Sophiatown again, 50 years on

14 February 2006

People danced and sang in the streets in celebration of the renaming of Sophiatown this weekend, much in the spirit of the lively suburb of 50 years ago, which was demolished by the apartheid government.

The Johannesburg city council took the decision in 1997 to re-instate the old name Sophiatown, replaced in the early 1960s by the apartheid government with the name Triomf (“triumph”). That renaming was done to mark the flattening of the suburb and the moving in of white, working class families where the vibrant, cosmopolitan suburb used to exist.

On Saturday, 11 February the process finally came to fruition when Mayor Amos Masondo renamed the suburb. The ceremony was attended by Adelaide Tambo; members of the Xuma family from the Eastern Cape; the consul-general of India, Suresh Goel; Father Timothy Stanton, a senior member of Anglican Community of the Resurrection; judge Fikile Bam, an ex-Sophiatown resident; several dozen former Sophiatown residents; and several hundred others.

Vibrant community

“The name Sophiatown evokes memories of a vibrant, creative, multi-cultural community, a place where artists, writers and musicians flourished, against the odds, in an atmosphere of racial tolerance,” Masondo said.

“Long before Soweto became a heritage destination, Sophiatown was where urban culture found its pulse and rhythm in the 1940s and 1950s.”

The renaming took place in a marquee erected in Sophiatown Park, with intermittent rain failing to dampen the high spirits of the day. The suburb has been called Triomf and Sophiatown interchangeably for several years.

Seventy-seven year old Irene Kau, sitting at a table with other residents of the old Sophiatown, said she was happy to witness the renaming of the suburb. “That pain does not go away, every time you come here it’s revived,” she said, recounting her forced removal.

She said that on the day her family was moved and dumped in Diepkloof, it was raining too. In total, about 65 000 people were removed from the suburb.

‘Closes the circle’

Dr Mongezi Guma, programme director and minister at the local Anglican church, set the tone for the name change, at the same time saying that the rainy day “closes the circle”.

“A name is a name – why should we care? A name is something that gives identity to people, it locates a person in the broader scheme of things. A name makes you different,” he said, to much agreement from the audience. “In the minds of those who had lived here it was Triomf.” And there was more nodding of heads.

Guma’s message was one of reconciliation of the old and new residents of Sophiatown. “We want to marry our ancestors in a way to look into the future together. We want to marry the memory of Sophiatown to the memory of Triomf.”

The removals started on 9 February 1955 and continued until 1963, by which time the residents had been removed and most of the suburb had been flattened. Several buildings escaped the bulldozers: the Christ the King Anglican Church, where Archbishop Trevor Huddleston preached, Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma’s house and St Joseph’s Home for Orphans.

‘Celebration’

“This is a day of celebration, not a day of triumph,” Guma added.

Singer Hanne Koster stepped up to the podium and sang her song Sophiatown, with the chorus line, “Whose triumph are you, Sophiatown?”

Then diva legends Abigail Kubeka and Thandi Klaasen took the stage, and the audience just couldn’t keep to their seats. Several seventy-somethings found space to dance, between tables and chairs, and their hips and shoulders moved like their grey hair wasn’t there.

The cast from the play Sophiatown also sang several songs from the 1950s, bringing a nostalgic note to the day.

Dr Xuma’s house

Dr Xuma's Toby Street house
Dr Xuma’s Toby Street house, now a national monument

There were many famous Sophiatown residents, one of whom was Dr Xuma, the suburb’s doctor and president of the ANC from 1939 to 1949.

City councillor Nandi Mayathula-Khoza paid tribute to him. “The son of uneducated ordinary parents, he became a highly qualified medical doctor, with a string of degrees from universities in America, England and Scotland. He rose from herdboy, shipping clerk, and hotel and train waiter to head the liberation movement in his country.”

Xuma opened a surgery in Toby Street in Sophiatown in 1927, naming it Empilweni (“health”). The house, considered a mansion by his neighbours, is now a national monument, and a doctor’s family once again lives in it.

Mayathula-Khoza outlined the contribution Xuma made to the ANC during his years as president: paid debts owed; established an effective branch structure and instituted provincial congresses; introduced a new constitution; eliminated the house of chiefs; signed a pact with the SA Indian Congress; and gave women equal rights. He acted as unofficial delegate to the United Nations in 1946.

Xuma and his American wife were finally removed from their house in 1959. They went to live in Dube, Soweto. He died in Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital in 1962 and is buried in Brixton Cemetery.

Cultural diversity

As part of the celebrations, Masondo unveiled a heritage plaque on the wall of his old home. He reminded the audience of the cultural diversity that had existed in the suburb.

“For the white establishment, the threat posed by Sophiatown was cultural as well as political. Sophiatown was a grand experiment in the management of cultural diversity. Sophiatown culture was itself a form of local resistance, a way of rejecting the government’s apartheid culture and institutionalised racism.”

Street name changes

Masondo also raised the issue of changing the suburb’s street names. In 2004 the City changed a number of names in Newtown, in an effort to reflect the broader history of the country. But he rejected the idea for Sophiatown.

“Because of their history, Sophiatown’s historic street names are in a different category. For former residents, these street names become important place-markers, holding a store of bittersweet memories. While there may be streets in other areas that could be renamed, Sophiatown street names have become almost sacred, and must remain as important links with our past.”

In conclusion, Masondo said: “Sophiatown is the past we dare not forget. It is the future we must invest in. All of us without exception have a responsibility to help create the future that will be the envy of the world – a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society. This is where we are going. We should defend and deepen this achievement – a healed nation.”

The rain had stopped and the mayor led the crowds on a street parade through the suburb, with the South African Police Service band playing grand tunes from the back of a truck, followed by a dance troupe in colourful costumes.

The procession walked several blocks up the road to Xuma’s house, where the plaque was unveiled. Then it snaked around the corner and down towards St Joseph’s home, where wreaths were laid at the gate for Huddleston, whose ashes are buried at Christ the King Church.

The seventy-somethings, most with heads of white hair, walked along in the procession, not wanting to miss any part of the celebration.

‘People stay the same’

Along the way, former Triomf residents watched from behind their garden gates as the procession moved past them. They said they didn’t mind the name change. “Sophia is an Afrikaans name, anyway,” said some.

Positive things had come from the day, like cleaning the streets, they added. “People stay the same, a name is a name. It makes no difference.”

The procession then moved back to the park, where a Sophiatown great, Hugh Masekela, was waiting to blow his trumpet. He was one of the original members of the Trevor Huddleston Band, having been given his first trumpet by the priest.

Lunch was served, and Triomf was Sophiatown again, 50 years later.

Source: City of Johannesburg