Sophiatown, Gauteng: Wikis


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Sophiatown (pronounced with a long, stressed i) (also known as Sof'town or Kofifi) is a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. Originally called Sophiatown, it was destroyed, and a white suburb called Triomf (Triumph) was established in its place by the apartheid government, before the name Sophiatown was officially restored in 2006.



Sophiatown was one of four freehold townships outside of the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Along with Alexandra Township, Martindale, and Newclare, Sophiatown was one of the few places where black Africans could own land before a 1913 law prohibited freeholding for them.

Sophiatown became the symbolic center of black culture around Johannesburg in the 1940s and ‘50s. Like Harlem in New York City, it was a focus of arts, politics, religion, and entertainment.

The township was founded in 1899 and named after the original investors’ wife. Whites stopped buying property there when the Johannesburg Town Council located a new sewage disposal facility next to Sophiatown. Africans, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese began buying unsold plots and building houses. As segregation and apartheid became more and more entrenched in South Africa, people of all racial groups lived in Sophiatown.

After World War I, the population grew rapidly as the country industrialized and the Johannesburg Town Council worked to clear slums in the central city. People built shanties in their yards to earn cash from boarders forced out of the city. White landowners built barracks and rented them out. Many daily activities took place in communal yards and streets. Poverty, overcrowding, violence, and the lack of public services characterized life in Sophiatown. But life was also characterized by a sense of community, music, dance, and home-brewed beer. Beer brewing, mostly done by women to supplement their incomes, and beer drinking, mostly done by men, were illegal. The women’s drinking rooms also became centers for vocal and instrumental music and dance.

Churches were vital in running schools and clinics in Sophiatown, but their efforts were inadequate to meet the needs of the growing population.

There were two movie theaters in Sophiatown. One of them, the Odeon, was often used for political meetings. The Odeon was also the site of the Jazz at the Odeon concerts that helped make The Jazz Epistles famous in Sophiatown.

After the Second World War, the population of unemployed and unschooled young men in Sophiatown grew rapidly. Residence permits were not required there and bad references in one’s passbook did not automatically condemn a person. At a time when apartheid laws sent men to jail for not carrying their passbooks, being labeled a criminal was not a significant cause for sorrow. These circumstances led to an increase in the number of gangs and crime. A gangster was known in township slang as a tsotsi — a corruption of the word “zoot-suit”, in reference to the young men's fashionable clothes. They spoke slang called Tsotsitaal.

As industry in Johannesburg grew, Sophiatown became the home of a rapidly expanding black workforce, as it was convenient and close to town. It was, however, one of the oldest black settlements in Johannesburg and held an almost symbolic importance for the 50,000 black South Africans that Sophiatown was home to, both in terms of its sheer vibrance and its unique culture.

In 1950, the National Party government passed the Group Areas Act as an extension of apartheid. The law specified separate residence areas for each racial group in the country. Because Sophiatown was home to people from many groups, they were scheduled for “removal” in 1953.

Many advocated and organised residents to resist the clearance of Sophiatown, notably the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela, Father Trevor Huddleston, Helen Joseph and Ruth First.

Removal of Sophiatown began on 9th February 1955 under the Western Areas Removal Scheme. In the early hours, heavily armed police entered Sophiatown to force residents out of their homes and load their belongings onto government trucks. The residents were taken to a large tract of land, thirteen miles from the city centre, to the aptly-named empty fields of Meadowlands (now part of Soweto), that the government had purchased in 1953. Resistance was peaceful.[1][2]

The government bulldozed Sophiatown by the end of 1963 (except for the Anglican Church of Christ the King—ironically a center of resistance to the removals) and rebuilt it as a white-only suburb named Triomf (Afrikaans for triumph). The ANC government restored the name Sophiatown in the late 1990s, although the name change was only completed in February 2006 [1].


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.

Trevor Huddleston, Naught for Your Comfort

Something in me died, a piece of me died, with the dying of Sophiatown; it was in the winter of 1958 ... I was a stranger walking the streets of blitzed Sophiatown, and although the Western Areas removal scheme had been a reality dating back some two years I had not become fully conscious of it. In the name of slum clearance they had brought the bulldozers and gored into her body, and for a brief moment, looking down Good Street, Sophiatown was like one of its own many victims; a man gored by the knives of Sophiatown, lying in the open gutters, a raisin in the smelling drains, dying of multiple stab wounds, gaping wells gushing forth blood; the look of shock and bewilderment, of horror and incredulity, on the face of the dying man. My Sophiatown was a blitzed area which had suffered the vengeance of political conquest, a living memorial to the vandalism to Dr. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd; my world was falling away, Martha Maduma's shebeen was gone, she had moved her business to Meyer Street, but the new shebeen lacked the colour and the smell of the long passage, the stench from the puddles of urine... Walking down Good Street and up Gerty Street was like walking through a ghost town of deserted houses and demolished homes, of faded dreams and broken lives, surrounded by rousing memories, some exciting others terrifying; for Sophiatown was like our nice-time parties or the sound of the penny whistle, a mounting compulsion to joyousness, but always with the hint of pain. Sophiatown was also like our week-ends, it was the reason, or rather the excuse we used to stop the progress of time, to celebrate a kind of wish fulfillment; we cherished Sophiatown because it brought together such a great concentration of people, we did not live in it, we were Sophiatown.

Bloke Modisane, Blame Me on History

Sophiatown also had its beauty; picturesque and intimate like most ghettoes. . . . Mansions and quaint cottages . . . stood side by side with rusty wood-and-iron shacks, locked in a fraternal embrace of filth and felony. . . . The rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, all knitted together in a colourful fabric that ignored race or class structures.

Don Mattera, Sophiatown Coming of Age in South Africa

Music and arts in Sophiatown

A number of South African writers, including Can Themba and some writers for Drum magazine also lived in Sophiatown. Artist Gerard Sekoto painted Sophiatown street scenes. A number of jazz bands were created in Sophiatown, including The Jazz Epistles, whose members included Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi and Hugh Masekela.

Well-known residents

See also

  • Drum, a 2004 film about Sophiatown


  1. ^ Hart, D.M. & Pirie, G.H. The sight and soul of Sophiatown. Geographical Review, 74 (1984), 38–47
  2. ^ Hart, D.M. & Pirie, G.H. The transformation of Johannesburg's black western areas. Journal of Urban History, 11 (1985), 387–410.

External links

Coordinates: 26°10′36″S 27°58′54″E / 26.1767°S 27.9816°E / -26.1767; 27.9816



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