The story of cities #19: Johannesburg’s apartheid 1955 purge of vibrant Sophiatown



Toby Street, Johannesburg, circa 1950: the street divided the black suburb of Sophiatown from the white district of Westdene. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

In 1955, the ‘Chicago of South Africa’ was one of the last areas of black home-ownership in Johannesburg. Then the bulldozers arrived to evict these residents, confirming apartheid’s brutal suppression of black upward mobility

David Adler

The bulldozers arrived in Sophiatown at five o’clock on the morning of 9 February, 1955. Behind them in the darkness, police commanders lined up with piles of paper – lists of names and addresses, eviction notices, and assignments to new plots in the Meadowlands suburb, 15 kilometres away on the northern edge of Soweto.

Behind the commanders, an army of 2,000 police carried rifles and batons, ready to enforce the eviction and clear Sophiatown of its black residents. “Maak julle oop!” they shouted in Afrikaans. “Open up!”

By sunrise, 110 families had been forced to remove all belongings from their homes, pile into police trucks and move out to the Meadowlands, where hundreds of matchbox homes awaited them.

Sophiatown was one of the last remaining areas of black home-ownership in Johannesburg. Five years earlier, the South African parliament had passed the Group Areas Act, which sought to purge black South Africans from developed neighbourhoods and establish “urban apartheid”. In Johannesburg, the act gave license to the city’s government to push middle-class black residents out of northern areas including Sophiatown into southern townships such as Soweto, where the majority of poor black residents already lived.

“Sophiatown was the antithesis of what they wanted for this country,” remembered Don Mattera, a poet and former resident, in Sophiatown Speaks. “Sophiatown had the black people – meaning Coloured, Indians, Blacks of all tribes – and the whites living together.”

And the suburb fought hard to preserve this community. For months, the African National Congress and 5,000 of its freedom volunteers had been organising, petitions and marches through Sophiatown’s Freedom Square. “Asihambi! We are not leaving!” the people chanted. Throughout the town, across homes and churches and cinemas, residents painted their protest: “We Won’t Move.”

But the march of apartheid was swift. Within two decades, more than three million black South Africans around the country were forcibly removed from their homes and neighbourhoods. Sophiatown would become Triomf, Afrikaans for triumph – the brutal triumph of apartheid over black upward mobility in Johannesburg.

“Some were leaving behind family, others were leaving behind friends and lovers. And I cried. I cried because my friends were going,” Mattera remembered. “And then suddenly, I’m the only person in the whole street … and there the trucks go.”

The Chicago of South Africa

Apartheid planning in Johannesburg was founded on a contradiction. On the one hand, black South Africans were the backbone of the city’s industries; gold mining along the “Golden Arc” – a long stretch from Welkom in the south up to Witswatersrand in the north – relied on a steady flow of black migrants to work in the mines. By the start of the first world war, roughly 100,000 black South Africans were working in mines, factories and homes across the city.

On the other hand, the government sought to check this inflow through “influx controls” that imposed harsh restrictions on black mobility. Through the 1920s, political pressure from lower-class whites was intensifying to legislate white privileges into the economy, reserving high-skilled and highly-paid jobs for white residents.

“Johannesburg is one of the major metropolises of significant size that is built in the middle of nowhere,” explains Benjamin Bradlow, a former research officer for Slum Dwellers International (SDI) in Cape Town. “It was essentially a mining town, and therefore the basis for conflict was: who was going to work in the mines, and where were they going to live?”

In 1923, the South African government passed the Native (Urban Areas) Act, proclaiming its cities as “white” and stripping black residents of ownership rights. Black residents were forced to carry permits, or “passes” – with their fingerprint, photograph and the name of the white employer that had given permission for passage into the city. Failure to produce the permit resulted in arrest or expulsion.

Evicted from the central-city neighbourhoods, many migrants were relocated to townships such as Soweto. There, the national government developed thousands of “ticky-tacky houses” – small, two-bedroom homes in row after row – that black South Africans could occupy but never own outright.

With the intensification of migration, these townships became increasingly dense. Residents constructed shacks in backyards to accommodate growing families, and migrants developed makeshift housing in empty lots. Despite strict limits on economic activity in the townships, grocery shops and corner stores popped up to serve the local community.

According to Professor Susan Parnell, a geographer at the University of Cape Town, there is a “myth of segregation” in many portraits of apartheid. “The focus on race should not mask the fact that Johannesburg was made of many people from many places,” Parnell explains. “It has always been a diverse city in both inter-racial and intra-racial terms.”

While many black residents were excluded from Johannesburg’s growth by influx controls, some lived side-by-side with white families as domestic workers, while others were rising into a black middle class. “What apartheid policies said and what apartheid policies did were always very different,” Parnell says.

Sophiatown, along with a handful of other townships to the north, was one such exception. In 1897, an investor named Herman Tobiansky purchased 237 acres of land a few kilometres from Johannesburg. He named the area after his wife, Sophia, and named the streets after his children.

Not long after the purchase, however, the Johannesburg City Council decided to develop its sewage disposal plant next door. Wealthier white people began to lose interest in the new colony, so Tobiansky was left with little choice but to offer plots in Sophiatown to black residents. Alongside their white neighbours, these residents constructed homes and fences in a neighbourhood that looked much like other Johannesburg suburbs.


A row of ‘ticky-tacky’ houses in Sophiatown, where black and white South Africans once lived side-by-side. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

By 1950, the pressures of apartheid planning had pushed thousands more into Sophiatown, and the average number of families on each property swelled to eight. On these subdivided plots, residents leased out backyard rooms and, as in other townships, constructed makeshift dwellings to increase occupancy.

For Trevor Huddlestone, an English bishop who lived in Sophiatown throughout the 1940s and 50s, conditions often appeared dire. “Home was a row of corrugated iron shacks built in the very restricted area behind someone else’s house,” Huddlestone wrote. “It was not much of a home: hot in summer when the sun struck down on the iron roof and there was no ceiling to protect you; cold in winter, because the wind penetrated the joints and angles and there were no walls save the iron itself.”

Sophiatown was far from paradise, but it offered black residents freehold tenure – a safety of place that many state-owned territories lacked. And this sense of ownership bred a culture all its own: “In Sophiatown, however impromptu it was, there always seemed to be a party,” remembers Anthony Sampson, a former editor of DRUM magazine, one of the only voices of South African townships in the 1950s.

House Back of the Moon, House of Truth, House of Saints: Sophiatown was home to scores of speakeasies, or Shebeens, that hosted live music and local meetings. These were largely run by what became known as Shebeen Queens, who brewed and sold liquor in the bar. The 1927 Liquor Act had prohibited Africans and Indians from entering bars, let alone hosting them – but that did little to stop Sophiatown’s residents.

Americans, Berliners, Russians: Sophiatown was also home to a number of gangs that patrolled its streets. “If you were not a big-shot in Sophiatown, you could not stay in Sophiatown,” remembers George Mbalweni, aka “Kort Boy” – a member of the Americans – in Sophiatown Speaks. “It’s like New York; [there’s] fighting all the time in Sophiatown … You can’t stay if you can’t box.”


A family watches as demolition workers tear down a row of neighbourhood homes in Sophiatown, 1955. Photograph: AP

For its cultural vibrancy, Sophiatown became known as the Chicago of South Africa. “Cinema, dancing, American culture and jazz were very important in the cultural life of Sophiatown,” said the South African writer Es-kia Mphahlele in Sophiatown Speaks. “It was a place where people could express themselves more freely than in any other place … It was never a shanty town. It was a real suburb with front gates which said, ‘This is how I want to live.’”

Social relations in Sophiatown defied the apartheid ideal. “There was a Shangaan, a Zulu and a Coloured family living in the back and we lived happily together,” recalled Jane Dakile, a teacher in Sophiatown. “There was no friction; our children played well together and even went to school together.”

Continue reading here. (Original posted in The Guardian)