“Hello? Yes, it is. You have the right person. No, there is no code word. If you want wine, you just ask for wine. Or spirits. Hang on, I’ll WhatsApp you the price list and you tell me what you want.”
A conversation on a brisk Joburg afternoon between a bootlegger and a customer has become the new normal for many South Africans. Someone who knows someone who knows someone else who has a ready supply of alcohol. There are so many of those someone’s-someone around Joburg that it has become de rigueur to talk about “my booze guy” in company. If you bill it, they will come.
“Bobby Slo” (er, not his real name) is an urban bootlegger. He lives in a nice house in an upmarket suburb with his wife, who has a good job, and kids, who don’t. He drives a Japanese station wagon, has two dogs, but no work. He is in the entertainment industry, which has been decimated since the pandemic was first a whisper, before the storm set in and the world imploded itself to stop the virus exploding.
He has worked sporadically since January, bits and pieces, on and off. It hasn’t covered his bills. His credit cards are maxed out. He has debt. He has angst and worry. He is lucky as his wife has been able to carry the family through the lockdown. He wonders if anything will ever be the same again.
So, he became a bootlegger. He gets his booze from a guy who has the keys to the warehouse of a wine distributor. The distributor loaded up on stock just after the first lockdown was lifted, and when the second hit they were left with assets they could not sell, well, not legally. So, they looked for a way to keep their company going until the madness passed.
“Essentially, the wine guys have told my guy – gosh, that sounds like a mafia thing – ‘here are the keys. Sell the stock. We need to pay our staff and our rent somehow. We need to keep the lights on.’ They are doing it just to survive,” says Bobby.
His customers are mainly women, many of them professionals, from accountants to doctors. In the main, they want wine. Some are looking for spirits, and Bobby has a line on some moonshine vodka and gin that is distilled in the wild, wild west of Joburg. He tries not to deliver the stuff himself, preferring to be a go-between and a pick-up spot. It lowers the risk of being caught by police, who are, according to anecdotal evidence, more concerned with confiscation than prosecution.
“I’d say nine out of 10 customers are women,” says Bobby. “Some are very nervous then they call, and even more nervous during delivery or pick up. I had one old lady call who asked, ‘Are you able to sell me what I want?’ I think she was around 80. I came up with a way to relax my customers. I deliver in two big Lou Harvey nappy bags. For some reason they know everything will be okay then. perhaps because it’s tastefully delivered.
“We offer wine in a variety of price ranges. We try not to pull the piss out of it. We don’t rip people off. We do charge around about the equivalent of restaurant prices, according to the amount of stock out there. It goes from R800-R1250 for a case of six, mostly good estate wines. One wine farmer had stock in a warehouse in Joburg that was being prepared for export, but that got stuck because of the second ban. It’s all unlabelled, but its excellent stuff and that is our cheaper product. We don’t sell much beer. The margin is small and the transport is an issue. Wine and spirits are easier and more profitable. The price you pay depends at what point you pick it up on the value chain. Each person involved puts on their mark-up.”
Bobby says everyone is in on the bootlegging game, from bottle stores to supermarkets, from hairdressers to grocers. There is a reason bottle store windows have been papered over. Back doors have been opened and shops emptied. There is a surprising amount of booze floating around Joburg. Sales have slowed down in the last few weeks, but Bobby is still making upwards of R20K a month on the side.
“In the beginning of the second lockdown, people would buy eight or 10 cases. One order was R10K, another R8K. Now things have slowed down a little, perhaps as people become a little more cash-strapped.”
There is, says Bobby, honour among bootleggers and also a pledge to support local business, whether that be back-garden moonshiners or win distributors. You can get whatever you want if it is in a bottle, a can or a papsak. There have been stories of raids, but those are few and far between. It is, you must say, something of an essential service.
“I have no moral or ethical dilemmas about doing this,” he says. “The ban is outrageous, petty and arbitrary. It is bad will by the government. Everything has changed because of lockdown. There is no centre any more.
“I have not had one customer, nor one friend tell me they believe I am doing something bad. I see my service as good will, in a sense. I’m passing it on (laughs). From the single mother with a small kid and a job who says she just wants to be able to have one glass of wine at night as she lets the day slip off her, to the old ladies whose daily habit involves a gin or two.
“We aren’t making a fortune from this. There are times when I will help some people out by lowering my price or taking a cut. The old lady I spoke about earlier called back to say she couldn’t afford my prices, so I made a plan.”
There is only so much home brewing and baking that will distract and take the edge off the oppression of a lockdown. There is a limit to making beer and loafing in this time of fear and loathing. The well off in the suburbs are breaking the law with impunity, finding a way to get what they want, forging their own small morality. Clandestine booze buying is hardly the height of civil disobedience, but there is a lesson, says Bobby, who quotes writer and journalist Hunter S Thompson.
“The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious and confused, they act like wild animals,” wrote Hunter.
Bobby’s urban bootlegging career may be coming to an end. The president may have taken South Africa to defcon 2 by the time you read this. He’s no Al Capone, nor a Popcorn Sutton, the famous moonshiner, and Bobby may go legit. He may hold on to his client list, get into distribution and customer service. He may build a small business, employ some of those who in the liquor trade who have lost their jobs.
He has no idea what life will be like when the shade lifts on the country and the world. He will be able to look back at a lockdown well spent.