My apologies for the recent dearth of 2Summers reading material. I’ve neglected my online personality of late — real life has interfered. I’m trying to get back on the blogging wagon.
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I’ve been meaning to write a post about Sophiatown for months. It’s a Jozi suburb just a mile or two from Melville. Sophiatown appears mundane — like any other middle class neighborhood. But beneath the surface it’s an extraordinary place.
Last weekend I took a stroll around Sophiatown courtesy of Past Experiences, a local company that specializes in Jozi walking tours, and the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre.
Most Joburgers aren’t exactly sure where Sophiatown is. I lived just around the corner from it for several months before discovering it was there. For a long time I thought Sophiatown was near the city centre, where there is a popular lounge/restaurant that bears its name: www.sophiatownbarlounge.co.za. No. Sophiatown-the-bar is named after Sophiatown-the-suburb, but the two are geographically separated by a few miles.
There’s a reason for this confusion: For more than half a century, Sophiatown ceased to exist. In 1955 the apartheid government swept into Sophiatown — which was a multicutural, artistically vibrant community and one of the few places in Jozi where people of different races lived together — and leveled it. Over a number of years the police forcefully removed all of Sophiatown’s residents — mostly blacks, coloureds, and Indians — and relocated them to various townships outside the city. The government tore down all of Sophiatown’s houses and businesses and built a brand-new, all-white suburb called ‘Triomf’. As in ‘Triumph’. Crazy.
Triomf officially became Sophiatown again in 2006. This most fascinating of Jozi neighborhoods has regained its rightful place in history.
It’s a history that the world knows little about. The ‘real’ Sophiatown of the 1940s is long gone, and its hard to reconstruct the history of a place that was razed to the ground and covered over. Organizations like Past Experiences and the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre are coaxing Sophiatown’s history back to life.
Our tour began at the Trevor Huddleston CR Memorial Centre (more on Trevor Huddleston later), where we met Jo and Tania from Past Experiences and Mbali from the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre. Mbali was our guide for the day. One of the first things she showed us was a dead tree.
Mbali describes the life of the Heritage Tree. (Full disclosure: I originally toured Sophiatown in May but never blogged about it. A couple of the photos, including this one, were taken during my first tour.)
This dead oak is called the Heritage Tree. It lived on a Sophiatown sidewalk for decades and served as a gathering place for residents. During the forced removals, two people committed suicide under this tree because they didn’t want to leave Sophiatown. The tree died in 2009 and was brought to rest in the parking lot of the Trevor Huddleston Centre, which hosts a library and various community development projects.
Mbali is a fantastic tour guide. She was born long after Sophiatown’s forced removals, but she lives there now and has worked hard to uncover Sophiatown stories that were buried in the past.
We left the Trevor Huddleston Centre and took a stroll through town.
We stopped to look around at Christ the King Anglican Church on Rey Street. Christ the King was built in 1933 and is one of a handful of buildings that survived the forced removals. (The church was deconsecrated in 1964 and eventually turned into a community centre. It became a church again in 1997.)
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Trevor Huddleston was head of the Anglican mission in Sophiatown and served as rector of Christ the King. He went on to become a leading anti-apartheid activist.
After wandering the church gardens, we hiked up the road to another building that survived the removals.
Mbali also showed us the site of the old cinema, which was torn down and replaced with a house. The wall that once surrounded the cinema remains — the owner of the house has left it standing. Stories like that don’t make for good photography, but they’re what this tour was all about. Sophiatown today is more about stories than images.
We finished the tour at the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre, located in the last original Sophiatown house.
The house was owned by Dr. AB Xuma, who served as president of the ANC from 1940 to 1949. Dr. Xuma was removed from Sophiatown just like everyone else but his house remained, perhaps because the government couldn’t bring itself to tear down such a lovely building.
As I said in my previous post, I love compact museums that tell a good story without exhausting me. The Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre is one of those museums. I highly recommend it.
I’ve been putting off this post because Sophiatown is a hard place to write about and photograph. And I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I’ve got a lot more to learn about Sophiatown, as does the rest of the world.
Go and learn for yourself — the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre is at the corner of Toby Street and Edward Road. Also, the Centre hosts live jazz on random weekend days each month. Learn more here.
And if you do make it to Sophiatown, take a drive past the Sparrow School at the corner of Gerty and Herman Streets. You’ll find one of the best Jozi skyline views in town.