Society

Why ‘Chicago of South Africa’ had to go down

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South African dancers of Via Katlehong Company perform in the Maison de la Danse in Lyon during a general rehearsal of their last dance musical Via Sophiatown. The show was set in a Johannesburg suburb, the South African township Sophiatown. AFP PHOTO

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Summary

  • Sophiatown is a suburb of Johannesburg situated in Guateng Province and was once known for its bohemian lifestyle and vibrant music scene.
  • In 1955, the “Chicago of South Africa” was one of the last areas of black home ownership in Johannesburg.
  • Then bulldozers moved in to forcibly remove residents, confirming apartheid’s brutal suppression of black upward mobility.

Sophiatown is a suburb of Johannesburg situated in Guateng Province and was once known for its bohemian lifestyle and vibrant music scene. In 1955, the “Chicago of South Africa” was one of the last areas of black home ownership in Johannesburg. Then bulldozers moved in to forcibly remove residents, confirming apartheid’s brutal suppression of black upward mobility.

Originally Waterfall farm, just outside of Johannesburg, in Transvaal (now Guateng), Sophiatown was founded in 1897 when speculator Herman Tobiansky purchased 237 acres and named it after his wife, Sophia. In 1903, he subdivided it into 1,700 plots and sold them to white buyers making it a whites only area. Before the enactment of the Native Land Act 1913, black South Africans had freehold rights, and bought properties in suburbs. The distance from the city centre was seen as disadvantageous and after the Johannesburg City Council (JCC) built a sewage plant nearby, the area seemed even less attractive, so Tobiansky was left with no choice but to offer plots in Sophiatown to black residents. Alongside their white neighbours, these residents built homes and fences that looked much like other suburbs in Johannesburg.

When World War I started, many black people moved to the cities in search of jobs. As the number of black rose, JCC passed Slum Clearance legislation with the aim of removing black people from the inner city of Johannesburg. These new arrivals had nowhere to go and were thus moved to Sophiatown. The area became overcrowded and they were not allowed by the government to acquire land permits for land ownership. Black landowners, burdened with heavy mortgages, allowed others to live in their backyards. As the population grew, people built houses out of metal sheets and excess materials in Sophiatown.

By 1920, most of the wealthy white residents had moved out leaving behind a vibrant multiracial community. In the late 1940s, Sophiatown had a population of nearly 54,000 Africans, 3,000 coloureds, 1,500 Indians and, 686 Chinese.

Although Sophiatown was not exactly paradise, it offered black residents freehold tenure, a safety of place that many State-owned territories lacked.

This sense of ownership bred a culture of its own. “In Sophiatown, however impromptu it was, there always seemed to be a party”, remembers Antony Sampson, a former editor of Drum magazine, one of the only voices of South African townships in the 1950s.

There was overcrowding and shared toilets in the yard, but one could not help noticing the relentless energy and optimism in the people. Sophiatown attracted people from across Johannesburg and musicians who went on to become big stars such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela who started their careers performing in Sophiatown jazz clubs.

Alongside dancehalls and parties, Sophiatown was also home to political activities of the ANC and a certain Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were frequent visitors.

Its residents were among the loudest and most active in the struggle against apartheid.

Sophiatown residents had a determination to construct a unique and respectable lifestyle in the shadow of a hostile State but people struggled to live together in a highly congested environment devoid of adequate services. A rich culture developed based on shebeens (informal and mostly illegal pubs), mpaqanga music and beer-brewing. The shebeens were one of the main forms of entertainment and people came to drown their sorrows and to talk about political ideas.

There was a darker side to Sophiatown, as crime and violence were a reality of urban life in South Africa. It was here that some of the more extreme and violent gangs were to be found. The poverty, misery, violence, and lawlessness led to the growth of many gangs.

The romantic vision of a unique community juxtaposed with a seedy and violent township with danger lurking in the shadows at every corner.

In the early 1950s, the National Party (NP) with its apartheid system, realised that Johannesburg was growing, and black people were increasing in numbers such that they were getting too close to white areas for comfort. The NP passed the Native Resettlement Act, No 19 of 1954, allowing blacks to be removed from any area within and close to the magisterial area of Johannesburg.

On 9 February 1955, 2,000 policemen armed with sten guns and rifles were sent to Sophiatown, destroying the town, and removing more than 60,000 inhabitants. They lost everything. Black people were relocated to meadowlands, which formed part of Soweto where a housing settlement had been established based on the population census within the shanty town. The houses had no toilets, water, and electricity.

Over the next eight years Sophiatown was flattened and removed from the maps of Johannesburg. The area was rezoned for whites only and renamed “Triomf”, Afrikaans for triumph. The social engineers in government tried to create a suburb for white working class but, in the end Triomf became a suburb for mainly poor white Afrikaners.

In 2006, the suburb reverted to its former name Sophiatown under the post-apartheid government.

But, in many ways, post-apartheid repairs such as this have been cosmetic.

“Apartheid is a distant memory for many people,” says Prof Owen Crankshaw, a sociologist at the University of Cape Town. “But it persists in certain aspects. The apartheid spatial order was characterised by the suburbanisation of black townships far from centres of employment. This spatial order has persisted because new low-cost housing developments were also built on the suburban edges of the cities.”

As was the case during apartheid, many of Johannesburg’s black residents are moving into the middle class, while many more remain excluded from the fruits of the global economy.

This is how the colonial state sustains and recreates itself. We see the same cosmetic change here in Kenya. A paradigm shift in our mindsets and planning is called for.