The town destroyed to stop black and white people mixing

Vehicles loaded with people and their possessions leaving Sophiatown Image copyright Getty Images

Sophiatown, in the suburbs of Johannesburg, was once known for its bohemian lifestyle and vibrant music scene. But 60 years ago, the South African government decided to clear the multi-racial neighbourhood to turn it into a whites-only area.

The sound of horses' hooves and shouts from police woke 10-year-old Victor Mokine early one morning.

It was February 1955, and Mokine lived with his family in Sophiatown, home to 65,000 people - black, white, mixed-race, Chinese and Indian.

"I could see policemen on horseback in our yard. Our parents told us to stay inside the house as they thought there would be violence," he says.

"They were armed with rifles, pistols, some with machineguns. We could hear the sound of rolling trucks that had arrived to carry people's belongings."

The residents of Sophiatown had been told that they were going to be moved to a new site ten miles to the west. But in order to pre-empt any resistance, the authorities arrived three days earlier than planned, while it was still dark, catching the residents unprepared.

Image copyright Jurgen Schadeberg

When Mokine and his family eventually went outside, they realised that 2,000 police had descended on the sleeping neighbourhood.

Sophiatown was one of the few areas in South Africa at the time where black people were allowed to own land.

But the government used the Group Areas Act, which compelled different racial groups to live separately, to enforce its policy of segregation.

It had decided two years earlier that the people of Sophiatown should be moved to a new site called Meadowlands after residents in neighbouring white suburbs started agitating for their removal.

Over the next couple of days, the evictions began in earnest.

"There was a great deal of fear. Some of the policemen simply kicked the doors in, while they shouted in Afrikaans at people to get outside. It felt like a war situation," says Mokine.

Image copyright ALAMY

Paul Joseph, then a factory worker in his mid-20s and a member of the Indian Youth Congress, lived in nearby Fordsburg and went to Sophiatown the day the removals began.

"I went there and stood on the fringes and watched people being loaded onto the trucks very quietly. There was no singing, no shouting, no opposition," he says. "It was clearly [a campaign] of overpowering intimidation."

But the authorities portrayed it as a time of celebration, saying the residents were happy to get away from a "plague spot". A local news bulletin proclaimed they were rejoicing, their "hearts are filled with happy expectation" as they headed for a new home.

The "plague spot" was, until 1955, known for its musicians, artists, and writers as well as its gangsters.

There was overcrowding and shared toilets in the yard but also a relentless energy and optimism, recalls Joseph.

"People went to Sophiatown to listen to music," he says.

The scene there attracted people from across Johannesburg and musicians who later went on to become big stars, such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, started their careers performing in Sophiatown's jazz clubs.

Image copyright Jurgen Schadeberg

But this wasn't just the home of dancehalls and parties. It was also a hub of ANC activity and one of Paul Joseph's friends, a young Nelson Mandela, was a frequent visitor.

In the months leading up to the removals, the ANC and the Indian Congress organised joint protests in Sophiatown against the government's clearance plans.

Mandela, then the ANC's deputy president, gave a speech in Sophiatown's Freedom Square, telling the crowd that the time for passive resistance was over, and the ANC's local youth league launched the slogan "Removal over our dead bodies."

But when they realised how heavily armed the police were likely to be, ANC leaders - including Mandela - advised residents not to resist.

"There would have been a massacre if they had, there's no doubt about it," says Joseph.

Image copyright Jurgen Schadeberg

In August 1956, in the middle of the South African winter, Victor Mokine and his family were finally moved.

"We waited for the removal truck the whole day. By the time it arrived, it was 7pm, dark and cold," he says.

When they reached Meadowlands, they were given a dustbin, two loaves of bread and a pint of milk. An official took them to their new house.

"When we got there, they just dumped us outside with our goods. There were no ceilings in the house and the floors and walls had not been plastered. The roofing had just been laid over the bricks so the first night we arrived it was very cold, the wind was howling through the vents. We had to use bits of newspaper that night to keep it out," he says.

"There were still no shops in Meadowlands and we had to go to adjoining townships, Orlando West, to buy goods for the first year."

And although the family of 10 was now living in a five-bedroom house, much larger than the one-bedroom place they'd had in Sophiatown, the move was traumatic.

Image copyright Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre
Image caption Victor Mokine and his family were removed from Sophiatown when he was 11

"Coming home from work in the evening, people kept getting lost because there were still no streetlights in Meadowlands and the houses were identical matchbox structures.

And many families lost the men who were the heads of the households.

"They just started passing away. In the street where we lived, within three or four years I found out that most of the households had lost their main bread-winner. My own father passed away in 1963, aged 53," says Mokine.

"We attributed that to the stress they suffered."

By 1962, Sophiatown had been flattened and rebuilt as a whites-only area called Triomf. The only reminder of what had once been, was when the new residents sometimes found cutlery and pots buried in their gardens. Contractors simply built over the rubble of the demolished homes.


Image copyright Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre
Image caption Sophiatown is today once again one of Johannesburg's more diverse suburbs
  • Sophiatown was founded when speculator Hermann Tobiansky bought 237 acres of land in 1897 and named it after his wife, Sophia
  • He sold plots to white buyers, but when the council set up sewage works nearby, most of them sold up and moved out
  • Plots were later bought by black people and Sophiatown developed as a "freehold" township, where residents owned their own land

For the ANC, the campaign to save Sophiatown was a failure. But it galvanised the anti-apartheid movement and made it change its strategy, says Paul Joseph.

"It was a terrible setback for us. But the one effect it had was that it became clear that there was no other recourse but to take violent struggle.

"I got the feeling from young people, when I asked them to sign petitions, that they now wanted guns to fight the enemy. That was the trend we started moving towards," he says.

Sophiatown was the first in a series of forced removals which ripped apart old communities in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s. Under the pretext of preserving racial harmony, Indian communities in Johannesburg's western districts were ordered out of the neighbourhoods were they had lived for 70 years and forced to move to Lenasia, 20 miles south-west of the city.

But half a century later, in 2006, Triomf was renamed again and it became Sophiatown once more. Now it is one of Johannesburg's more diverse suburbs.

"Sophiatown today is beginning to look like it did then - people still greet each other in passing, children still play in the streets and in each other's houses, and women are sitting on corners waiting for the fahfee [a form of betting] number. It's just that it is less crowded now," says former resident Rasheed Subjee.

But for Victor Mokine, something was lost for good when the original Sophiatown was destroyed. "I miss the mix of different friends together. I used to have Coloured and Indian friends in Sophiatown. The tragedy of it all, is that they further broke the people's unity."

Pictures courtesy of Jurgen Schadeberg.

Victor Mokine spoke to Witness on the BBC World Service.

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