Sophiatown

Sophiatown is a place of removal and rebirth. In the 1930s, and for about two decades, Sophiatown was the one area in Johannesburg that remained diverse and unified. People lived side by side in this tiny suburb, mostly connected through arts, literature, music and drama. It was one of the most racially integrated areas in a country that had become more and more racially divided.

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Church mural depicting Sophiatown street life

In the 1950s the government began a brutal campaign against what they called ‘Black Spots.’ People were given no warning, houses were bulldozed, black people were relocated to one area, coloured people to another and Indians to another.

It happened so quickly that no-one had time to pack up, take their pets or let their families know where they were going. Sophiatown was one of South Africa’s terrible tragedies under apartheid.

Although the people of Sophiatown resisted, the area was renamed Triomf (Afrikaans for Victory) and became a white middle class area. It was only in 2006 that the suburb was reclaimed and rebirthed, and is once again called Sophiatown.

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Our wonderful tour guide – Mbali

There’s a ton of history here and some extraordinary heritage sights and buildings. I did a Sophiatown walking tour with Mbali (brilliant guide) from Eyitha Tours. The walk covers all the heritage sights, the only four buildings that survived the demolitions including the house of Dr A.B Xuma and the Anglican Church of Christ the King, where Trevor Huddlestone was active, and the Sophiatown community centre.

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Church mural depicting Sophiatown street life

Sophiatown has a beautiful park, the start of the tour, where Mbali payed homage to the people who fought so hard for political freedom, the community and the arts. Sophiatown was well known for its jazz and the jazz greats and Dolly Rathebe, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa all came out of Sophiatown. Gerard Sekoto painted Sophiatown and Oliver Tambo taught at the primary school.

I loved learning that Dolly Rathebe, who was an incredible beauty, is a role model for residents of Sophiatown today. Apparently if someone says ‘Hey, how you doing’, the answer is either Dolly (for good), Two Dollys (very good) and Three Dollys for brilliant.

The walk is well worth doing. On each walk Mbali focuses on a different theme. Our theme was Mandela, and we learned a bit about the politics, secret meetings that took place, dance clubs that used dance as a guise for meetings, and also met the man who was Nelson Mandela’s carpenter.

In August Mbali is doing a walking tour focusing on the women of Sophiatown. I would definitely do another walk. Your Johannesburg Guesthouse will give you all the information and make bookings for you with pleasure.

We’ll ask you afterwards if you enjoyed it. Hopefully the answer will be Three Dollys!