Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Sophiatown was one of four freehold townships outside of the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Along with Alexandra Township, Martindale, and Newclare, Sophiatown was one of the few places where Africans could own land before a 1913 law prohibited freeholding for them.
The township was founded in 1899 and named after the original investors’ wife. Whites stopped buying property there when the Johannesburg Town Council located a new sewage disposal facility next to Sophiatown. Africans, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese began buying unsold plots and building houses. As segregation and apartheid became more and more entrenched in South Africa, people of all racial groups lived in Sophiatown.
After World War I, the population grew rapidly as the country industrialized and the Johannesburg Town Council worked to clear slums in the central city. People built shanties in their yards to earn cash from boarders forced out of the city. White landowners built barracks and rented them out. Many daily activities took place in communal yards and streets. Poverty, overcrowding, violence, and the lack of public services characterized life in Sophiatown. But life was also characterized by a sense of community, music, dance, and home-brewed beer. Beer brewing, mostly done by women to supplement their incomes, and beer drinking, mostly done by men, were illegal. The women’s drinking rooms also became centers for vocal and instrumental music and dance.
Churches were vital in running schools and clinics in Sophiatown, but their efforts were inadequate to meet the needs of the growing population.
There were two movie theaters in Sophiatown. One of them, the Odin, was often used for political meetings. The Odin was also the site of the Jazz at the Odin concerts that helped make The Jazz Epistles famous in Sophiatown.
After the Second World War, the population of unemployed and unschooled young men in Sophiatown grew rapidly. Residence permits were not required there and bad references in one’s passbook did not automatically condemn a person. At a time when apartheid laws sent men to jail for not carrying their passbooks, being labeled a criminal was not a significant cause for sorrow. These circumstances led to an increase in the number of gangs and crime. The gangsters were called Tsotsis based on the pidgin (a combination of Afrikaans and English) they spoke.
In 1950, the National Party government passed the Group Areas Act as an extension of apartheid. The law specified separate residence areas for each racial group in the country. Because Sophiatown was home to people from many groups, they were scheduled for “removal” in 1953.
The African National Congress (ANC), led by Father Trevor Huddleston, Nelson Mandela, Helen Joseph and Ruth First, organized Sophiatown residents to resist the removal for more than a year. However in 1955, when armed police began the removals (to the aptly-named empty fields of Meadowlands in Soweto), resistance was only peaceful.
The government bulldozed Sophiatown by the end of 1963 (except for the Anglican Church of Christ the King -- ironically a center of resistance to the removals) and rebuilt it as a white only suburb named Triomf (Triumph). The ANC government restored the name Sophiatown in 1995.
Music and Arts in Sophiatown
A number of South African writers, including Can Themba and others who wrote for Drum magazine , lived in Sophiatown. Artist Gerard Sekoto painted Sophiatown street scenes. A number of jazz bands were created in Sophiatown, including The Jazz Epistles, whose members included Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketsi and Hugh Masekela.
Well Known Residents
Trevor Huddleston, in the 1950s, he was pastor at Christ the King Anglican Church and lived in Sophiatown. His political involvement with the ANC was the cause for his recall to the UK. His ashes reside next to his former church.
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