Anna Trapido: Brandy and its significance in Xhosa-speaking communities

By , 9 June 2020



Drinking is about so much more than the quenching of thirst and the pleasing of palates. All over the world, since time immemorial, what, where, when, why and how people use particular beverages is determined by a range of economic, cultural and historical factors. What we drink determines how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Some of those others are long dead and looking out for us from the spiritual realm.

Globally almost every event of any significance is marked with some sort of ceremony or celebration and many of these rituals involve alcohol. The choice of a particular alcoholic beverage with which to mark an occasion is often used to define the nature of that event. All societies have drinks that they associate with festivity. In many Western cultures, for example, Champagne is synonymous with celebration. So much so that if Champagne is ordered or served at an otherwise ‘ordinary’ occasion, someone will invariably ask “What are we celebrating?”

Internationally the use of alcohol is particularly common within transitional (rite of passage) rituals. These major life-cycle events (birth, coming-of-age, marriage, death etc) mark a move from one status or stage in the life-cycle to another. Whether it be ‘wetting the baby’s head’ in a London pub or an imbeleko ritual in rural Eastern Cape, alcohol is with us all from cradle to grave.

What follows pertains to brandy in Xhosa-speaking communities. South Africa is (and always has been) a complex, multi-layered society where there are overlapping areas of language, practice and belief. For simplicity’s sake I have used broad terms such as ‘Xhosa’ to describe a wide spectrum of people who speak the Xhosa language. Many such people would self-identify within more specific sub-categories such as Pondo or Thembu. Some of what is described also occurs to a lesser extent in a diversity of Zulu and Swazi ritual but the information below is specific to Xhosa-speaking peoples.

Brandy has been part of Cape culture since it was first produced on the Dutch ship Pijl as it was anchored in Table Bay harbour in 1672. By the early 18th century, it was a well-established colonial bartering currency with Khoi intermediaries trading brandy into the Xhosa-speaking communities of the interior. The spirit was spread further into the Eastern Cape by the 1820 settlers who were described by English traveller Cowper Rose as both ‘sun scorched and brandy scorched. Obsessed with dreams never to be realised but which might be prolonged by Cape brandy’.

In most of South Africa, sorghum beer is the preferred drink of the spiritual realm but in the Eastern Cape, Xhosa-speaking communities brandy and sorghum beers have worked together in matters of ancestral communication and life-stage transition rituals for at least 200 years. So entrenched is brandy in the beverage culture of the Eastern Cape that the term ‘brandy’ is used broadly to describe all distilled alcohol. Xhosa-speaking people often refer to ‘Ibrandy emhlophe’ (which is actually not brandy but rather white spirits such as gin or occasionally vodka) and Ibrandy ebomvu (real ‘red’ brandy).

All brands of brandy are associated with Xhosa ritual communication with ancestors but brandy ‘intambo’ (which loosely translates from isiXhosa as the brandy with the ropes) is an essential element. Brandy Intambo refers to those brandies (such as Richelieu) that have a rope lattice enclosing the bottle. As one (tactful) informant observed “that one with the ropes it represents dignity and respect. You can take other brandies too if you like but brandy intambo must be there. The others are optional.” A more indelicate/indiscrete friend explained that the removable lattice is a symbolic foreskin which comes off during initiation into manhood.

Different brands of brandy are used for all rituals but Commando is particularly popular. This brandy is often referred to as 11 horses (also occasionally referred to as Umkhosi kaBotha aka Louis Botha) because there are 11 horses depicted on the bottle. Several people told me that ancestors prefer this brand not only because it is one that existed during their lifetime (so they are familiar with it) but also because the 11 horses reflect 11 distinct, secret stages in the initiation process into manhood.

Brandy is synonymous with communication with ancestral forebears. Xhosa engagement with the ancestors almost invariably starts with an offering of brandy and umqombothi (traditional beer). Both the living and the dead expect brandy to be a part of such rituals. Even those who do not drink alcohol in social settings use brandy and umqombothi as the medium of opening communication with the spiritual realm.

Within such communication a small amount of brandy will be poured onto the earth before the remaining liquid is shared amongst the assembled community. The portion absorbed into the soil is considered as a gift to the ancestors. This process is referred to in isiXhosa as ‘ukunqula’. This process is solemn and not associated with drinking for pleasure. Drunkenness and excessive drinking at such an occasion would be considered deeply inappropriate. As one interviewee observed “it’s never about getting drunk. It’s not for entertainment. It is a dignified exercise to invite the ancestors and open communication.”

Ukuphahla is predominantly associated with age-specific life changing events (birth, initiation, marriage, death etc.) but ancestral involvement can also, be recruited for more prosaic matters. One informant observed that, “In Duduza I have often seen a little brandy poured onto each of the tyres of a new car. We can bless a car and even bless a new house – sivula indlu – in this way.”  Another interviewee stated “I often carry a nip with me in my glove compartment. So, if a job interview is coming up or even if I am just feeling sleepy while driving I can get out of the car and perform a small prayer with it to ancestral spirits. I know if I pour the brandy they will act almost as guardian angels and get me home safely. “

The term ‘Inkaba’ refers to a ritual in which there is a burial of the placenta and umbilical cord of a newborn baby. Brandy is then poured over the burial site. The process seals the attachment of the baby to its community, its ancestral land and the associated spirit world. From this point on, the place of burial serves as the most powerful point for that individual to communicate with the ancestors. After inkaba, ‘imbeleko’ at which a child is introduced to the ancestors must occur. In order to make such an introduction there must be umqombothi and brandy.

An alter or sacred area will be set up at the back of the dwelling in what is known as ‘entla’ in isiXhosa. Onto this alter will be placed slaughtered goat meat, traditional beer and brandy. Ukuphahla’ will be perfomed and the brandy will be absorbed into the earthen floor of the hut. Many informants stated that while this introduction process ought to be done at birth, if it doesn’t happen or doesn’t get done properly it can be done/ redone at a later stage.

Many of those interviewed expressed the opinion that if the brandy was of insufficient quality or was not poured out with sufficient respect, parents could experience a range of problems with the child in later life. Informants spoke of misfortunes big and small. One had a child who stole money from her purse, another had eczema. One interviewee said “I didn’t believe in all that rural stuff so I didn’t do it when my child was born but then my boy was still wetting the bed and he was already in grade 1. I spoke to my mother-in-law and she suggested we perform imbeleko. We did it and he stopped wetting the bed. Don’t ask me to explain it but it worked so I’m not complaining.”

The Xhosa transition of boys to men is marked in brandy at several stages. In Xhosa custom, before heading to the mountains for the ukushiya ubukhwenkwe, or coming-of-age process, the young man (ikrwala) caters for a group of male friends known in the culture as “boys” (as they haven’t undergone the process themselves). This party involves drinking brandy together as the ikrwala’s parting gift to them, after which the young man disassociates himself from them and bids them farewell, leaving his years as a boy behind him. On his return from initiation he is considered to be a man and the boys he drank brandy with in his youth are no longer suitable friends.

Rituals surrounding the process of initiation itself are closely guarded secrets but the elder men who watch over this transition are known to pour brandy on the ground at several stages during the process in order to communicate with the ancestors. After the initiates return the izibazana (the mothers of the initiates) of the young men will come dancing out of their homes to welcome back their sons. The mothers will be accompanied by their female relatives. Each woman will be singing and holding 2 bottles of brandy against her breasts. This is called suckling for the last time (ukulumla). What happens to the contents of the bottles varies by region but as one informant explained “in my area izibazana and the sisters of such women wear the brandy bottles on strings around their necks. It is ‘istraight’ i.e. 750ml bottles. They then approach the kraal and pour the brandy into the kraal. This is a celebration of breast feeding – we fed this child as a collective of women – the biological mother did not raise this boy into a man alone.”

Death is a major life stage event for both the person who dies and the family left behind. Umgidi is a ceremony undertaken in remembrance of deceased family members. It is also considered to be a way to respond to whatever the ancestors might be needing. Such needs come to the living predominantly in dreams. If the ancestor is thirsty, brandy and umqombothi are ceremonially offered.

In isiXhosa the term ‘ukhululo’ (literally undress) refers to the point, a year after the death of a husband, at which a widow is entitled to take off her black mourning clothes.  At this re-entering of the living world the widow’s family gives gifts of brandy to the dead man’s biological family. The amount of brandy given will be determined by the relative wealth of the parties involved but social prestige requires a considerable amount.  After death a person enters the ancestral realm. Relatives may visit the grave, practice the pouring brandy rituals described above and then leave a ‘nip’ sized bottle of brandy at the site. This can be a simple sign of affection for the deceased or a request for ancestral intervention in the lives of the living.

In most cultures, a marriage is a major transformation, conducted in stages, each of which requires a drinking-event. While birth and initiation rituals described above are specifically describing Xhosa culture,s the use of brandy in marriage rituals is found amongst almost all black South African ethnic groups. Lobola (isiZulu and isiXhosa), Mahadi (bride price in Sesotho), Magadi (Northern Sotho), Lovola (Xitsonga) are all words to describe what in English is referred to as bride price. This ritual is a negotiation between the families of the bride and the groom. The price is negotiated in terms of livestock (predominantly cows although horses can be part of the deal in the mountainous areas close to Lesotho) which is almost always a proxy for money. The degree of elaborateness of such ceremonies may vary by region, tribe, clan and individual families but in broad terms, the ritual can be thought of as having seven stages, each of which is accompanied by a bottle of brandy.  Within this process brandy is presented. Some may be drunk and some offered to the ancestors but largely the symbolic importance resides within the exchange of gifts rather than consumption.

  1. Stage one is known in isiXhosa as ‘sazimuzi’. At this point a bottle of brandy is given to the prospective bride’s family as a token of appreciation. This allows the groom’s representatives to enter the bride’s father’s property.
  2. The second bottle of brandy is referred to as ‘umvulamlomo’, which is said to open the mouths of the girl’s family and allows dialogue to begin.
  3. The third bottle is drunk as part of the ‘swazi lenkomo’ process which symbolises the guiding of cattle as payment to the kraal of the prospective in-laws. Swazi is the Xhosa word for a whip and is traditionally used for steering the path of cattle into an enclosure.
  4. The fourth bottle forms part of the ‘zaz’inkomo’ stage in which there is a comparison between herds from both families. This allows for both parties to show modesty and humility in their praise of the others status.
  5. A fifth bottle of brandy is presented as part of ‘uxolo’ to ask for forgiveness if the prospective in-laws aren’t satisfied with the cattle offered.
  6. Once the lobola has been accepted, the bride’s family presents the groom’s negotiating team with a sixth bottle of brandy to signify acceptance or ‘siyanemukela’.
  7. The final stage involves an exchange of bottles of brandy between the families to symbolise their union (umdla dlela).

All of the above is good news for sales within the South African brandy industry. The bad news is that this seems to be changing. The transition away from brandy has already occurred in the secular social space. Alcohol is almost never ‘socially neutral’ – we perceive a beer drinker to be a different sort of person from a cocktail consumer. Every drink is loaded with symbolic meaning, every drink conveys a message. If alcohol is a symbolic vehicle for identifying, describing and manipulating social position what does it mean if a particular drink falls out of favour? In recent years there has been a considerable decline in South African brandy consumption. This trend is particularly marked amongst younger, urban black South Africans who are increasingly preferring to drink whisky and imported Cognac over brandy as their daily tipple. South African brandies are world-class wonderful with multiple international awards to prove it. The superiority of the imported Cognacs chosen in preference to the local brandy scorned is often, at best, questionable. When asked to explain their choices, Soweto shebeen customers told me that the imported status plays a big role in this preference. Foreign is far more fabulous and local is not perceived as prestigious. In Soweto, I found a widespread misconception that Cognac is a form of whisky, when Cognac drinkers were told that what they were drinking was essentially a regional form of brandy, they seemed disappointed. 

South Africans are not alone in classifying drinks in terms of desirable or undesirable social status. Preference for an international offering is not uncommon. All over the world, many consumers regard imported or ‘foreign’ drinks as having a higher status than ‘local’ beverages. Thus, in Poland, for example, wine is regarded as a high-status, middle-class drink, while locally-made beers and vodkas are ‘ordinary’ or working-class. In France, by contrast, where wine-drinking is commonplace and confers no special status, the young elite are turning to imported beers and vodkas to make the same point! (McDonald, 1994; Nahoum-Grappe, 1995).

The consumption or rejection of a national, local or traditional beverage is often an emotive issue, particularly in places undergoing significant cultural change and/or economic upheaval. International anthropological research suggests that ordering a drink can be definitional behaviour through which people enact not only “what they think they are” but also “what they should be or may yet be” (Papagaroufali, 1992). For South Africa’s aspirant elite, rejecting brandy and favouring Cognac and whisky is a statement of affiliation, a declaration of a desire to be a member of a particular group, generation, class, sub-culture and its associated values, attitudes and beliefs. People who want to be seen as part of the elite are refusing brandy as a statement of social intent.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. Several Soweto shebeen owners that I spoke to expressed the opinion that brandy’s prestige could be reinstated if regular township tastings were to be conducted. The market shift towards whisky and Cognac has been driven by aggressive marketing and promotions held at shebeens. As Soweto shebeen legend Wandi Ndala observed “ours is a market that is very willing to taste. I keep saying to customers that Cognac you are ordering is not as good as this brandy you don’t want. It’s more expensive because of the exchange rate not quality. When they taste it, they understand that they like brandy. We need tastings and education like Lucky Nkosi (KWV luminary) used to do in the old days.” He then pointed across the street to the now deceased Mr Nkosi’s home and opined “brandy in Soweto died there.” 

It is bad enough that brandy is being passed over amongst the living but even ancestral spirits are also beginning to turn away from their traditional tipple. Until recently it has been virtually impossible to be born, grow up, get married or die in Xhosa culture without brandy being present at the associated rites of passage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that South Africa’s spirits (and indeed bridal family parties) are increasingly prepared to accept and/or explicitly prefer offerings of whisky.

It is not too late to turn these trends around. A significant group of brandy users have been largely taken for granted. Respectful engagement with a range of former and wavering brandy drinkers (both social and spiritual) can and should be made in order to retain and/or restore this important market.

McDonald, M. (1994b). Drinking and identity in the West of France. In M. McDonald (ed.), Gender, Drink and Drugs. Oxford: Berg.

Nahoum-Grappe, V. (1995). France. In D.B. Heath (ed.), International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Papagaroufali, E. (1992). Uses of alcohol among women: Games of resistance, power and pleasure. In D. Gefou-Madianou (ed.), Alcohol, Gender and Culture. London: Routledge.

  • Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.

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4 comment(s)

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    Gemma | 15 June 2020

    What a great article. I learnt so much.
    The brandy people should take note about marketing correctly to sell more.


    I enjoyed the fact that you are taking an interest in our culture. There were some glaring holes in this article though. A lot rituals are associated with brandy but a lot aren’t, for instance, that anecdote of ikrwala was in completey incorrect, both on the brandy ritual and also of the timelines/stages of “Ubukrwala” in the right of passage.

    I’m not o knocking this article but I feel it was maybe a bit rushed or didn’t get enough sources in some of the “Facts” portrayed in the article

      Anna | 11 June 2020

      Hello. Thank you for your very helpful insights. I am going to email you to chat more. You’re absolutely right that not everything is linked to brandy. Traditional beer is more important. My main point was that there is a major sector of the brandy market being overlooked. Many thanks. A

    John Cowley | 9 June 2020

    Fascinating article.
    Thank you.

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