The Sory of Withond (1929 – 1933)
A thesis for the degree of Master of Arts
by A de V. Minnaar 1978
This little incident was perhaps symptomatic of the struggle of the ordinary man in the street of Graaff-Reinet to keep his head above water. The erfholders turned to a pursuit which they found very lucrative. Vineyard cultivation had always given them a good income, for the Graaff-Reinet grapes were well-known and had, prior to the Depression, received good prices in the surrounding centres, especially Port Elizabeth. But there were a large number who cultivated grapes in Graaff-Reinet and the competition was strong. As the Depression worsened the erfholders found that it did not pay them to pack, crate and send grapes by rail to the Port Elizabeth market.
Liquor distilling had always been a traditional activity in Graaff-Reinet and as the Depression continued many of the erfholders found that illegal distilling was their most profitable source of income. Prior to the Depression the Government had tightened the control on the distillation of spirits for sale, and by law the Graaff-Reinetters were allowed to distill only twenty-eight gallons of spirits per licence-holder and this amount was for personal use only. Having big surpluses of grapes they distilled quantities greatly in excess of the legal maximum, and sold this to the public. Their biggest customers were the railway workers and the non-Europeans.
The Graaff-Reinet grape, because of its high sugar content, was ideally suited to the distillation of brandy. This illegal brandy, named “Withond” was so potent that if you poured it on a table and lit it, it would burn. The erfholders also distilled a white wine and a red Jeripigo wine that was supposedly much sought after. Other favourite illegal liquors were what was called “Jan Groentjie” which was a peppermint liqueur, aniseed brandy and ginger brandy liqueur all of which were sold for 3 a bottle while withond sold for between 1 and 2 6 per bottle, with the odd good quality bottle, going 3 6 . The most lucrative part of the distilling process, and one which was not illegal, was the selling of the “mos”, which was the left-over must after the grapes had been crushed. This had a slight alcohol content and was sold for a “tickey a tot”, a tot being a full tin cup, to the non Europeans. This trade in must reached large proportions and there were numerous complaints from residents, of the increase of disorderliness and drunkenness of the non-Europeans in town. Apparently only a “small quota of liquor consumed by the coloured people is obtained from licensed houses, while natives cannot purchase any from this source”
The Coloured and Black people of Graaff-Reinet made extensive use of the “Illicit trade, through which any amount of intoxicants can be purchased at prices to suit the poorest pocket, and with no restrictions on the hours of trade”.
This illicit trade was further brought to the notice of the more upright citizens by the fact that most of the distilling was done by the agterstraters situated mainly at the western end of the town along Plasket Street. The native location was situated on the extreme eastern side of town, so to get their tot of must the location residents had to walk through town, and inevitably their behaviour on their return trip led to complaints, Jansen Street, leading off Plasket Street, was nicknamed slinger straat because of this return traffic of inebriated location residents.
The number of erfholders wanting to get into this must trade grew alarmingly. The possession of a licence to distill for personal use entitled one to sell must, so accordingly the number of distilling licences grew from eighty-nine in 1928 to one-hundred and thirty-two in 1930.
Early in 1930 a local Doctor, C.J.J van Heerden, discovered several cases of lead poisoning in his patients which he traced to several of the illicit distillers in the Plasket Street area. Apparently some of the newcomers to the business, being unable to afford the more expensive copper piping had used lead piping. Being threatened with prosecution by the doctor some of the distillers stopped their distilling, which was evident in the drop in licenses issued in 1931, a drop to one-hundred and nine from a peak of one-hundred and thirty-two in 1930.
Another problem for the distillers was the continual threat of unexpected visits from the Customs and Excise Officers, who would be checking on the legal quantities of liquor distilled, and the illegal distillers went to great lengths to hide their excess amounts. Some whose plots backed onto the Sunday’s River, hid their barrels in the river sand. Others had hidden cellars or false back cupboards.
During the “stooking” season a constant watch had to be kept for the police and police traps. One distiller, Dirk Olivier had a sawn off palm tree on the corner of his plot (Jansen and Plasket Streets). On the top of this tree he would hide a coloured boy who, having a clear view of the street, could warn the distillers of the approach of any suspicious looking characters or the police. This system was not without its comical side. One day, on being warned of the approach of the police the daughter of Withuis Jansen, an illegal distiller, hastily took a basket full of bottled withond and threw the bottles into their Lucerne plot. But the police had merely come to report the theft from the town commonage on the Jansen’s cow.
On another occasion two of these distillers, Piet Els and Kerneels Smit, were busy distilling in their cellar and Kerneels Smit’s wife did not have sufficient time to warn her husband and his partner of the approach of the police. There was only time for her to close the cellar door, raking gravel over it to disguise it, before the police arrived to make an inspection. While they did not discover anything suspicious, they did spend some time chatting to Smit’s wife. By the time the police left and she opened the cellar door, the two distillers, were overcome by the fumes were completely intoxicated, needing forty-eight hours to recover.
A favourite ploy of the police was to station a man with a pair of binoculars on the mountainside rising on the west of town, on the other side of the Sunday’s River. From this vantage point he was able to look down on the plots of the agterstraters, and to see who was distilling. One of the largest distillers, Withuis Jansen, took exception to this invasion of his privacy and loosed off a few rifle shots in the general direction of the mountain. When asked by the police for an explanation he merely replied that he was cleaning his rifle after a long spell of disuse. (Jansen could not be prosecuted as at that time it was still no offence to fire a weapon within municipal limits). The police thought it wise to curtail their surveillance operations and Jansen became the toast of the local distillers for some months afterwards. The police also tried to use non-Europeans in an endeavour to catch the distillers selling their illegal liquor, but I some way it was always known who was to be used as the trap, and so the distillers were prepared.
The police even resorted to the use do marked money but Graaff-Reinet was a small community and in the hard times being experienced by everyone there was considerable sympathy for the distillers.
At one stage the police decided to bring in outsider to help them. But according to the police regulations any member of the police force has first to report to the station commander of the district into which he moves before he can go about his duty, and the arrival of these newcomers was always promptly reported to the distillers. Only once was a distiller caught in his illegal trading. A C.I.D. detective from Port Elizabeth, one de Villiers, was sent into the area. On his own de Villiers arrived in civilian clothes and went straight to Withuis Jansen, introduced himself asking to buy some of Jansen’ Withond which had been recommended to him. Quite unsuspecting, Jansen sold him some bottles of his finest and was promptly charged for illicit distilling. Jansen complained bitterly of this underhand way of being caught, but paid his fine. But the lucrative business of illegal distilling nevertheless continued since it enabled many an erfholder to pay for his children’s education. Illegal distilling was by no means frowned upon by the townspeople as the “agterstraters het hulself gehou met die verkoop van Withond” . So much so that Withuis Jansen used to pay his year’s water rate entirely with “tickeys”. Obviously the proceeds from his must sales.
Withond is still made at Reinet House for tourism purposes and can be bought at Reinet House.