A collaborative King's College London and UCT research project

Working Papers

A comprehensive list of all publications from the project can be found here

If you want copies of any of the papers, please get in touch

Working Paper 1 – Shebeens in the news

Mary Lawhon and Clare Herrick

( Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law)

Media coverage of the “problems” associated with alcohol is now widespread. However, there have been very few analyses either of newspaper coverage of alcohol or media coverage of alcohol policy, especially outside Europe or North America. However, this paper argues that given mounting concern with the long-term health, economic, social and developmental consequences of risky drinking in the Global South, an exploration of newspaper coverage of nascent alcohol policy in such a context is both timely and valuable. This paper therefore explores how two South African alcohol control policies – the Western Cape Liquor Bill and the City of Cape Town’s liquor by-laws – have been debated in two regional, English-language South African newspapers over a four year period between 2007 and 2011. In so doing, it draws out the tensions between alcohol as a source of livelihood in a context of endemic unemployment and chronic poverty and alcohol as a source of poverty, crime, violence, social disintegration and health risks. It argues that in SA, alcohol serves multiple, overlapping and often competing social, economic and political agendas. Furthermore, it contends that the constructive processes guiding public and political opinion are inextricable from the contested and ambiguous nature of alcohol itself.

Working Paper 2 – The Political Ecology of Alcohol as “Disaster” in South Africa’s Western Cape

Clare Herrick


Alcohol consumption in developing countries is increasingly being viewed as a “disaster” across a range of domains including the discursive, physiological, psychological and governmental. However, instead of reflecting this breadth, policy responses often represent an amalgam of political economic needs and institutional weaknesses. This is important as while attention to socio-ecological frameworks and awareness of the influence of political economic factors on health grows, there remains a curious paucity of political ecological analyses of health. With this in mind, the paper argues that Blaikie et al’s (1994) political ecological approach to risk, vulnerability and coping with respect to hazards offers much to the interrogation of alcohol as “long-wave disaster.. More specifically, it applies Blaikie et al’s Pressure and Release (PAR) model to the constitution of drinking as a situated “disaster” in South Africa’s Western Cape region. In so doing, it aims to mark out an under-explored research agenda that considers the qualitative and complex interweaving of development aspirations and vulnerabilities that shape alcohol as a pervasive governance dilemma.

Working Paper 3 – Flows, friction and the sociomaterial metabolization of alcohol

Mary Lawhon


Political ecologists have considered the sociomateriality of diverse hybrids and the metabolism and circulation of urban flows such as water, food and waste.  Adding alcohol to this list enhances our understanding of the geography of alcohol as well as the theory of sociomateriality.  Viewing alcohol as a sociomaterial hybrid draws attention to the power-laden, dynamic processes which shape its flow, rather than considering it as already in place.  Additionally, my examination of alcohol calls attention to aspects of sociomateriality which are widely relevant but underexplored in the literature: i) the role of friction in shaping flows, ii) the need to examine microscale impacts of sociomateriality on the body and community, and iii) the conditional impacts of complex, unpredictable sociomaterial hybrids. I use a case study of alcohol in Cape Town to examine how alcohol flows, encounters friction, flows over boundaries and shapes sociability and harm in complex, indeterminate ways.

Working Paper 4 – The body, the shelter, and the shebeen. Affective geographies of homelessness in South Africa

Shari Daya and Nicci Wilkins

(Cultural Geographies)

Geographies of homelessness mainly address issues of social exclusion, especially in contexts of urban public space. Recent research focuses on spatial regulation and surveillance, and strategies used by homeless people to resist these forms of control and create spaces for themselves in the city. Relatively little attention is paid, however, to the embodied, affective, emotional and relational geographies of homelessness. We address this absence through an exploration of how material spaces and practices shape a sense of belonging for a group of men living in a homeless shelter in Cape Town. Theorising belonging as constituted through the materialities of both self-identity and social connections, we examine the three spaces that are most affective in our participants’ everyday lives: (i) their bodies, (ii) the shelter where they live, and (iii) the shebeen (tavern) where they drink. The discursive and embodied accounts of two participants in particular serve as a case study that illuminates the complex ways in which belonging is shaped in spaces of homeless life. These men’s experiences reveal some of the ambivalences and ambiguities of homelessness that are only rendered visible through a theoretical lens that respects their status as emotional and relational subjects, rather than as objects within structures of exclusion. Drinking in particular emerges from this research as an important factor in understanding the contradictory behaviours and feelings in these men’s daily lives. Damaging their bodies and social relationships, alcohol nonetheless provides a sense of belonging by facilitating both a sense of self and connections with others.

Working Paper 5 – A plural view of the regulation of shebeens in Cape Town

Laura Drivdal and Mary Lawhon

The regulation of space has increasingly been seen to extend beyond the scope of the State to include decentralised, diffuse non-State actors. The regulation (or formalization?) of shebeens in South Africa has long been a key focal point for the State, as a means for regulating behaviour, controlling crime and disorder and generating State income. However the post-apartheid State has struggled to find new and effective ways to regulate alcohol in ways that respond to the myriad problems associated with its consumption. In the absence of effective regulation and enforcement by police, we examine four sets of non-State actors who contribute to the regulation of drinking spaces in informal settlements in Cape Town. We examine the particular strategies through which neighbors, shebeen owners and community leaders attempt to regulate the flow of alcohol and the effectiveness of such strategies in reducing alcohol-related harm

Working paper 6 – Stakeholder narratives on alcohol governance in the Western Cape

Clare Herrick

This paper examines, on one hand, the current regulatory environment in relation to alcohol retailing and consumption in South Africa’s Western Cape. On the other, it explores how stakeholders of such regulations formulate, comprehend and act upon the “problem” of drinking.  As a result, the paper aims to tease out the discrepancies between what is said (of alcohol by policymakers) and what is done (about alcohol within policy) through the conceptual lens of alcohol as ‘nuisance’. It does this in order to: (1) deepen current empirical engagements with alcohol control policies in South Africa and the Global South; (2) explore what stakeholders “know” or believe about the drinking practices that they seek to regulate; and (3) highlight the dynamic tensions between what is said and what is done. In so doing, the paper contributes novel empirical data to the growing cannon of geographical engagements with drinking practices and policies by situating its analysis in the context of the Western Cape.  As a result, the paper marks out an original contribution to the multidisciplinary field of critical alcohol studies, as well as South African geographical research.

Working paper 7 – Researching Sensitive Topics in African Cities

Mary Lawhon, Clare Herrick and Shari Daya

Recent African urbanist scholarship has suggested the need to delve deeper into our understanding of the everyday lived experiences in African cities. While this is essential for our understanding of African cities, researching lived experiences is fraught with methodological and ethical challenges. This is true for any topic when the researcher-subject gap is shaped by differences in nationality, class, race, norms and education, but especially so for the study of sensitive topics such as violence, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and xenophobia. Geographers have begun considering the ethics of researching particular sensitive issues, but not yet fully engaged with the international literature on the ethical and methodological challenges of researching such topics. To begin filling this gap, we reflect on experiences researching the lived experience and policy engagement with alcohol in Cape Town. We seek to apply and adapt the literature on sensitive topics specifically to the South African context. Our paper examines challenges which arose during the fieldwork and strategies developed to mitigate these. We emphasize how examining a topic with strong normative associations, which is bound up with illegality and community divisions, creates a need for particular attentiveness to research methods.

Working paper 8 – Alcohol, poverty and the South African city

Clare Herrick and Susan Parnell

This paper forms the introduction to the planned special issue for the South African Geographical Journal. It situates the study of alcohol in South Africa within two conceptual spheres: the turn to the Global South in studies of the urban and debates over poverty and inequality. In so doing, it questions what alcohol may reveal about the South African city and, in turn what the state of the South African city says about the nature of drink and its consumption and governance.

Working Paper 9 – Shebeens and Crime: The multiple criminalities of South African liquor and its regulation

Clare Herrick and Andrew Charman

Recent liquor legislation has centred on shebeens as conduits for crime and violence.  In contrast to this perspective, we argue that shebeens form part of a complex constellation of relationships influencing alcohol-related violence. Drawing on a survey of shebeen owners in one community in Cape Town, the paper explores how their experiences of crime and police raids are re-shaping the dynamics of the liquor trade amid conditions of poverty. It argues that inconsistent and often arbitrary policing is driving many shebeens into adopting covert strategies to manage the risks of closure, fines, temporary imprisonment and bribes demanded by the police. In so doing, liquor law enforcement may have inadvertently precipitated new types of violence in township drinking environments. The paper explores the broader implications of these processes for efforts to address alcohol and violence in sustainable and equitable ways that improve quality of life and wellbeing for all.

Working paper 10 – Alcohol control and urban livelihoods in developing countries

Clare Herrick

This commentary explores how household economic necessity and the public health aspirations set out in the WHO’s global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol might be reconciled in the context of alcohol control in developing countries. The ‘ambiguity’ of alcohol’s role in social and economic development is clear, but, as yet, little progress has been made on how best to integrate alcohol control within development policies in low- and middle-income countries. Without this holistic thinking, alcohol control efforts are likely to be thwarted by liquor’s allure as an accessible micro-enterprise opportunity. Similarly, developmental efforts will be undermined by the severity of alcohol-related harms that now disproportionately affect middle-income countries. Drawing on the example of South Africa, this short commentary explores the complexities of controlling the supply of alcohol when its sale represents a major livelihood strategy amid conditions of high unemployment and constrained access to formal employment markets. The policy preference for closing illegal bars or shebeens in South Africa does not address the ’causes of the causes’ of why people drink, and therefore why its sale continues to be an attractive livelihood choice. It also does little to provide alternative leisure or employment opportunities, which ultimately threatens the longer term sustainability of policy. We need to better appreciate why selling alcohol is a seductive business opportunity and the potential consequences of this for realising public health aspirations


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