Remembering Sophiatown

Friday, May 16, 2014

By Shannon Stockwell

Can Themba’s short story “The Suit” takes place in Sophiatown, a small suburb of Johannesburg, in the mid 1950s. The township was a tangle of contradictions during the middle of the twentieth century. It was one of the only places in all of South Africa where black people could legally own property. Although the location wasn’t great (it was near a sewer) and the township was small, the prospect of some freedom in a environment of oppressive apartheid laws was enticing for South Africans of color—including people with mixed and Asian heritage. This led to overcrowding and slum conditions, which led to violence and poverty, but Sophiatown’s unique diversity cultivated a vibrant community of art and culture; some of the best South African musicians and writers of the 1950s lived in Sophiatown.

We Won't Move, Sophiatown,
by Jürgen Schadeberg
(jurgenschadeberg.com)
With its need for total racial segregation, however, the Afrikaner National Party found Sophiatown’s existence unacceptable. The government declared that the majority of the housing was in need of immediate repair or demolition. Fixing the housing problem for the current residents was never the government’s intent, however: on a rainy morning in February 1955, the National Party sent armed policemen and trucks to begin forced evictions of the residents. Over the next four years, more than 65,000 Sophiatowners were displaced to various government-controlled townships. Sophiatown was bulldozed, rebuilt, and renamed Triomf—and resettled with white residents.

For the artists who were once inspired by Sophiatown, its destruction was symbolic of white Afrikaner triumph over black South African art and freedom. Triomf became a working-class white neighborhood and remained that way until apartheid rule was overthrown in the 1990s. In 2006, Johannesburg’s mayor restored the name Sophiatown. Residents claimed it didn’t matter: “A name is a name,” they said. But the mayor felt differently: “A name is something that gives identity to people. . . . Sophiatown is the past we dare not forget.”

To read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Suit in our Words on Plays click here to purchase a copy. For tickets to The Suit visit act-sf.org/thesuit
 
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