across the street from Oushun Place a woman named Johna Mabasa sells braai’d chicken feet, called ‘runaways’ by locals. Her stall is held together with torn cloth and wooden sticks, shading her from the sun.
Drinkers from Oushun Place like to buy there. “Ekuseni, nasemini, kugcwele kakhulu, and bayathenga amakhathun (In the morning, in the afternoon, it is always full and people buy the cartons),” she says, turning the chicken feet on her small braai stand.
Oushun Place is a source of business for Johna. She has been at the same spot for three years now selling BBQ-spiced ‘runaways’ to Peter’s customers as well as by passersby in order to support her two daughters.
“He was very strict, I used to read a page for R5 because at the time Barbie dolls cost R5,” Shoenelle says reminiscing about growing up in the Oushun home.
After Peter showed me the letters to the president, he took out from one of the drawers in his room a photo of Shoenelle. He stared into it like she was his prized possession.
“Everyone knows he is close to my heart,” Shoenelle says. “I’m sure they wonder how hard it would hit me when he is to die. He is my father figure.
If I have any issues I don’t lack with him,” she says about Peter. Shyanne, Shoenelle’s mother was a single mother. They moved to the city when Shoenelle turned 12. The shop continued to finance their family, taking her to the best schools and giving her the best education in the suburbs.
Although Peter would love for her to move back to Kliptown to run the business when she takes it over, Shoenelle doesn’t see herself living there. “There’s nothing there for me, sweetheart. He has been buying these flat screen TVs, and tries to make everything nice for me,” she says.
Shoenelle would rather stay in Johannesburg with her husband and one-year-old son. They have adopted the suburban lifestyle of the affluent Winchester Hills. “I can’t take my husband to move there, he has his pride and he has also built a home for us here,” she adds in a frustrated voice.
At the moment Oushun Place has been transferred to Shoenelle’s name while Peter continues to manage the tavern.
“All I am waiting for is for him to finally rest his eyes in the next five years, my dear.” She says she would like to keep everything the way it is so as to keep her grandfather’s legacy of Oushun Place: “One Nation, one mashangane, the beer of Africa”, and ensuring that it remains a place for Kliptownians, non-Kliptownians, the old, the young, the jobless and the employed to come and enjoy an affordable, thick, malt, fermented taste of Africa’s favourite sorghum beer.
FEATURED IMAGE: Peter Oushun poses with his granddaughter, Shoenelle Ogbonmwan, who will inherit the tavern, and her son, Amadeo. Photo: Karen Mwendera.
Clowning Around: Brennan Robinson grabs a quick break during the festivities at the Wits Engineers Breakfast on September 14. He is completing his Masters degree in the field. The breakfast is considered to be the last party of the year before the engineer faculty begins their end-of-year tests.