“These young chaps think they are just men, too”: redistributing masculinity in Kgatleng bars

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In the 19th century the BaKgatla polity was a chiefdom with a redistributional economy based on mixed agriculture. Sorghum beer was symbolic not only of the patrilineal core of their descent system and of the ideologies of reciprocity and redistribution, but also of masculinity and patriarchal control. With the establishment of a market economy, an industrial brewery and individual access to income, both beer and the act of drinking have been symbolically reconstructed. The ideology of redistribution was well suited to the support of the BaKgatla gerontocracy via alcohol production and consumption. The limits on production and consumption of beer inherent in the agricultural cycle and the control of young men's access by elders made alcohol an effective symbol of managerial competence from the limited context of household authority to that of the chiefdom as a whole. Today, young men's greater control of cash income has given them access to beer beyond the control of elders. As a result, the contrasting ideology of market exchange and competitive distribution of beer has contributed to the degradation of the power of seniors. After reviewing the historical background, this paper explores those changes. It argues that while the observed infrastructural changes have had a predictable impact on drinking behaviors and the symbolic structure of “seniority/masculinity”, constructions of the “masculine community” in BaKgatla bars demonstrate continuity in key areas of mens’ identities. If as anthropologists we see obvious discontinuities in behavior and ideology, the BaKgatla build selective bridges to “tradition” which seemingly ground the experience of change in relatively seamless continuity.