Shortly after dawn on the 9th February 1955 two thousand policemen armed with sten guns and rifles swooped on, Sophiatown, a small conurbation on the western side of Johannesburg and began forcibly evicting its 60,000 black inhabitants. Too close to what was described as a ‘predominantly European’ suburb of Westdene, the South African government had considered Sophiatown definitely unacceptable - maybe even immoral.
“Some tried to resist but it was of no use,” remembers Manu Dibango’s Peter Tsegona, a Sophiatown pickney at the time. “My mother was given a rubbish bin, a loaf of bread and six bottles of pop and then we were taken by open truck in the pouring rain to Diekloopf, a place in the country that became known as Soweto.”
“When Sophiatown is finally obliterated and its people scattered, I believe that South Africa will have lost not only a place but an ideal," mourned Bedford born ANC activist Father Trevor Huddleston-the Anglican priest for Sophiatown at the time.
Yet, Sophiatown, during its brief 60 years history was also a curious glitch in the increasingly segregated South Africa. To begin, it was a freehold township one of the few such areas in South Africa where people of any colour could purchase land until the law of 1913 prohibited such. Yet in 1899, it was destined to be a white suburb but when the authorities put a sewage works right next-door developer, Herman Tobiansky, had to sell the plots to whoever was interested.
“Africans of all tribes, Indians, Chinese, Jews, Mulattos like me with white fathers and black mothers all lived there,” remembers writer and former leader of the Sophiatown gang - The Vultures, Don Mattero, in Coming of Age in South Africa. “Mansions and quaint cottages stood side by side with rusty wood-and-iron shacks, locked in a fraternal embrace of filth and felony...The rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, all knitted together in a colourful fabric that ignored race or class structures.”
After dark, top sportsman, entertainers and business men flocked to the area to talk, listen and dance to recordings of the newest jazz in the all night shebeens [illegal drinking dens] such Aunt Babe's and the 39 Steps and mixed with shebeen 'queens' who brewed the beer and American styled zoot suited gangsters known as Tsotsi’s (a bastardization of the phrase zoot suit) who spoke a slang called Tsotsitaal. Likened to Harlem during its Golden Age, it was its inhabitants that made it special.
"Despite the poverty, Sophiatown had a special character," wrote former resident Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “For Africans it was the Left Bank in Paris, Greenwich Village in New York, the home of writers, artists, doctors and lawyers. It was both bohemian and conventional, lively and sedate.”
By the mid fifties the whole South African jazz movement was in full swing at the Odin Cinema, Sophiatown, where the Jazz Epistles, namely Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi and Johnny Gertze honed their talents while songbirds such as Dolly Rathebe (Africa’s first African cover girl) and Miriam Makeba and her Skylarks (whose song Meadowlands was a protest anthem against the Sophiatown removals) plied their trade. “Jazz bands like the Jazz Maniacs used to play all night,” remembers Tsegona. “On the streets you’d see people washing, cooking, hustling, singing, talking, gambling, shouting, fighting, partying, playing penny whistles. Oh man, Sophiatown was tough but it was beautiful.”
Influential South African writers including the pioneering Drum magazine journalists, Henry Nxumalo, Nat Lakasa and Carl Themba also lived in Sophiatown, as did photographers Bob Gusani and Ernest Cole while artist Gerard Sekoto painted the townships street scenes.
And lest we forget it was here that residents, Nelson Mandela, Ruth First, Father Trevor Huddleston, Helen Joseph and The ANC first joined together. It was here that teenage resident Desmond Tutu inspired by Huddleston found his vocation and it was here where Mandela first called for the ANC to take up armed resistance against racial segregation.
By the end of 1963 Sophiatown, with the exception of Huddleston’s Anglican Church of Christ the King — ironically a center of resistance to the removals, was flattened and replaced by a white suburb named Triomf (Triumph). Over 40 years later on Feb 11th 2006 the area was symbolically once again officially named Sophiatown by the ANC government and honored with a plaque. “Sophiatown was never erased from the hearts and minds of the people,” said Jo’burg City Mayor Amos Masondo. “The name Sophiatown evokes memories of vibrant, creative and a multicultural community where artists, writers and musicians flourished, against the odds, in an atmosphere of racial tolerance. Long before Soweto, Sophiatown was where urban culture found its pulse and rhythm.”