SAfrica Sophiatown returns

August 30th, 2019

Category: 苏州半永久

The town’s best known sound, vibrant 1950s African jazz, greeted its former residents who cheered and swayed to the music at the suburb’s naming ceremony.


Elizabeth Kallesen could not contain her excitement, while others swayed and clapped their hands in time, she leapt to the floor and started swinging her hips like the young tap dancer she once was.

“I feel I can dance the whole day because they are singing the songs from Sophiatown,” the 64-year-old said with a grin.

Old men in sharp suits and women in flowing skirts and berets hugged each other and reminisced about old times, when Sophiatown was the heart and pulse of black urban culture.

“I’m feeling ecstatic about it. When we were thrown out we lost hope that we would ever be able to come back,” said jazz diva Abigail Kubeka, who started her singing career in Sophiatown.

When South Africa’s white regime took control of the Sophiatown in 1955, the suburb was renamed “Triomf” (Afrikaans for triumph).

“We are here today to rename Triomf to Sophiatown,” said city mayor Amos Masondo as he unveiled a signboard bearing the original name in bold black letters.

“There is no need to say how deeply divisive the name Triomf has been to our nation,” Mr Masondo told a crowd of some 500 people.

Forcibly removed

Around 65,000 black residents were forcibly removed from the working class area in western Johannesburg by the white minority government in 1955.

In February of that year, apartheid police armed with machine guns and truncheons surrounded the multi-racial suburb before homes were bulldozed and people’s possessions loaded onto open trucks.

It was one of the apartheid government’s biggest population removals under the Group Areas Act that defined where people lived according to their race.

Most residents dumped in a new township called Meadowlands, later incorporated into Soweto, about 10 kilometres to the south, where bleak rows of roughly constructed two-room houses awaited them.

Vibrant past

Often called the “Harlem” or “Greenwich village” of South Africa, Sophiatown was a contrasting but vibrant mix of red-roofed brick homes and tin shacks.

Liberation politics, illegal drinking dens, or shebeens, and music became the hallmarks of Sophiatown, which was surrounded by white suburbs.

Artists mixed with township ‘tsotsis’ (gangsters) who belonged to gangs like the Berliners and the Americans, adopting the names of American movie stars like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart.

There were bands like the Boston Stars, the Manhattan Brothers and the Pitch Black Follies and famous ‘shebeens’ (illegal beer houses) like Aunt Babe’s and The House on Telegraph Hill where these bands used to play.

It was here where South African international music stars like trumpet maestro Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim first made a name for themselves.

Mr Masekela told AFP on Saturday that although he was happy that Sophiatown had got its name back, he still lamented the demise of what was once considered Johannesburg’s cultural heart.

“For me it’s sad. It’s almost like the unveiling of a tombstone – you relive the past and you commemorate,” he said.

“But can never bring back its glories,” Mr Masekela added.

Sophiatown was also a hotbed of liberation politics, and here where former President Nelson Mandela first called for the now ruling African National Congress (ANC) to take up armed resistance against racial segregation.

“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,” Mr Mandela recalled in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Promised return

The ANC had promised after winning power in 1994 to return Sophiatown to its former name.

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 nine years to complete the process.

In recent years multi-racial people have moved back into what had become new subsidised white housing, and some say the area is once again becoming a friendly multi-racial neighbourhood.

A few current residents emerged from their homes to be drawn into the renaming festivities.

Among them, 37-year-old Stander Kotze, a struggling white mechanic, and his two young children.

Mr Kotze, who grew up in the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement, was delighted by what he saw.

“You get spoon-fed to hate other people just because they are different,” he said. “But this is change. It’s beautiful and it can only get better.”

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