Kliptown was a ‘picturesque place’
Not many people these days would refer to Kliptown as “a picturesque place”. But for Sam Takolia and Rashid Jada, who were both born in the Soweto suburb, it certainly was.
Kliptown’s main thoroughfare, Union Street, used to be lined with blue gum trees, while Main Street boasted a row of oak trees, and further south were the Sans Souci Bioscope and the Hotel New Yorker, among scattered brick houses and green fields.
”Kliptown’s been good to us,” says Takolia, “we had a wonderful upbringing here – I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Takolia is a third-generation and Jada a fourth-generation hardware and building supplier, with stores along Union Street, the hub of Kliptown’s shopping area, used for decades by Sowetans. The sons of both men are already behind the counter, ready to take over from their fathers.
Kliptown dates back to 1903, today a suburb of up to 45 000 people living in dilapidated brick houses and backyard shanties. Like residents in Sophiatown and Alexandra, Kliptown residents once owned their properties, but in the 1980s their houses were expropriated by the West Rand Administration Board and they became tenants in their own homes. They subsequently made illegal additions to their houses, renting out these rooms. Others took over their back yards, erecting tin shanties, and the township became overcrowded and squalid.
Kliptown was largely created from resettling Indian, black and coloured communities living in Newtown in the early 1900s, onto two farms, Klipspruit and Klipriviersoog, in Kliptown. Because Kliptown fell outside the municipal boundaries (about 25 kilometres from the city centre), it developed an independent spirit. It was the city's first multi-racial community (later Sophiatown developed this cosmopolitan character), and was a natural rallying point for opponents of apartheid to meet in secret decades later.
Marriages took place between Indians and coloureds to allow Indians, who were prohibited from buying property in the suburb, to purchase plots. Whites also settled in the area and married local black women. Chinese traders also found their way to Kliptown.
Takolia says that the cosmopolitan community of Kliptown lived together amicably, something that is lost in the rest of Soweto, but still exists in Kliptown.
Kliptown became famous in 1955 when thousands of Congress of the People - a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations - delegates converged on a dusty soccer field to agree on a draft Freedom Charter. The final draft was read out and ratified by delegates in a two-day meeting.
Mixed community Takolia, a short, grey-haired but sprightly man of 64, remembers the active Jewish and Afrikaans members of the community. “Kliptown used to be a big dairy farming area,” he says. Louis Nel, of Nel’s Dairy, had a dairy farm in the area, and the present-day Eldorado Park, says Takolia, was occupied exclusively by white farmers on small holdings, where there were good pastures. Jewish traders were abundant, and were the predecessors of today’s Metro Cash & Carry and Lubners Furnishers. ”There was a big Jewish community here,” says Takolia, “most of the land was owned by Jews.” When his grandfather came to Kliptown in the 1930s, he rented a piece of land on Union Street from a Mr Tannenbaum, who allowed him to build an iron shanty on the property. Takolia remembers that back in 1961 one of the bluegum trees fell on the shop, damaging the shop front. Permission to rebuild the front was denied by the bureaucrats of the apartheid government. ”But we took a chance. Mr Stoltz was the building inspector, and he said to my grandfather: ‘On Friday when I leave here, you can build, and when I come on Monday, I don’t know anything about this’.” They repaired the shop front, at the same time adding an extra 5m to one side of the shop. “We had an amicable relationship with the guys in Joburg.”
Over the years both the Takolia and Jada families built homes adjoining the back of their stores, and several generations of children were born there. Mohamed Talokia, now 30 years old, is the fourth generation Takolia member who is being groomed to take over the hardware store from his father, who is semi-retired. He, like his father, was born in the house behind the Union Street shop.
Talokia remembers the row of shops on the other side of the two hardware stores: a chemist, a furniture store, the ABC Café, and several doctors’ rooms – one of whom was the first black female doctor in Kliptown, known only as Dr Mary. Beyond the shops was bare veld, nowadays the rundown residential area of Kliptown.
The 1976 unrest that was sparked in Soweto and spread around the country, had profound effects on the two families. Takolia says his father wrote off R1-million in outstanding accounts. At that time Takolias was a stationery and clothing store, and this event led to the switch to hardware and building supplier several months later.
He tells the story of his daughter, then 3 or 4 years old, who became frightened with the marching school children, and police shooting. He responded by grabbing a blanket to wrap her in. At that stage they were living in a house on the other side of the railway line, immediately west of Union Street. The family never went back to their house – they abandoned it, and for a week lived with different families. They subsequently moved to Lenasia, as did the Jada family, where both still live.
Both men remember the historic 1955 meeting, held on 26 and 27 June. The Freedom Charter was signed a year later by Chief Albert Luthuli, then president of the ANC.
Jada, elegant in a white goatee, was seven when the historic meeting was held on the soccer field behind the shop. ANC leaders Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were family friends, and Sisulu hid on Jada’s roof during the meeting. Sisulu and Mandela were both restricted by banning orders, and should therefore not have been at the meeting.
Takolia, who was 12 at the time, remembers that the soccer field was hemmed with hessian cloth, to create a makeshift wall.
”People converged on the field - walking, by donkey carts - from far and wide.” His family sold sandwiches and tea, made by his mother.
He remembers that political meetings used to be held in his family’s house, and he used to be tea boy. His father had a generator, and in a town with no electricity, their house was the only one with lighting.
In 2002 a winner was chosen for the design of a new square, incorporating the dusty soccer field, declared a national heritage site in 1997. The building has risen steadily from the dust over the past 18 months, in the form of two long north and south blocks, with symbolic squares developing between the two structures. The new square is to be called the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication and will be unveiled on 26 June, 2005 by President Thabo Mbeki.
Jada’s and Takolias are to be relocated to new homes, around the corner in Klip Valley Road. The two owners have been allowed the privilege of buying their plots of land, whereas other shopkeepers will become tenants.
Both express satisfaction with their plots, and gratefulness to the Johannesburg Development Agency for them. Jada’s is already open for business, although building continues, in a large warehouse structure, with double volume space to house their vast collection of timber and other building hardware.
Takolia is operating from a steel container on the pavement of Klip Valley Road, opposite the new taxi rank, while his large new shop is being constructed.
Their Union Street shops are to remain, being the oldest shops in the street - Jada’s is to be restored to its original design, and will become a museum; recent renovations to Takolias are to be demolished and it is to be used for hawker stalls.
Walking through their old stores, now just hollow shells but tucked neatly into the large new structure that is nearing completion, they point to where the storeroom used to be, where the kitchen of their attached house was, where the bedroom was. Jada’s store still retains the pressed-steel ceiling, and a wall of patterned tiles.
Takolia points out the wooden window through which Mandela climbed to escape from the police, on another occasion.
When asked whether there was any competition between the two identical businesses, Takolia says there was friendly bargaining of a rand or two but the two men have remained the “best of friends” who have been “neighbours for donkey years”.
Takolia concludes: “We have learnt one thing from living in Kliptown: we don’t let money be our God, but rather our moral obligations. We live a simple life.”