I just published a blog post and I don’t normally do multiple posts in a day. But I just heard the news about Swazi Werner, owner of the Zebra Inn, who died last night.
My hard-drinking days are long gone and I generally hate going to bars. But the Zebra Inn, which you can read about in this article I wrote for Sawubona a couple of years ago, is an exception to that rule. The Zebra Inn is the most iconic bar in Joburg and I’ve always loved going there. Swazi was Joburg’s most iconic bar owner.
Last night there was an armed robbery at the Zebra Inn. I know very few details. But Swazi and his friend Johann Botha, a prominent journalist and television presenter, were shot and killed.
There are a few short articles floating around about the murders, but the ones I’ve seen so far have only made a fleeting mention of “the owner” of the bar without identifying Swazi.
Perhaps this is because Swazi wasn’t his real name. Swazi once explained to me that his first name is Werner (he was originally from Austria), but he used to live in Swaziland and eventually took on the name “Swazi Werner” to differentiate himself from all the other Werners around. He never mentioned what his last name was.
The Zebra Inn, to me, is the epitome of Johannesburg: a seedy bar, opened in a run-down section of Johannesburg, which was eventually engulfed by the trendy Maboneng Precinct and adapted to its new surroundings. The Zebra Inn maintained its original shebeen-like character and cheap beer, while also becoming a tourist destination where hipsters hang out and have ironic dance parties. I’ve attended a few of those parties myself and they were all great.
The Zebra Inn is not for everyone. Some might find it distasteful. There have been persistent rumors over the years that the Zebra Inn is a brothel, although I’ve never seen any proof. And then there’s the taxidermy — hundreds of stuffed wild animals covering the walls, which Swazi, a renowned big game hunter, reportedly shot all himself. I’m not a fan of prostitution or big game hunting but I still love the Zebra Inn. Because…Joburg.
I’ve always preferred going to the Zebra Inn during the day. It’s usually pretty empty, and it was the best time to play the juke box and chat with Swazi and his partner Lucille.
It was during one of those mid-day visits that Swazi took me downstairs to see his book and record collection. Swazi had thousands of books and records, gathered over decades of travel around Africa, as well as an impressive collection of traditional art and other memorabilia. I was blown away by this secret little museum.
I didn’t know Swazi well, but I’m glad I knew him. I’m devastated he’s gone. I can’t imagine the Zebra Inn without him but I’m hoping it continues somehow.
My heart goes out to Lucille and the rest of Swazi’s friends and family, as well as to the friends and family of Johann Botha.