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A love affair with Sophiatown's people

On the first page of his book, Naught for Your Comfort (1956), the late Archbishop Trevor Huddleston recalls his response on being recalled to England after living in Johannesburg for 12 years. "I am in the process of dying," he said.

"No one, I think, could call Johannesburg a lovely place," Huddleston wrote. "It is too stark and too uncompromising; too lacking in any softness of light and shade; too overwhelmingly and blatantly the centre of the Witwatersrand, to have much loveliness."

So why was he heartbroken to leave the city? The reasons were simple: "But I have seen momentarily, the golden sand of the mine-dumps crossed by grey and purple shadows in the evening, transformed into a real beauty - a thing impossible to the slag-heaps of industrial England. And I have come to love the rolling country of the highveld round the city, stretching away to the Magaliesburg mountains and giving to Johannesburg a setting which belongs to few cities in the world."

Huddleston, born in England in 1913, came to South Africa in 1943 as an Anglican priest. He spent most of his time in Sophiatown and became one of apartheid's most strident opponents - which is what led to him being recalled to the land of his birth in 1955.

His biographer, Robin Denniston, writes in Trevor Huddleston: A Life, published in 1999, that Huddleston "was getting too fond of personal publicity and acclaim, too keen to see his picture in the papers". But there was another reason: "By the spring of 1955 the pressure was becoming acute, and the strain was showing. Police followed him everywhere." Huddleston was constantly harassed and lived with the threat of arrest, imprisonment and deportation. In 1955 he was diagnosed with diabetes, and the fear of him being imprisoned without proper treatment was sufficient for the church to recall him to England.

Huddleston arrived in Johannesburg in 1944 and moved into 73 Meyer Street, Sophiatown. It wasn't long before he had formed relationships with the locals. Denniston writes: "Huddleston could relate one-to-one with an astonishing number and variety of people, but his deepest love started with the children of Sophiatown." Huddleston said: "The Sophiatown child is the most friendly creature on earth, and the most trusting."

Huddleston had a love-hate relationship with Johannesburg: "If cities fall under the judgment of God … then I have little doubt that Johannesburg will be condemned for this reason alone: that it accepted man's sweat and man's toil and denied him the possibility of a home," he wrote.

Sophiatown was levelled between 1955 and 1963 and its inhabitants moved to Meadowlands in Soweto, Lenasia and Westbury.

Huddleston agonised over the role of the churches in apartheid South Africa, becoming disillusioned. "The Church sleeps on … In spite of constant synodical resolutions and episcopal pronouncements, the Church as a whole does not care."

He returned in South Africa in 1991 and was met at the airport by his great friend, Walter Sisulu. He attempted to settle in South Africa in 1995, and spent two months living in an old people's home, but it didn't work out and he returned, somewhat bitterly, to England, writes Denniston. He died in 1998 at the age of 85.

Huddleston never underestimated the effect Sophiatown had had on him. He spent the rest of his life longing to come back. "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."

Source: joburg.org.za

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