Sophiatown - once called the city's Harlem - was wiped off the map on 9 February 1955.

 

As actors on Wednesday staged a mock "forced removal", elderly former residents recalled when the white minority government started the eviction of about 65,000 black South Africans.

  

On that day, apartheid police armed with machine guns and truncheons surrounded the vibrant multi-racial township before homes were bulldozed and people's possessions were loaded on to open trucks as part of the government's policy of racial segregation.

  

Most people were dumped in Soweto township's Meadowlands, about 10km to the south.

  

Vibrant mix

 

"We woke up that day to hundreds of policemen, with their trucks and Sten guns," remembered Simon Ramela, who lived there as a teenager.

  

"They took us by complete surprise," he said.

  

Mandela will take part in the
commemoration

Often called the Harlem or Chicago of South Africa, it was a contrasting but vibrant mix of red-roofed brick homes and tin shacks and the birthplace of South African jazz, styled on black American culture of the time.

  

"Despite the poverty, Sophiatown had a special character; 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," former president Nelson Mandela recalled in his book Long Walk to Freedom.

  

It was a hotbed of liberation politics, and here was where Mandela first called for the now ruling African National Congress (ANC) to mount an armed resistance against racial segregation.

  

Whites-only suburb

 

But the day white South Africa's bulldozers moved in and razed Sophiatown to make place for the whites-only suburb called Triomf (Afrikaans for triumph) the country "lost not only a place but an ideal", said veteran anti-apartheid cleric and Sophiatown's Anglican Archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

  

Now the neighbourhood is slowly claiming back its identity, having got back its name of Sophiatown in 1995. 

  

"We hope one day the spirit that we feel here today, the spirit of our ancestors can return to this place"

Simon Ramela,
former Sophiatown resident

This month will see a series of commemorations including church services, Wednesday's procession, and a gala dinner next week, to be attended by Mandela and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

  

"We feel happy that there are these commemorations to celebrate Sophiatown," former resident Ramela said.

  

"We hope one day the spirit that we feel here today, the spirit of our ancestors can return to this place," he said.