Sophiatown: recalling the loss


It was on 9 February 1955 that the forced removal of over 60 000 people from Sophiatown began. Fifty years on, the City of Johannesburg pays tribute to the sons and daughters of its lost suburb.

Mural of Sophiatown
The mural ‘Sekoto in Sophiatown’ depicts Archbishop Trevor Huddleston walking the dusty streets of the famous suburb. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Lucille Davie

Fifty years ago the first families were forcibly removed from their homes in Sophiatown, their possessions loaded on the back of police trucks, and dumped in Meadowlands in Soweto.

Over the next eight years the vibrant Sophiatown was flattened and removed from the maps of Johannesburg to give way for Triomf – Afrikaans for “triumph” – a residential suburb for whites created by the policy of apartheid.

On Wednesday 9 February 2005, the City of Johannesburg held a memorial service for those displaced families, followed by a tour of the suburb, with former residents telling their stories.

It was a cold morning on Ray Street on 9 February 1955 when 2 000 policemen, armed with guns, knobkerries and rifles, forcefully moved the families of Sophiatown to Meadowlands, Soweto.

Former residents tell their stories

“It was very difficult for me to lose a house which I was born in”, says Patricia Mokoena-Harvey, who stayed at Gibson Street. “Children were screaming and crying. They didn’t understand what was happening – and it was very cold and raining. It was very traumatic.”

A symbolic removal was re-enacted at 18 Ray Street, reflecting on the pain and sense of loss suffered by the community.

“We were really suffering here in Sophiatown”, says Joane Mogoboya, formerly of Good Street, who was part of the second group of people moved in 1956.

“Apartheid was very bad. Our parents owned shebeens, and when the police came things would be very bad”, Moboboya says. “They would handcuff my father and make my mother carry a case of beers on her head until the police who ordered her to do so changed their shift.”

Mogoboya recalls how the “ladies” from Sophiatown used to dress up for the parties: “Designer clothes were our thing. Things that you are wearing now, we used to wear them. It’s just that now they have changed them a bit.”

‘We were taken by surprise’

Sophiatown was established in 1904. Before 1913 black South Africans had freehold rights, and they bought properties in the suburb. By the 1920s whites had moved out, leaving behind a vibrant community of blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese.

When the removals scheme was promulgated, Sophiatown residents united to protest the forced removals, creating famous the slogan “Ons dak nie, ons phola hier” (We won’t move).

“Father Trevor Huddleston, Nelson Mandela, Helen Joseph and Ruth First played an important role by becoming involved in the resistance”, says Victor Mokhine, who lived on Good Street.

“We got a notice that we were going to be moved on 12 February 1955, but we were taken by surprise by thousands of policemen and soldiers, who were heavily armed”, Mokhine adds.

“We were still preparing ourselves to protest the removals, and we had no choice because no one was ready for them – and besides, they were armed.”

Some 65 000 people were taken to Meadowlands, Lenasia, Western Coloured Township (now Westbury) and Noordgesig.

Those who did not qualify for resettlement had to find their own accommodation. Many people also moved to Orlando East and other parts of Soweto.

“Because of the government’s racial classifications and strict separation of group areas, many families were split up”, says former resident Paul Mashinini. “Some members would be classified as coloured, others as black. Therefore they would be forced to live in separate townships.”

Mahinini adds: “Number 1 Vincent Street, Meadowlands used to be the office of the Native Resettlement Board, where people had to report when they arrived in Meadowlands. Each family would be given two loaves of bread and a pint of milk. The family’s furniture and goods would be unloaded in front of their new home.”

The removals continued for over eight years. Blue-collar Afrikaners were moved in, and still largely occupy the small houses that replaced the lively but desperately poor three-bedroomed homes and backyard shacks of Sophiatown.

Archbishop Trevor Huddleston

The Anglican Church of Christ the King in Ray Street, Triomf is the only complete remnant of Sophiatown.

The church was made famous in the 1940s and ’50s by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. Born in England in 1913, Huddleston came to South Africa in 1943 as an Anglican priest. He spent most of his time in Sophiatown and became one of apartheid’s most strident opponents – which is what led to him being recalled to the land of his birth in 1955.

Huddleston never underestimated the effect Sophiatown had had on him. He spent the rest of his life longing to come back.

He returned in South Africa in 1991 and was met at the airport by his great friend Walter Sisulu. He attempted to settle in South Africa in 1995, spending two months living in an old people’s home, but it didn’t work out and he returned to England, where he died in 1998 at the age of 85.

In his book Naught for Your Comfort (1956) he writes: “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.”

Huddleston’s ashes are buried in the grounds of the Christ the King church, under monolith-shaped stones.

After Wednesday’s tour and recollections, the former residents and guests moved to the South African Police Service offices in Meadowlands for lunch.

It was from the Meadowlands police station that the police officers that undertook the removals 50 years ago came.

Originally published 10 February 2005

Source: City of Johannesburg

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