Town rises from apartheid ashes

Sophiatown, a legendary black cultural hub wiped off the map under apartheid, has officially returned to its original name.

Sophiatown was wiped off the map on 9 February 1955

Its scattered residents have been invited back to attend a celebration on Saturday marking the occasion featuring jazz legends from the neighbourhood’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s.

The destruction of Sophiatown, one of the oldest black areas in Johannesburg, more than 50 years ago came to represent some of the worst excesses of the brutal white regime.

Hundreds of thousands lost their homes under the hated Group Areas Act, which confined the races to separate residential areas, reserving the best for whites.

Despite its poverty and violence, the close-knit community on Johannesburg’s western edge produced some of South Africa’s most famous writers, musicians, politicians and gangsters.

Artists and writers

Once called the city’s Harlem or the Chicago of South Africa, Sophiatown was wiped off the map on 9 February 1955.

International jazz stars like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba (also known as Mama Africa) cut their teeth in its illegal taverns.

The now-governing ANC lead a campaign to fight the removals  The now-governing ANC lead a campaign to fight the removals  

The now-governing ANC lead a 
campaign to fight the removals  

A magazine called Drum was a vehicle for emerging black writers like Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi and Es’kia Mphahlele.

The now-governing African National Congress led a determined campaign to fight the removals.

But on a rainy morning in 1955, 2000 police armed with guns and clubs, moved into its crowded streets.

Residents were forced to load their possessions onto trucks and dumped in the new township of Meadowlands, later incorporated into Soweto, where bleak rows of roughly constructed two-room houses awaited them.

Cherished memory


Armed with bulldozers
they came
to do a job
nothing more
just hired killers

We gave way
there was nothing we could do
although the bitterness stung in us,
in the place we knew to be part of us
and in the earth around,

We stood.
Slow painfully slow
clumsy crushes crawled over
the firm pillars
into the rooms that held us
and the roof that covered
our heads

We stood.
Dust clouded our vision
We held back tears
It was over in minutes,


Extracts from a poem by
Don Mattera

Over the next eight years, the bustling neighbourhood that was home to more than 50,000 people was flattened.

A new white suburb emerged from the rubble called Triomf, Afrikaans for “triumph.”

More than a decade after apartheid’s end, Sophiatown continues to occupy a cherished place in South African memory.

It has been the subject of books, films and an acclaimed musical.
“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.

The City of Johannesburg decided to return the suburb to its original name in 1997.

But local authorities were unable to meet the costs at the time and it took another six years to complete the process.

Source: Al Jazeera

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