Sophiatown and its people
The lively and cosmopolitan Sophiatown of old and the late archbishop and fierce anti-apartheid campaigner, Trevor Huddleston, will forever rest together.
Huddleston wrote in his autobiography Naught for Your Comfort: “Sophiatown! It is not your physical beauty which makes you so loveable; not that soft line of colour which sometimes seems to strike across the greyness of your streets: not the splendour of the evening sky which turns your drabness into gold – it is none of these things. It is your people.”
His particular love was for the children of Sophiatown, whom he used to call “creatures”, and they rushed to him like bees to a honey pot. He wrote: “The Sophiatown child is the most friendly creature on earth, and the most trusting.”
Huddleston, who died in 1998, is buried among the people of Sophiatown, in the grounds of his former church, the Anglican Christ the King church in Ray Street – his ashes are beneath several large granite slabs.
Huddleston arrived in Johannesburg in 1944 and moved into 73 Meyer Street. He spent 10 years in the suburb, moving for two years to Rosettenville, after which he was recalled to England, his birthplace, in 1955. He said of his departure: “I am in the process of dying.”
His recall means he thankfully never witnessed the wrenching removals that started that year; people and their belongings were pulled from their homes and taken to faraway Meadowlands and Lenasia.
Before the suburb was bulldozed, he was the Anglican priest at the church, the heart of the area. Across the road was the school where many former residents were educated. He would walk the streets, talking to people, helping them solve their problems.
While in Rosettenville, he famously responded to Hugh Masekela’s plea for a trumpet, obtaining one from a downtown music store in Joburg and presenting it to Masekela, who went on to become world famous.
The suburb created talents like poet and writer Don Mattera, singers Dolly Rathebe and the Elite Swingsters, and Thandie Klaasen; bands like The Harlem Swingsters, The African Inkspots, and The Jazz Epistles, whose members included Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), Kippie Moeketsi (after whom Kippies, the jazz club in Newtown, was named) and Masekela.
An extraordinary band of writers was nurtured in Sophiatown, most of whom wrote for the iconic Drum magazine. Among them were Bloke Modisane, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, Eskia Mphahlele and Can Themba.
Artist Gerard Sekoto, who lived in Sophiatown for several years, captured the streets of the suburb in rich colours and textures, in two oil paintings – “Yellow houses, a street in Sophiatown”, and “Looking down the hill, Sophiatown”.
The entire Sophiatown community had been removed by the end of 1963 and the suburb was renamed Triomf, a triumph for the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act. Working-class whites were moved into squat, newly built houses.
But in February 2006, its old name was restored. It was again Sophiatown, in a ceremony that saw people dancing in the streets again.
The church was one of four buildings that were spared the bulldozers when the suburb was flattened – even Huddleston’s rectory in Meyer Street was demolished. The church was deconsecrated in 1964 and sold to the department of community development in 1967. In the 1970s, it was bought by the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk, which used it for Sunday school sessions. In 1997, it was bought back by the Anglican Church and has regained its stature as a special place of worship.
The three other buildings that escaped destruction were Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma’s house in Toby Street, and several blocks down, a house belonging, it is believed, to a prominent Indian family, also in Toby Street and known as the pink house; and St Joseph’s Home in Hermans Street, a home for orphans.
Xuma was president of the ANC from 1940 to 1949. He rose from herdboy to shipping clerk to hotel and train waiter to become a highly qualified medical doctor, with degrees from universities in America, England and Scotland. He opened his surgery in Sophiatown in 1934.
His spacious, three-bedroomed house was considered a mansion by his neighbours. It is now a national monument, and has been converted into the Sophiatown Heritage Centre.
Xuma and his American wife were finally removed from their house in 1959 and went to live in Dube, Soweto. He died in Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in 1962 and is buried in Brixton Cemetery.
By early 2003, more than R21-million in land compensation claims had been paid out to former residents of Sophiatown, in an effort to compensate families for the material and emotional losses they had suffered during removals. This adds up to 544 claims of R40 000 each.
History of suburb
Sophiatown – a portion of the farm Waterval, bought in 1897 by Hermann Tobiansky to be originally developed as a suburb for whites – was established in 1904. But before 1913 blacks had freehold rights and they bought properties here. It was originally called Sophia, after Tobiansky’s wife, but after 1919 it became known as Sophiatown, and dubbed later by its residents as “Kofifi”, and claimed by journalist Ntatemoholo Phahlane as his name for the suburb.
He says in his 2010 Bantu World article entitled "On the Natives and Gang-culture": "Well, my coining of township nick-names began at my place of birth in Sophiatown, which I named Kofifi in 1943. To me, the Kofifi name means a cosmopolitan little black colourful town."
By the 1920s, the whites had moved out, leaving behind a vibrant community of blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese. After 1913, blacks lost their smallholdings and farms in the country, and flooded cities like Johannesburg. The suburb’s facilities simply couldn’t cope and by the 1940s Sophiatown was a ghetto – overcrowding and desperate poverty were evident on every street corner.
What it did have was two cinemas – the classy Odin in Good Street and the not-so-classy Balansky’s in Main Road. Children cooled off in the Meyer Street swimming bath, parents attended several churches on the weekends, relaxed in a number of shebeens, the most famous of which was 39 Steps in Good Street, and gossiped on street corners.
As in any ghetto, gangsters emerged, taking on titles like the Americans, the Russians, and the Vultures, which they’d seen in the American movies. The streets of Sophiatown were the scene of fierce fighting, with many young men dying by knife or gun.
But the neighbouring white suburbs of Westdene and Auckland Park were expanding, and demands were made on the government to extend white residential use into Sophiatown. At 4am on 9 February 1955, 2 000 policemen moved in with force, and Sophiatown was flattened over a period of nine years. Some 65 000 people were forced to begin their lives over again.
“Something in me died, a piece of me died, with the dying of Sophiatown,” wrote Bloke Modisane in his 1963 autobiography, Blame Me on History.
Very different suburb
But the Sophiatown of today is very different from the one that Huddleston loved. It was a suburb bursting at its seams, with the yards of the compact semi-detached and free-standing homes often crowded with shacks. Nowadays, it’s a multi-racial suburb again, recalling its mixed origins in the early 1900s.
The suburb is still mostly residential, with three Afrikaans churches, several schools, a museum, a tall block of flats belonging to the South African police, and the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre.
The hub of Sophiatown is its central shopping centre, where residents congregate to do their shopping and a bit of socialising. It has everything – Shoprite Checkers, a butcher, a cellphone shop, a Pep store, a KFC, an internet cafe, ATMs for the four major banks, a tailor, a bottle store, a fruit and veg shop, a hairdresser, several clothing stores with cheap Chinese goods, and doctors’ rooms, where dentists and optometrists can be found.
Wendy Volker, the manager of Tiffany’s Hair & Beauty, who lives in nearby Newlands but was born in neighbouring Westbury, says of Sophiatown: “It’s a lovely suburb. It has its ups and downs but there is no obvious or aggressive tension,” referring to its renewed multi-racial composition.
Tiffany’s is a place of many talents – it houses a coffee shop, a dry-cleaning business, and, just for good measure, a popcorn-making machine sits at its front door.
The affable reverend Neo Motlabane is the new priest of the Christ the King Church. It recently hosted Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for his 80th birthday celebration. “It was important to give him thanks,” says Motlabane.
He says that Tutu was a server in the church when he was a young boy, and had Huddleston as his mentor. “He was so happy,” says Motlabane of the service. He is very aware of the illustrious people who preceded him. “We need to continue the legacy of Tutu and Trevor,” he says.
Motlabane counts among his congregants the former residents of Sophiatown, who make the trip on Sundays from Meadowlands. But also former first lady Zanele Mbeki, businesswoman Wendy Luhabe, judge president Fikile Bam, and jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa.
His mission is to “bring the church closer to the community”. He runs an “Africanised” service, with African drums, and an organ and singing can be heard. But he is mindful of the need for traditional services too, so “a quiet service” is held at 7.30am on Sundays, followed by the more boisterous service.
Tours of the Sophiatown Heritage Centre and the suburb can be arranged. It is open from Tuesdays to Saturdays, and a tour lasts 45 minutes. Call 011 673 1271/7238 to arrange a tour. Tours on Sundays or Mondays can be arranged by appointment. The centre tour costs R30, the suburb tour is R60.
Motlabane talks passionately of giving “a voice to the voiceless”. To this end he wants to run a complementary service to the soup kitchens other churches in the suburb run. He offers milk and bread on Thursdays, to anyone in the community. “We have friendly contact with the Afrikaans churches,” he explains.
He says that the community, and even political parties, are most welcome to use the hall attached to the church. He is organising with the neighbouring school to open a gate between the two properties, so that children attending Sunday school classes can play on the school fields. Schoolchildren will equally have access to the church courtyard when their balls come flying over the fence.
“We want to touch the lives of people,” he says. “We want the church to be visible.” This is most likely to happen, because, unlike former priests, Motlabane is resident on the property, the church having purchased the neighbouring house.
Heritage and memorial centres
Xuma’s old house, on the corner of Toby and Ludlow streets, has been restored by the City, and is now the Sophiatown Heritage Centre. Its displays showcase the history of the suburb, capturing memories and artefacts of former residents. Mbali Zwane is the education officer, and offers informative tours of the museum.
“It is an honour doing heritage,” she says. “I am so passionate about culture.” Originally trained as a clothing designer, she still does designing after hours. Events and workshops are held monthly at the centre, in its colourful and well-kept large garden.
Zwane obtained her training from the Trevor Huddleston CR Memorial Centre, in Hermans Street, on the grounds of St Joseph’s School, which is now being converted by the Anglican Church to offices and residences.
The memorial centre is run by Trisha Sibbons, the chief executive, who used to work with Huddleston in England before he died. She brings his caring humanity to her work at the centre.
“The loss of Sophiatown is still very raw. They can recall it like yesterday – it is hard for them to articulate,” she says. A reunion will be held next year. Sibbons says that some 30 families have moved back into Sophiatown.
Sibbons and her team run the heritage centre. The house next door to the centre has been bought with the proceeds of the sale of the house alongside the Christ the King Church. The house will be demolished and it will become a space that is more suited to events, she says.
“We have gone to Meadowlands and asked former residents what they want to do with the site. It will be the first democratically created space in Sophiatown.”
Sibbons is most proud of the three-month information and communications technology course that runs from the memorial centre. It caters for 18- to 24-year-olds in the area, or from Meadowlands. Often they are youngsters who have dropped out of school and have no other prospects. Through sponsorship they have their courses largely paid for, only having to pay R1 500 or a third of the cost of the course, which Sibbons says is important for their commitment.
But it is much more than that – it gives them life skills, business skills, customer service skills, budgeting, speech making, heritage knowledge, woodworking and sewing skills, and dance and drama skills. Attendance requirements are strictly applied, an important element of the life skills aspect of the course. There are Saturday computer classes for domestic workers.
Sibbons links them with potential employers – within three months 65 percent of them get jobs. Some 180 young people do the course every year, and over the past six years just under 5 000 people have completed it.
“The idea is to instil an opportunity for lifelong learning, to develop their full potential.”
She rattles off the success stories – one has gone on to study drama at Wits University; another teaches dance and music at Slovo Park squatter camp, a camp of 7 000 shacks; others have joined the Kofifi Theatre Company, which has toured overseas; some are tour guides; and still others are interning at Media24.
One ex-student has played the lead in Othello in London. Several will be joining the team at the Soweto Theatre when it opens next year.
Sibbons reckons that through heritage and culture the disparate communities of Sophiatown can be brought together. “Sophiatown is a suburb that represents the best of what South Africa could be,” she says. “It is a very unique place.”
Her conversation is sprinkled with references to Huddleston. “That’s what Trevor would have done,” she says, referring to obstacles and bureaucracy when the going gets tough. Huddleston would have gone back to resources and contacts he had in Britain. She is equally creative, using a wide network of contacts when one source of funding or expertise is no longer available.
Sibbons walks the talk too – she moved into the suburb five years ago. “It is very exciting living here. You meet the most amazing people, like Tutu’s daughter, [singer] Dorothy Masuku, and Jonas Gwangwa.”
Amos Masondo, the former mayor of Joburg, said when he officiated at the renaming ceremony in 2006: “Sophiatown is the past we dare not forget. It is the future we must invest in.”