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Tracing the Footprints of Ghosts in Johannesburg’s Sophiatown

November 7, 2016

This July, I arrived in Johannesburg for the first time. A historian of Modern Britain, I had recently begun researching British activists who participated in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and their influence on the discourse of race relations in Britain. After several visits to archives in Britain and months poring over documents I had gathered there, I was eager to follow in the footsteps of some of my protagonists. My first stop was the Sophiatown Heritage Centre dedicated to the memory of a ghost neighbourhood. Sophiatown was an abnormality in South African terms – a neighbourhood in which black South Africans could own their houses, where a local culture was forged in jazz clubs, in shebeens, in crowded rooms and dark allies. The cultural production of its inhabitants had a lasting impact on literature, journalism, fashion, music and speech. It was the product of Johannesburg’s rapid urbanisation in all its gore and glory. In 1955, the state executed its removal plan: Sophiatown was razed to the ground and its 70,000 inhabitants were forcefully removed to an improvised township 12 kilometres away. It was then rebuilt, populated by whites and renamed Triomf. The ruin of Sophiatown spelled out the meaning of the government’s policy of “separateness.” The Group Areas Act, three acts of Parliament from 1950, 1957 and 1966, under which the removal in Sophiatown was facilitated, gave license to removals around the country. The legislation allocated residential and business sections in urban areas according to racial groupings. It excluded non-whites from city centres and condemned them to hours-long commutes to work. In exchange for premium locations residents were assigned peripheral, smaller and undeveloped areas, lacking proper housing and infrastructure such as running water, electricity or access to health, care or education facilities.

In the past year Sophiatown has been on my mind a lot. I am researching the Anglican monk and anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston who lived in and served the area between his arrival there in 1943 and 1955 when he was recalled to England by his superiors.  Life in Sophiatown had a profound impact on Huddleston and politicized him considerably. He aligned himself with the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups. Back in England, Huddleston wrote about his experience in South Africa in his bestselling 1956 memoir, Naught for your Comfort. After the book was published, Huddleston became a renowned international political figure and a frequent commentator on South Africa and race issues in general. He acted as vice president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement between 1961and 1981, and as president from 1983 until 1994. When the apartheid regime fell, he returned to South Africa where he spent his last years, reunited with old comrades such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.



On the pages of his book, the rubble of Sophiatown comes alive – which made me eager to see Sophiatown; to walk up the hill to Huddleston’s church, to peer into the rooms of St. Peter’s school where he was headmaster, and where future ANC leaders such as Oliver Tambo had studied and taught. If only I could to steal a glance at the young Hugh Masekela playing the trumpet in the jazz group that Huddleston sponsored or see Desmond Tutu as a child. I strained my imagination to place writers such as Bloke Modisane and Can Themba on the streets of Sof’town maybe accompanied by the British journalist and author Anthony Sampson, the editor of Drum Magazine. I wanted to observe Huddleston at the Odin cinema on the night of 28 June 1953 as 1200 people gathered to protest the removal scheme. The meeting was attended by important ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Yusuf Cachalia a prominent Indian Congress leader. When Cachalia was arrested, tension rose. Huddleston famously diffused it, and calmed both protesters and the armed police. I learned from Dr Katharina Fink, an expert on Sophiatown culture, about the work she did with local researchers at the heritage centre in Johannesburg dedicated to Sophiatown. Consequently, I was intrigued to see what a place devoted to a ghost neighbourhood would be like, so I paid it a visit.



We entered the house of Dr Alfred B. Xuma, the president of the ANC from 1940 to 1949 - one of the only two houses to survive demolition. Dr Xuma lived and practiced medicine in the house that functioned as a political and social centre. We were joined there by a former resident of Sophiatown, Victor Mokhine, who shared his memories from the time with us: how he earned some pocket money outside the Odin cinema but also what he remembered of the first day of the removals. His family would leave the suburb some months later but he remembered the noise, frantic packing, and people shouting and crying. The Centre encourages former residents to share their memories of the time with its research team but also with visitors to the place. On the second floor of this modest establishment, there is a wall decorated with a huge iron grid. The former street names of Sophiatown are placed vertically on the grid in iron letters. The grid offers another opportunity for former residents to participate in the effort of commemorating the suburb: the Mix had invited them to send in their name and address and oval plaques were made with the information; hung on the grid near the respective street name. A modest attempt to return the displaced to Sophiatown.


We left the Centre to explore Sophiatown on foot (an unusual activity for visitors to Johannesburg) on our way to the Odin cinema. More accurately, we arrived at a house with a wall that separated it from another house, and was said to have been one of the Odin’s walls. Aficionados came to this conclusion because of a tinge of a smell of urine emanating from the wall. Apparently, it was a favourite spot for patrons to alleviate themselves. We stood there moved by the possibility that the great and the good put the wall to use. It was a little ridiculous – accepting a whiff of urine as a replacement for a lost community. But it was also a testament to the heroic power of story-telling: by looking for evidence of an earlier life, by adding bricks, a neon sign, echoes of laughter and voices of protest in our minds, we participated in the task of keeping Sophiatown alive.


Onwards up the hill to one of the iconic landmarks of the era, the bell tower of the Anglican Church of Christ the King in Ray Street. The church was constructed in 1933 and the bell tower was added in 1936. Although some changes were made to it in the 1960s and then in the 1970s, it was reconsecrated and restored to its former self when the Anglican Church rebought it.


A heritage plaque now commemorates the place and pays tribute to Huddleston who worked there and whose ashes are buried there. An image of Huddleston surrounded by young children adorns one of the walls. This time it is combined with an homage to the 1940 painting “Yellow Houses” by Gerard Sekoto that depicts a street in Sophiatown. The man and the urban vista were now made one.



As I inhaled the air, I tried to capture the sights: the urban skyline on one side, the veld on another. The small yard was filled with aloes in bloom. This, I knew, was as close as I could ever hope to follow in the footsteps of the subject of my historical research. It was limited but I added the sensation to my research dossier.






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