Sophiatown, Past and Present

by | Nov 27, 2011 | Johannesburg, Museums and Buildings, Tours | 18 comments

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.

A typical Sophiatown house, although atypical in that it has no fence or wall around it. A fence-less, un-walled house is a highly unusual sight in Joburg.

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: 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.

This photograph, on display at the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre, says it all. These people eventually did move though. They had no choice.

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.

Walking Sophiatown.

I enjoyed photographing the dogs of Sophiatown.

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.

A mosaic depicting Trevor Huddleston outside Christ the King.

After wandering the church gardens, we hiked up the road to another building that survived the removals.

This house is privately owned. Mbali is trying to find out the story behind it.

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 wall outside the centre (photo taken last May, when the sky was prettier).

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.

Dr. Xuma’s house.

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.

Mbali tells a tale about Sophiatown musician Dolly Rathebe.

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.

There’s something they could not demolish,’ Mbali told us. ‘The spirit of Sophiatown.’


  1. Kathryn McCullough

    Wow, it’s hard to imagine a government leveling a suburb only because it was racially mixed. So sad. But it’s great to hear the suburb has been rebuilt. Long live Sophiatown and all that it represents!

    • 2summers

      Yeah, apartheid was a strange time. The government did all kinds of things that don’t make any sense. But I guess we humans are good at that.

  2. eremophila

    Thanks for the tour, I enjoyed it 🙂 Wishing you peace and calmness ♥

  3. Joburg Expat

    So glad to see this post. I also hate when real life interferes with blogging – I have a looooong list of topics to write about because the people in my house seem to always want to eat and have clean laundry… I haven’t been to Sophiatown and was actually just thinking about it last week on my way to Soweto, wondering where it actually was and if that name at least still existed. So I’m very happy to see this post about it. I want to go visit too and will try to drag the family along (if only for that spectacular view of Joburg)!

    • 2summers

      Hey Sine, glad you enjoyed the post! The Cultural and Heritage Centre is definitely worth a visit and doesn’t take too long to walk through. Good for teenage attention spans 🙂

  4. Jenna

    This is an incredible post! I also live just around the corner from SophiaTown and sometimes we like to just drive through it because of all of its diversity and all of the little antique shops. Amazing story – I would love to do this walking tour some time.

    ps It was really great meeting you at Thanksgiving!

    • 2summers

      Hi Jenna, it was great meeting you too. Hope to see you again soon. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      You mentioned that you like to browse the antique shops in Sophiatown. I think you might actually be thinking of Albertville, not Sophiatown — the two suburbs are adjacent so it’s an easy thing to confuse them. Sophiatown actually has very few shops of any kind, as far as I can tell. There is a shopping center with a ShopRite in it but I think that’s about it.

      I’m going to check out your blog now 🙂

  5. revolvermaedle

    hi there; i really enjoyed reading this one & got homesick straight. i work on and in sophiatown – for a phd thesis on how sophiatown matters in the present – and would love to meet with you for an interview – are you in town in some weeks? i write this from germany & will be back early feb. my blogS on: much love to kofifi, kat

    • 2summers

      Hi Kat, yes, I should be here in Feb. Let me know when you’re here and maybe we can meet for coffee or something. Good luck with the thesis! Sophiatown seems like a great thesis topic.

      • revolvermaedle

        oh, wonderful! you have a great time in december; i would be very happy if we could meet in 2012. happy day & loads of inspiration for your words – k

        • Kerryn

          Hi Heather,

          Kerryn here. Manuel’s friend. I came across this blog piece while researching for a community project we are doing during our training as art therapists. Did you ever meet with revolver maedle? I would be really interested in the thesis. We are working with the stories of creativity, courage and resilience in the people of the area with our groups and I am keen to find as much as I can on the area. It is so cool that I find so much on your blog. Thank you!

          • 2summers

            Hi Kerryn, thanks for the comment! I haven’t met Revolver Maedle but sounds intriguing. All the best!

  6. Susarie Coetzee

    Hi all, I came across this blog when I was looking to find a photo of my late mom that appeared in a Johannesburg newspaper in the early 1960’s. The Heritage and Cultural Centre at 73 Toby Street was the house neighbouring our house which was at 71 Toby Street.

    My mom received the house from the then Community Development in the early 1960’s. We moved from another suburb for poor whites by the name of Montclare to this house in Triomf which is where I had my first eve memories from.

    I remember that as a child I often walked down Toby Street and there was an open veld area across the road from us which remained unbuilt until around 1970’ish. I also remember old car bodies abandoned in this veld and that I once found a piece of a burnt Bible and some other pieces of people’s belongings.

    As a small child I didn’t know why the area was the way it was and why that piece of Bible was burnt, only in later life as an adult I learnt the truth of what happened. I am sure that many children who grew up in Triomf in the 1960’s onwards until democracy came along and all these facts were brought up again and people took note, didn’t know how it came that we could live there.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret having grown up there, I had a good childhood even though my mom became a single parent when I was in Standard 4 and we struggled financially as we lived off one income, my mom bringing up three children and with only some financial help from her late mother.

    I do however feel sad for all those families who had been thrown out of Sophiatown in the way that they were to make way for Triomf all those years ago. My late mom sold her house in 2005 and it was turned into a student let. Later on I learned that the house had been flattened and a museum had been built on that ground, now neighbouring the Heritage and Cultural Centre – or part of it, I am not too sure as I haven’t been back there to see exactly what building is on the property now.

    Here is a link of Google maps showing the small yellow house that was the house that I grew up in and as I said had since been flattened.,27.983416,3a,75y,283.63h,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s1_JgoE5K705rl6cEnYKUlQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xff94ffb8f223d1f9!6m1!1e1

    • 2summers

      Hi Susarie, thank you so much for sharing your memories in this comment – it’s extremely moving. It must have been very strange to learn that the suburb you grew up in has such a crazy history. Apartheid was very strange.

      I haven’t been to the heritage center lately but I do seem to remember that they might have expanded the property a few years ago. I’ll look more carefully the next time I’m in the area.

    • 2summers

      Susarie, I drove past the Heritage Centre today and your old property has indeed become an extension of the Centre devoted to Trevor Huddleston. It’s actually quite lovely 🙂

      • Susarie Coetzee


        Thank you for confirming what I had been told by others that still stay in the area. Looking back and knowing what type of person my mother was, not looking down on anyone whether sex, race, financial or social status etc. etc. she must be pleased, looking down and know that something good has come out of her selling her house.

        I remember that she was not impressed about how the owner who probably sold the house to the body who built this extension of the Heritage Centre had turned it into a student let. This obviously didn’t last long. My mom sold the house to the next owner in 2005 for only R125 000.00.

        The house (then yellow) as shown in the Google map on the link I supplied, (shown toe 72 Toby Street but should be 71) is how the house looked after it was turned into a student let. I remember that after my mom moved out she never wanted to go back and see the house.

        In 2006 she moved to my sister in Cape Town where she remained until her death in 2010. I am sure that if she was alive today she would have wanted to go and see the extension to the Heritage Centre.

        I am currently not working and have been out of work for two and a half years so petrol is a luxury to have. If and when I find employment again and have the funds for petrol I will go and have a look myself and also take a tour through the Heritage Centre.



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