Sophiatown ... the Centre of Culture and Heritage
Sophiatown today is "A place where all people are welcomed without prejudice, where sharing and nurturing are part of everyday activities, enabling people to become self relient, fruitful community members and build their dreams in peaceful ways."
“The truest optimism in South Africa is in the crowded, disease-ridden and crime-infested urban locations.” Dr. DeKlewlet
In the short space of 11 years Sophiatown did more for South African popular culture than any other location or influence of all time. It was the site of the birth of African Jazz.
"I had seen jazz-crazy youths and girls at home in England, in a frenzy of dance-hall jive ... But the jazz in this room was not a frenzy. It was a fulfillment, a passion of jazz. Here they danced for joy." Nadine Gordimer
“In a dance hall a jazz combo is creating music; music taken from American Negro jazz and hammered out on the anvil of the South African experience: slum living, thuggery, police raids, job-hunting, shifting ghettos, and so on. The penny whistle takes the key melody, with bass and drums keeping the rhythm. On and off the sax weaves its way through the penny-whistle notes. The musicians grope their way through the notes, expressing by this improvisation the uncertainty and restlessness of urban life . . .” Es'kia Mphahlele:
“Besides from jazz there is performances of gumboot, tap dancing, kwela and traditional African music. "The intention is that all races live side by side in peace within a democratic structure.. We are going to plant the seeds of a new form of unique jazz, to emerge from this country, with intense complex rhythms that involve our invitation into dreamtime.” Olga Corner
Past present and future merge through the portal of the heart and the vision for humanity. Culture is many life times in the making.
The initial Sophiatown Renaissance was built on the sacrifice of the mothers, who, in the 1930's, brewed beer (umqombothi, skokiaan or barberton) to give their children a better life. And after World War two, this new generation of creativity came to fruition, as it set about to create a better world for one and all.
Sophiatown became the centre of a literary renaissance through Drum Magazine journalists, the writers and freedom films, the birth of the boisterous sound of African Jazz and the creation of a unique language - a "mish-mash" of English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Shangaan, Tswana, Ndebele, and Afrikaans languages slanged into a twang. There was a resistance mind-set and subversion of the racial laws. People saw no division, only human beings.
However as in the great mythology of the mother archetype, Sophia, the 'togetherness' of Sophiatown was levelled, demolished, renamed and recreated as its antithesis 'apartheid.' Her people were abandoned, exiled and isolated under the group areas act.
The dark years did pass and through the unity of the heart a new mother archetype rose from the rubble of separation to heal and unite in the uniqueness of our shared humanity.
In 1994, the Mandela government was the first symbol of this splendid transformation. Through forgiveness, love was the real triumph, and the group area called Triomf was returned to its original name Sophiatown. And the AB Xuma home, one of only two original Sophiatown houses that was not demolished was purchased and renovated by the City of Johannesburg. It was transformed into a national heritage site, and a living museum, a home of music, poetry, art, photography, talks and tours. It became a lighthouse for the ideals of a Sophiatown renaissance to resonate from.
Sophiatown re-emerged as a centre for the unity in diversity for which it was once famous. And as it emerged so its vison began to manifest in reality. From the living memory of Father Trevor Huddleston and his principles of love and cultural knowledge, a beautiful building and creative space called "Sophiatown - the Mix," blossomed.
The space lent itself to the jazz people of Joburg, where jazz is not a music but a conscious state of being, jazz being, jusssst being who you are. Sophiatown - the Mix took on the purpose of this great ideal and in true Sophiatown style, it is a space for encountering heritage; giving, receiving, creating, connecting with your inner freedom, finding, knowing and enjoying yourself.
Researchers, novelists, actors, play-writers, film makers, script writers, musicians and magazines gather to restore and expand our cultural wisdom systems and knowledge base. Our beautiful African jazz is taking on a spiritual movement of self knowledge, healing and transformation, and a new style of self assuredness is bringing the young people towards their inherent humanity.
The year 2015 is 66 years since the midst of the initial Sophiatown renaissance. History is repeating itself and the three pillars of Johannesburg's culture of freedom, diversity, edginess and humanity is the cornerstones of this renaissance. Excitement is the potential of that culture of poets, researchers and heritage practitioners presents ...
As it was, so it is and so shall it be ... !
The great theatre for African Jazz was the Street.
"On the streets of Sophiatown, you would see barbers, people washing, many playing the pennywhistle, cooking, singing, dancing, talking, gambling, fighting and partying. In the shebeens; music, art, politics and beer-brewing developed. Great music was born in Sophiatown in its shebeens, dance halls and the Odin Cinema." Olga Corner “
You don't just find your place here, you make it and you find yourself. There is a tang about it. You might now and then have to give way to others making their ways of life by methods which aren't in the book, but you can't be bored. You have the right to listen to the latest jazz records at Ah Sing's over the road. You can walk a Coloured girl of an evening down to the Odin cinema, and no questions asked. You can try out Rhugubar's curry with your bare fingers without embarrassment. All this with no sense of heresy. Indeed, I've shown quite a few white people 'the little Paris of the Transvaal' -- but only a few were Afrikaners.” Can Themba
“The boys were expensively dressed in a stunning ensemble of colour: 'Jewished' in their phraseology; in dress items described as 'can't gets'” Nat Nakasa
“Sophiatown was a very beautiful place. There was music everywhere, flowing out of every house, from every corner and every shebeen. Rhythm was the unsaid word. There was mbaqanga, marabi, kwela jive, and on Sundays the gospel choirs marched down Toby street singing, and we always joined them. And then there was jazz at night. We used to go to `Sis Fatty's shebeen and watch the Jazz Maniacs and listen to recorded American jazzmen... Everybody used to meet there: musicians, artists, intellectuals, writers, politicians and boozers. And all of us, the young aspirants, were growing up in this cultural explosion...” Thandie Klaasens
Heritage Day 2015 saw the residents come home to a dancing good time ...
Discussion with Victor Mokhine …
Whilst looking at the photographs of the heritage day celebrations of the former residents of Sophiatown and now current residents of Meadowlands, Victor said :
I know where they assemble every day for exercises … MAETISO A BATSOFE, “the elderlies haven,” in Meadowlands … It is female dominated I do not know of any elderly guys who go to that place.
All the male guys have all gone into oblivion. Most of them have passed away. It shows fortitude with the women. They are strong. They last longer than us guys. They are more active than the male guys. When the male guys come from work they go to recline on the sofa and read newspapers and watch TV, the women go on cooking, wash up the dishes, they are busy all the time. They are active. It helps with the exercising. During the day they are running around with the little ones.
Elderly guys formed something similar, “Fathers speak out”. It was a reaction to the women moaning!
Most of the former residents came from Sophiatown but some came from Fietas. They are mixed. A lot of them have come from the rural areas as well. They are well provided for facilities for recreation and the companies sponsoring them for meals. After the event here, the following Tuesday there was a heritage celebration for them and that happens regularly, given by the Meadowlands Tourism and Development Centre. I am a board member for the MTDC. I have developed heritage for Meadowlands. Meadowlands is over 65 years old now. The Department of Arts and Culture did sponsor us initially, and gave us some objectives of what they needed to produce. I developed a project plan. Funding is a real problem, even up till today they gave us an initial thing to start off. I am still very keen to continue as there is a lot of information to write about Meadowlands. It is the continuation of the history from here as it is the destination of the people who were evicted from Sophiatown. A lot of things happened there, sporting activities especially.
The only thing about the apartheid government was to separate the blacks from the whites. Especially Meadowlands, the houses were not that horrible as the houses built by our own government. The apartheid government came with the plan of building the match box type houses. The first houses were horrible. They built some houses like hostel types with no yards for the people.
The very first black township was Kliptown and Kliptown had people who were moved from Newtown and they only started building Orlando East around 1936. Around this area here it was mostly white suburbs and thus Sophiatown was the only place, Newclaire next to Westbury and including Westbury. Westbury at the time was called Western Native Township but that was from 1918. They had blacks and that was the first township built for blacks in the Western area. It is now Westbury and is called Westbury after they removed the blacks out with forced removals in 1958 and sent them to Rockville and put in the coloured community under the Group Areas Act, a complete coloured area, Coronationville, Western Native township, Newclaire, Bosmond, Claremont, that was now a coloured area. Blacks were sent to what is now Soweto.
We were moved in 1956. Those match box houses, the rooms were quite big. The standard room was 10 foot by 9 foot. Ours were 12 foot by 10 foot. The toilet was inside. The walls weren't plastered. When we arrived there, it was terrible. The floorings were not plastered, there was no ceiling, just the roofing, that asbestos roofing. After many years we knew that asbestos was not good. You breathe that and get asbestotitis, cancer of the lungs. You had to put up your own ceiling, Initially the apartheid government allocated the houses for rental so they had to maintain the houses. And they did, they used to have service provided. They put up fencing and every two years they replaced the doors. There was a monthly rent and what was worse was the monthly rent was much more expensive than what the people used to pay in Sophiatown. Sophiatown people lived in one room shacks. This was two three four of five rooms. The new government after many years offered the houses freely to the people. This was not long ago. For all the years the people were paying rent. When the new government took over, first they boycotted paying rent; so the people were not paying rent. Those houses that were built that time the value of the bricks was one cent a brick. Imagine what the whole house cost. Over the years the people paid for the houses over and over again.
Coming to Meadowlands there was proper facilities for soccer, ballroom dancing, tennis, music. But especially soccer. There were grounds available in Meadowlands as opposed to Sophiatown. There were no soccer grounds, they had to go to Westbury. On the initial plans for Meadowlands they had made provisions for community grounds. Soccer grounds did exist. Once in Zone 3, we were scholars next to the soccer ground. We were the ones who dug it up to remove the grass to make the pitch. The community centre was built some years ago. The Bapedi Hall was established in 1969. That Bapedi Hall was a name derived from Westbury, there used to be a hall there called Bapedi Hall. Now there are two community centres in Meadowlands.
This is Sally Motlana. Sally was an activist during the years that Soweto was under the committee of ten. They had selected ten people to represent the residents. And the husband, Dr Motlana was one of the members of the committee. I think he was the chairman of the committee of ten. Sally was an activist as well and got involved in politics. And she was detained too for several months at the constitution hill. Almost all the members of the committee of ten were detained by the apartheid government.
She was a school teacher initially at Christ the King for many years. And the husband Dr Motlana came from the rural areas and he came from Johannesburg and came to live in Sophiatown. They got married and moved from Sophiatown to Dube. When Sally arrived here, she taught many prominent guys. They were prominent members of the Anglican church and then she divorced from her husband. They had a shop that they were running together and Sally is still running that shop in a place called White City in Mofolo Central next to a place called the Assembly of God. She is one of the board members of the centre. She is still active.
Most of the community were involved because they had consultations with the community for input to the new building. They gave a lot of input for what they would like and some of the activities that would be incorporated into the new building.
When Dr Xuma came in he introduced membership for women. There was to be segregation between men and women. He even changed the constitution of the ANC in the 1940's. When he took over the ANC was disorganized. They actually only had 17 shillings and six pence in their treasury. R1.75. He organized paid membership and before the end he had already collected 4000 pounds. It was for the ANC association.
Heritage Day 2015 saw musicians playing the Sophiatown standards
Discussion with Victor Mokhine …
The song Meadowlands was composed during the removals by Strike Vilikazi. He was one of the musicians of that era, late 50's and 60's. Strike played saxophone. I knew him in Meadowlands but never got to know his origins. He had relatives who stayed close to me. They were people from Limpopo. But they had been originally from Sophiatown. He didn't stay in Meadowlands but came to visit.
Meadowlands was a protest song, but if you listen to the lyrics they were two fold. And that was the situation because some people were glad to move to Meadowlands because they lived in the back rooms in crowded circumstances with a big family. Some were living in shacks here. And those who had the opportunity to see what the houses looked like. If you are moving from a shack to any structure with brick and mortar you will appreciate that. It was much more the stand owners who were vehement as they owned property and they hadn't been compensated. The government was offering them something but it was done in a hurry. The offering for the properties was not worth it, so most of them didn't accept it and of course they didn't want to move out of their properties. It was also their income as they had built back rooms and they were deriving rent from the tenants. And some of them had applied for bonds from the banks and were still repaying their loans.
The music that was composed generally at that time was protest music. Most of the artists, Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba especially and most of the groups that existed there, their music was more protest. Generally about the apartheid regime. We used to have a poster somewhere it is in the archives, a big one that was given to us by museum Africa, where they have got a write up about the music compositions of the artists of protest music from the middle 50's and early 60's.
During the forced removals, the people who were still around were Miriam, Hugh Masekela. Most of them like African Inkspots left with King Kong the musical. When they were in London and supposed to come back some of them decided to stay and go into exile and they were banished from coming back.
Jonas Gwangwa, they performed with the Jazz Epistles. They were all in Kong Kong. He battled for funds, so he moved to the United States. A person who became properly organized was Hugh whilst he was I the States because fortunately he had a hit and then one of the American Stars took him in, and together with Miriam gave them a lot of help. They were exiled and banned from South Africa at that time. They came back in 1990.
Kippie Moeketsi, we used to have a drink together at one of the hostels in the city centre, where the traffic department is now, there used to be single sex hostels. It was the Bantu Mens Social Centre in front and behind that was the Gwema hostel. And that is now where the traffic department is, where they have done the red parking. Kippie was almost down and out. Bantu Mens Social Centre was the only cultural centre there. There used to be ballroom dancing, they played volleyball in doors. The guys played draft, there was boxing, body building. It was a cultural centre. It was closed down but it continued for sometime. I was doing ballroom dancing up to the 80's. It was only when the JPD metropolitan took over in the late 80's that the centre was closed.
Traditional dance was the real buzz about Sophiatown music. It was more about the traditional dance. The jazz came in. There were different phases. There was marabi and after the marabi was tsaba tsaba and after the tsaba tsaba dance, then there was kwela, after kwela was African Jazz and then there was mbaqanga. During all that time, what used to happen in the different yards, you used to have people coming from different places, because we had the mines around here, a lot of industries and compounds. Traditional dance used to happen in the backyards you would have the Zulu people coming from Natal and you get the Pedi's from the North who come to visit their family and relatives around here. And the Tswana people from the Pretoria area and Krugersdorp. The first residents were Tswana people. And if you go to Melville koppies it is almost like Moroping . You have fossils and implements used by the old stone age people and the Tswana people were around as well. Because you have that on the plaque at Melville koppies. The traditional dance was more about the people from the North, the Venda people, the Shangaans and the Pedi. And from Natal, Zulu and the Xhosa's. Most of them were the Pondo. The Pondo had been employed in the urban areas mostly as municipal workers but they were mostly emptying the night buckets, the night soil, because some of the areas ta that time didn't have the proper ablution facilities so they were using the old bucket system. So they did the gumboot dancing. They used to come over weekends into the backyards. There were no bars or liquor outlets in Sophiatown and that is how they developed the shebeen, illegal taverns. Most of the ladies around here made extra money for their families by selling sorghum beer to the men folk. And when they get a little tipsy they would start singing the traditional songs. And that is why you find mostly in the backyards they have traditional music. The Shangaans would have their Shangaan dance, the Zulu's would have their Zulu dance, all the different tribes in the different yards. The communal location of the people around here, they used to club themselves. If they were from a particular area they would go to a particular yard. For instance you will find in a certain yard a lot of Tswana people and most of them coming from the same area. That is how they would encourage each other, with one coming from the rural area, so the one's who live here will find accommodation for them in the yard where they stay. So when the Shangaans are visiting from the rural area they will have the Shangaan dance in the particular area. It was very entertaining.
Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre :
"It is our responsibility to break down barriers of division and race and create a country where there will be neither whites nor blacks, just South Africans free and united in diversity." O R Thambo 1917 - 1993
Sophiatown was the depiction of the city of gold, where the gold was in the people's hearts. Where life was tolerance, forgiveness and acceptance, it was shared through the purpose of celebration. And thus an African Nationalism emerged in the spirit of the freedom charter where South Africa was for all who lived in her … English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Shangaan, Tswana, Ndebele, and Afrikaans … and her soundtrack African Jazz ; 'Jazz at the Odin' jam sessions and places like the Back of the Moon, the Thirty-Nine Steps, the Cabin in the Sky or the Battleship …
Sophiatown was founded in 1897, when Herbert Tobiansky purchased the farm 8km west of the center of Johannesburg. He named it Sophiatown after his wife Sophia and the streets after his children: Edith, Gerty, Bertha. Toby and Sol.The name Sophia is deeply symbolic. Sophia is the divine mother in mythology. She is personified in different feminine archetypes. Sophia means wisdom and represents the Venus energy; our heart chakra.
"By a historical accident Sophiatown started life as a suburb, changed its colour at an early moment in its career, and then decided to go all out for variety. A £3000 building jostles a row of single rooms: an “American” barber’s shop stands next door to an African herbalist’s store with its dried roots and dust-laden animal hides hanging in the window. You can go into a store to buy a packet of cigarettes and be served by a Chinaman, an Indian, or a Pakistani. You can have your choice of doctors and clinics even, for they also are not municipally controlled. There are churches of every denomination and of almost every imaginable sect. There is one, for example, known as the“Donkey Church,” upon whose squat, square tower there stands, in place of the traditional weathercock, an ass..."
Anglican priest Trevor Huddleston lived in Sophiatown throughout the 1940's. He observed, documented and lived through the tremendous challenges Sophiatown faced. First the Town council placed the city's sewerage disposal in the area. And then they designated the area as an African labour location. Sophiatown was labelled a slum by everyone who didn't live there. But, despite the government labeling Sophiatown a slum, Huddleston gave it a romantic air.
"Sophiatown! It not your physical beauty which makes you so lovable; not that soft line of colour which sometimes seems to strike across the greyness of your streets; not the splendour of the evening sky which turns your drabness into gold---it is none of these things. It is your people."
"Sometimes, looking up at Sophiatown from the Western Native Township across the main road, I have felt I was looking at an Italian village somewhere in Umbria. For you do “look up” at Sophiatown, and in the evening light, across the blue-grey haze of smoke from braziers and chimneys, against a saffron sky, you see close-packed, red-roofed little houses. You see on the farthest sky line the tall and shapely blue-gum trees (which might be cypresses if it were really Italy). You see, moving up and down the hilly streets, people in groups: people with colourful clothes; people who, when you come up to them, are children playing, dancing, and standing round the braziers. And above it all you see the Church of Christ the King, it towers visible north, south, east, and west, riding like a great ship at anchor upon the grey and golden waves of the town beneath. In the evening towards the early South African sunset there is very little of the slum about Sophiatown. It is a human dwelling place. It is as if old Sophia Tobiansky herself were gathering her great family about her, watching over them before they slept. Essentially Sophiatown is a gay place and, for all the occasional moments of violence and excitement, a kindly one too. But like every other place with a character, you have to live in it, to get the feel of its life, before you can really know it. And in the whole of South Africa there are only a handful of white citizens who have had that privilege."
"The secret of Sophiatown is not only its variety, it is its hidden heroisms, or rather its unknown heroes and heroines, its saints uncanonised and unsung. I know very many. .. any young person who keeps straight when the dice are loaded so heavily against him needs virtue of a heroic quality....
A good example of the kind of humour I have known and loved is to be seen in Sophiatown any weekend, when the “Sophiatown Scottish” are on the march. In the distance, on a Sunday afternoon, you will hear the beating of a drum and the sound of a far trumpet. Soon, at the farthest end of Victoria Road, you will see a small crowd moving towards you and becoming a large crowd as it moves. Then, if you are wise, you will wait, and witness the unique and heartening sight of an all-African, all-female band dressed in tartan kilts, white gloves, bandman’s staff, and accoutrement, swinging down the road with marvelous gusto. Behind them will come the spectators, not marching in step but dancing with complete abandon and, surrounding them as always when there’s sight, a crowd of the children, dancing, too, and singing as they dance. Somehow the “Sophiatown Scottish” stand for so much more than a happy Sunday afternoon. They stand for the joy and gaiety which is there, deep in the heart of the African and ready to break out in one form or another whenever and wherever he is at home." Trevor Huddleston
From the Church of Christ the King and St Peter's school, 'Father' and his team administered much empowerment, inspiration and discipline to the youth. Huddleston's spirit and work for unity and dignity is as strong as ever with the opening of the new building for the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre situated in the heart of Sophiatown on cultural heritage day amongst previous local residents.
There has been a long build up to this initiative.In 1998 the City of Johannesburg gazetted the renaming of Triomf back to its original name Sophiatown, which was finalised in 2006. They then purchased and renovated Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma's original home.One of only two buildings to escape the destruction of Sophiatown by the apartheid government was the AB Xuma house. Named Empilweni, it was built for Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma, a highly qualified medical practitioner, who served as president of the ANC in the 1940's. He lived here with his wife, Madie Beatrice Hall, an African American social worker.
Today the AB Xuma home is a national heritage site, and a living room for music, poetry, art, photography, talks and tours. It is a lighthouse for a cultural expansion into a future Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage precinct. The Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, founded in 1999 by Thabo Magoba, now archbishop of Cape Town, was invited by the city to run the house. They then acquired the adjoining stand to the Xuma house and consulted widely before building a multi purpose 'green' centre. The project was largely funded by the National Lottery, private donations and contributions from the National Department of Arts & Culture. This architecturally exquisite centre with high ceilings, provocative slants, dynamic spaces and thrilling acoustics has taken on the name of "Sophiatown - the Mix,"
It is the first community space erected in Sophiatown since 1955. The building offers the historic Western area communities a point of reconnection - sixty years after the first community was removed and scattered into racially segregated areas.
Today there is a home for the Sophiatown that is beyond issues of politics, society, race and class but deeply human. For a Sophiatown that is abundantly "gay" because of the many different kinds of people who live and celebrate there.
Sophiatown guided tours with Tsepho Letsoalo (Heritage co-ordinator)
|Gerard Sokoto artwork first, Mondli Mahube artwork
|On a walk through "the old" Sophiatown, the tour passes the site of the odin cinema in good street, where once thousands of people would go on a daily basis a single lady evades our good company.
| The tour passes christ the king church ray street, once the site of Father Huddleston, it too is suffering the slow poison that the fallen champion tree in berthe street had to endure ...
|The tour passes "picannin fieta's" in ray street where once 57 families lives on a small holding, now there are 4.
|The tour passes the uplifing school of st cyprians in ray street, now a commercial townhouse development and the site of freedom square, now a sport field for De Wets school. And heritage is continuing to be cut down on Ray Street with Biko's olive tree man handled to a stump.
|The tour passes extreme park , which is a site adorned by te legends but still awaiting extreme investment ...
|The tour may walk Sophiatown, but Sophiatown has treated within ...
|And the great light that shines for Sophiatown is the light of the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre ... Once this building was the home of the first president of the ANC, Dr AB Xuma, it is today a space for new culture and learning...
Interview Victor Mokhine
Sophiatown Cultural Heritage Centre : Cultural Officer
I was born in Sophiatown in 1952. I started attending school at the Sophiatown Methodist school. I did my primary education there and due to the forced removals we moved to a place called Meadowlands. I continued with my primary school there. And then I went to high school, to Meadowlands high and completed the Junior certificate. And then I went for Matric in the area of Pretoria North. After I completed matric I started working. My first job was with Industrial wage bureau. We used to prepare salary's and wages for staff belonging to the factories around Doornfontein, Jeppe area in Johannesburg. After that I moved over to IBM. First I started as a mail clerk. And I worked there for 33 years. I became a supervisor, computer operator. I worked on a smaller system called a system three and then I ultimately was promoted to become a procurement analyst. I was responsible for the inventory for the country, making sure parts were available. These were ordered from our central ordering point which was in Orlee in France. All the other plants were in different countries. We were given early retirement in 1995 due to staff reorganisation globally. I worked for the company for two years as a consultant and in 1997 I finally left IBM. I was on my own. I was at home and did odd jobs for myself and stayed home for about ten years until 2005, I went into tourism. I was engaged by some ladies to help them with the history of Sophiatown. There was going to be a 50 year anniversary of forced removals. I was put on the panel for becoming one of the presenters for the occasion. And then in 2006 I was engaged to come and help out with the tour guides of the Trevor Huddleston Memorial centre in Sophiatown. I came to help them and was busy with research. I became a research consultant and a tour guide. I have been with the Trevor Huddleston ever since until the present moment where I am heritage officer in the museum.
Have you interviewed many people from the era?
Yes, in 2006 we did a programme of the oral history recording of former residents of Sophiatown. We picked up on the different nationalities, the black community, the coloured community and the Indian community. We did interviews of the former residents in Meadowlands, the Indian community in Lenasia and the coloured people in Westbury.
Did you come across musicians who were active in Sophiatown?
Yes, when I was living in Sophiatown, it was the era when we still had the Miriam Makeba's, the Dolly Rathebe's, they used to perform at one of the two cinema's that were in Sophiatown. The Odin cinema used to have concerts on Sundays. People like Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, the Jazz Epistles and other jazz groups, Tandie Klaasen, they all used to perform at the Odin cinema. In Meadowlands we still have someone like Stompie Menana, who was also from Sophiatown. He is still at home. I have personally been with the late Kippie Moeketsi.
Did you come across Sis Fatty's?
Sis Fatty owned a shebeen in Good street, the street where I lived. The shebeen was named the 39 steps. Most of the musicians used to mingle there together with the journalists and the gangsters, with the school teachers. They all used to have drinks together and discuss politics in the shebeens. At that time I was still a youngster. There was the white liquor of beers, brandy and whiskeys and then there were those which sold sorgum beer.
Did your parents attend the shebeen?
No my parents didn't. they were highly religious people. My mum before she joined the mothers movement at church, she used to brew this sorghum beer and sell it mostly to people who used to come from the same rural area as my father, family relatives and friends who used to come for a drink at home. She was not involved in the music. We were aware of the music scene because as youngsters we used to go to the cinema and then on Sunday we used to pitch in at the concerts and listen to the musicians.
Do you know how your mom made that beer?
The process was a mixture of sorghum grain and they would mix that with mielie meal. It was a process that took over four days to have it ready for drinking. They first would have the different ingredients mixed together, the sorghum and the mielie meal would be cooked to the boil and then it would be cooked off and left over night. And then the following day they would have the process of sivving the residue from the actual liquid. They did that manually. From there they would leave it for another day or two to mature and then it would be ready for drinking.
Why is it that the women make the beer ?
Most of the men, there was a lot of employment during that time. There were a lot of mines and industrialisation and a lot of industries around Johannesburg and work opportunities, always there for people especially labourers, in fact then anomaly was that during the days when people used to carry the pass books people used to be arrested for not being employed. If somebody was unable to get a job, the authorities would actually get a job for you. With the pass book system there was a system where people used to have to apply for a work permit. The first permit would allow you three weeks to go and look for a job. They called it a special. After three weeks you didn't have a job you would go back and they would stamp your passbook that you were a work-seeker and then give you two weeks to go back again. And after two weeks you still can't find a job and you go to the labour offices and the department of Native affairs offices, irrespective if you are a schoolteacher or a professional, they give you some kind of a job in a hotel to go and wash dishes. And when you decline to accept that they give you another special and when the police find you in the street they check your passbook that you are unemployed. If you have no special you get arrested. And then you go to court. And then you are sentenced and in most cases you will be sentenced to three months in jail. And then what used to happen in jail they would take the prisoners arrested for passbook offences, they would sell them to the farmers in the outlaying area. They would be paid 5 cents per day. After three months he would have earned himself 8 or 10 shillings.
Why was it the women running the shebeens ?
Initially in the early years, the work opportunities were very scarce for women. Most of them depended on domestic service. They became domestic servants where they did ordinary washing and ironing for white employees and some did complete domestic service to do general work in someones home, the washing, the ironing, the cooking and be sleeping there. What happened is in the early years in Sophiatown, domestic service was been done by males. Why they employed males was because they were carrying pass books and the women folk did not have pass books, so now in the event that somebody disappeared in the event of stealing good or having done a crime in somebody's residence, he could be traced because of his passbook. But the women did not carry passbooks at that stage. It was only in the later years, they were made to carry passes after 1956. For them to augment the family income because most of the people were terribly underpaid, so most of the women used to run the shebeens to augment the family income. Most of the people were from the rural townships which were not far from Joburg. Most came from the Pretoria area although we had people coming as far as Pietersberg and very few from Natal. In arriving here they found that the only way of making money was by selling something, mielies and in the shebeen it was much easier to make money. And the people patronising the shebeen would most probably be men folk who come from the same area, as a shebeen queen. And some you would find were relatives.
What is the relationship between gangsterism and music?
In each street you had a gang formed. A particular gang, like the vultures, was a group that belonged to the area between Getty Street and Bertha Street. Their boss there was Don Mathera; the poet. They used to fight with guys living in Gold Street and Taco Street, those guys calling themselves the Kango Kids and the Whipsies. There was a big fight between them and the Vultures. I was attending school in Gold Street and during school, I was in class and saw these two gangs engaging each other, stabbing each other with knives and sharp instruments and hitting each other with sticks. Initially when they started they started as a group of youngsters who were protective of their area so people in that area would not be mugged by guys who lived in other streets. And of course of the girls who would be pestered by the young men coming from the other streets. So, they used to be protective of their area. Eventually they became a gangster and there were these territorial wars, like if maybe one guy who lives in a different street is assaulted by one guy who lives in another street. The whole thing would end up in gang warfare where the friends who live in one street gang up against the guy who assaulted the other guy. And that is how the gangs formed and got involved with skirmishes. In every street, the teenagers would form gangsters in their particular street.
Was there drug abuse?
It was on a very mild scale and the only drug at that time was dagga, marijuana. And on a very small scale. You would rarely find it. At school absolutely nobody. The youngsters they don;t smoke at all. The gangsters were the guys who used to smoke, but they used to smoke cigarettes.
Were you aware of Dr Xuma?
Yes. He used to chair the meetings at the Freedom Square, at Maurice and Victoria Rd on Sunday mornings. We never entered his house because he was a very strict guy. This was the demarcation between Sophiatown and Westdene. After his house it was just empty space until you reached 1st Street in Westdene. We were aware of the premises but at that time it was an ordinary house and a surgery. We rarely saw him personally. We as youngsters were not interested as politicians at the time.
The American influence, were there other influences?
It was generally the music that people used to buy the records. It was mostly the music we heard played at the cinema. They used to show a lot of American films and musicals as well and people used to look at the dress of the actors, and we had the gangster group called The Americans, they were very exclusively elder guys. They used to mimic the dressing of the actors they saw in the movies.
Was there a traditional African influence too?
Yes. There used to be the guys coming from the mines who used to visit family coming from different rural areas. There were different tribes, amongst the blacks especially. There was the Shangaan, the Venda, and Pedi, people who came from the North and then there were the Tswana people who came from the Rustenberg Pretoria Brits area, the Zulu's who came from Natal. Most of the Zulu males used to be cleaners and watchmen in the buildings. When they had visitors, most visitors would be coming from the rural areas so the were traditional. They would start having the traditional drink, the sorghum beer, brewed in the way they brew it in their original area, and of course when the guys get high, they start singing music and traditional songs. The Shangaan would do their traditional Shangaan dance and we would have the Xhosa group, who would come and do the gumboot dancing. And we would find the Zulu's and traditional Zulu music. There was a lot of traditional influence at the time from the visitors of the relatives of the people staying around here. People lived in communal yards. And in communal yards you would find a concentration in one yard of people coming from the same rural area. Weekend especially Saturday afternoons, they would have traditional food being cooked and even traditional herbs and ceremonies, they would have in the traditional way. Of course the people living in the same yard would all partake irrespective of what tribe the people came from.
Same as the other cultures. We had the Indians and we had the Chinese. And what would happen when they celebrate, they would do this and parade along Victoria Road. All people would partake in the festivities. And the Indians too when they did their ceremonies. They would do this annually. There was an annual celebration. The African people did partake and at the end of the December we would have the coon carnival. The coloured people brought the culture of celebrating the 2nd of January. In every street the youngsters would dress up in the dressing that the coons wear. And in each street, there would be a competition with the music. That happened annually. And we used to have ladies as well who used to dress like the Scottish. They had the Scottish kilts and some bag pipes. Every Sunday afternoon they would start parading from Toby Street along Victoria Road. And all the people would follow. It would be a carnival.
Did you come across the Sophiatown Shuffle?
Marabi and then came different types of music and then African Jazz and then dancing as well and mbaqanga.
Was there a unique identity?
Yes it originated from the combination of different people bringing their music together, Particularly the mbaqanga and the African Jazz. There was American Jazz and then they put the African flavor into it and called it African Jazz.
When you worked in tourism what did you find the outstanding qualities of Johannesburg?
It is the hospitality of the local people. We have a hospitality of welcoming people from elsewhere and also the advantage of having a beautiful
country weather wise. It is very good for the people who come from abroad to learn about the peoples rituals and beliefs and family life upbringing which was original. There has been a lot of influence from the West on our youngsters. There is quite a difference between the elderly group and the youngsters, the behaviour especially.
It is common among all the African tribes that they are very respectable people especially family wise, there is a distinction between a young person and an older person.
Is there anything you want to bring to light?
A history of the forced removals bears a lot on the political situation of the time because it was during the apartheid era. This took place during the group areas act that separated different people. Through the dispensation of 1994, the changing of South Africa to a democratic country it is important that the youth get knowledge, as much as in the schools, it is important they know the history of themselves. Forced removals was something which is not moral in a society where you find the whole society of different people's is moved away from a place they lived together and sent to different destinations. It is an important history for our kids, for them to learn so they can reconcile with the other nationalities so as to have a better future. It is important that they have the knowledge that this did happen because it was a very traumatic era especially for the non whites of this country. And there was a lot of oppression, particularly the people who were moved from here. It is very sad to listen to the stories of what happened to the people who were sent to the army camp base in Lenasia, people were moved to places like Meadowlands. It was better because at least you could have a matchbox and an area that was residential for themselves and their family. The people who were moved to the camp had a very bitter experience of the forced removals. Some of the people who moved to Meadowlands lost their houses and were forced to move to rural areas. Some of them had never been to those rural areas. It is good to be known by our youngsters. Technology has its advantages and disadvantages. Most of our kids now are very lazy in reading. Subjects like history are not very popular.
Interview Monty Mahuba
Artist at Sophiatown Heritage Cultural Centre and original bass player in the Huddleston jazz band...
What made the Huddleston Jazz Band to be so legendary?
The band started. We were at school in Rosettenville. We were all youngsters. Stompie was interested in a trumpet, but he influenced Hugh Masekela on the trumpet. There was a film showing at the Odin in Good Street and they went to Father Huddleston and asked permission, because it was a Saturday afternoon, to go and see this film. They went and came back and Hugh was impressed so he decided to ask father Huddleston if at all he can't buy him a trumpet. And that is where he started. He got the trumpet as a donation. Instruments came flowing in, drums, a bass and all that. He sat with Hugh and said who is going to play what? The guitar came first. Wordsworth Kalowti was keen in playing guitar. Father Huddleston called me and said come and play bass and I had never touched it before. The other instruments came in and we started vamping not knowing what is what. During the holidays, Hugh asked Father Huddleston if he can borrow the trumpet, so he can go during the holidays to get some musicians to give him light. We were given permission. There were no schools of music during that time. I went to Stompie's brother who is a bassist and he showed me the C scale and that was my first scale. Stompie was no longer with us at school. He had no funds to pay for school fees, so he had to back out. Hugh left for Springs and he left some musicians and when he came back at least there was some sensible noise, which you could feel like there was some music in it. We went on like that, practising and meanwhile I had art with me. I went to St Peters having had an exhibition at the age of 13. This man, Matthew Whitman, who worked with my father. And my father said that his boss was doing the same thing as his son. So, he introduced me, encouraged me, giving me paper, watercolour brush and painted. Collected some money, paintings which he felt were exhibitable. I got a few paintings from that exhibition. And how I went through to a boarding school. Then came the music and I forgot about art. In fact we had a teacher, a Miss Weiner who was teaching at St Mary's Girls school. A good artist. The art department closed and I was interested in music. We raised some funds to go to Durban just to meet some other musicians, played there and came back.
Unfortunately Father Huddleston had to leave South African through politics. And we left school too. Others were staying far and the band sort of dismantled. We had to look for a job now. There is no more schooling and the pass laws, you can't just idol around they will pick you up. My mother was not interested in seeing me in jail. 'Come on Sonny, get a job!' I got a job and I was completely finished with Huddleston. I met some chaps in the location who were playing music. We played on and my mother said it is high time you get married you can't be roaming around aimlessly. We got married. I looked for job. Got myself a place to stay and I worked for about twenty years in one place. They fired us because we wanted more money. There was some politics in it.
As I was lonesome in the location not knowing what to do, my sister said, by the way, you are an artist. Go back. I thought about it and said no, I can't be depressed by the location. When you are not used to the location it becomes a strange place, so I went back to school to brush myself up. There is a school in Mfolo village where they did art and I picked up a lot. With music, we had difficulties because there was this modern jazz and yo must know your keys and all that and meanwhile you have a family to feed. There is no time to be going to school for that. My wife luckily was working but she couldn't make ends meet. I arrived with art. It was pushing me to get some sakes here and there until now.
What repertoire did you play with the Huddleston jazz band ?
There was a band leader Something Berman and he brought us some music sheets. He bought them actually. It was Glen Miller's stuff. Our repertoire wasn't much because the reading was poor. We had to mostly include our marabi music and compositions from the fellows. For instance there was a composition where they titled the number "Naught for your Comfort." We had to recall the number, but it was rejected. Others were "Stuyvesant," from the cigarette and I don't remember the others.
George Makhene on drums was the band leader but Hugh was already goon on his trumpet. He would lead most of the time. We had Josiah Masimula from Middleburg. He went to school at Jaynfers. There was an area for missionaries. Gwangwa the trombonist was one of them. There was Wordsworth Kalowta. We called him Knox but his name was Wordsworth. We were a big band because we had two trumpeters, three alto's and two tenors, a guitar, piano, drums and bass.
When you studied art did you come across Jacob Moeketsi?
Jacob was the pianist. The brother Isiah was the artist. That was in Polly Street. Polly Street helped us out because that was once a week. It starts at 5 and by 8. We had Alfeus Khubeka. Good artist. He left he is now a preacher. Isaiah Moeketsi. The others I forget their names. Stompie was one of them. Ezra. He even studied under Scottness. When I left Scottness wasn't there.
What was your inspiration for the art work?
I loved sculpturing like Leonardo Da Vinci. I would wonder, how does he get his figures. Does he look at somebody or what because he is so realistic that that influenced me. Modern art does not satisfy me. I feel that it must be realistic. I get to admire other artists on painting, they were also realistic. You feel that this scenery you can actually walk on it.
I loved scuplturing but you don't have good wood in South Africa. Somebody gave me some railway sleepers but I had no scope, they are narrow. For instance this one is the stump of a gum tree but I had to treat it with oil.
From what era are your paintings?
I have done them now recently. I imagined how the pass laws, the apartheid era treated us. It wasn't fair. The painting should tell the story.
What about today?
It hasn't dawned to me of trying this era. It always comes to me how we were mistreated because we were still young. My parents were trying to make a living although they didn't go for selling liquor and all this because they thought it wasn't good for children, but next door there was a shebeen.
Did you grow up here?
I was born in the Cape and came as a baby. At the age of 5. Toby Bertha, Gerty. Good Street. Gold. I was in the fourth street and in 1939 we moved to Western Native township and then I grew up there. We were in St Peters during the time of the removals. When we came back we saw the place was flat. The only building standing was the church, Christ the King. Our bioscope, Odin was flat. And the Roman Catholic church near the church was remaining, tat was all.
What can we learn from this history?
I am still thinking of the removals. I will paint it. People must know where they came from and the police. It is not to say we were having a good time. We were having a good time. Some people say they think the white man helped us a lot. which is true, the sort of civilised us. It wasn't a pleasant time that time.
Were there other artists that inspired you?
There was Dube. There was a framing shop in Joburg. I passed there everyday and looked at these portraits of Zulu kings and I felt that I must be one day in that standard. We didn't have many artists, because people didn't know about art, especially the black. It was something. You have to force your way. I wasn't someone defiant at home. I always respected the elders. You must go to school. You must work, get married. Others succeeded by doing what they want to do.
People who did art and sculptures especially were witchdoctors. If there was an occasion or a ritual, then you are known as a witch doctor and a sculptor. But painting, they don't care. Although now they are slowly appreciating art. We are still far.
Interview Tricia Sibbons
Next year is all about the future. It is not neglecting the past. The reason why we are here is because of the past. There is a whole new story emerging. It is about focusing on the renewed diversity. Sophiatown was very diverse and multi cultural. And look where it is sixty years later. It is the New South Africa in miniature.
We are busy with a new brand, "The Mix." Its mixed colour, language, generations were mixed. Background, music. It was all church as well as jazz, as well as schools. There were twenty odd schools in this little suburb. And that is the idea, Sophiatown then and now.
Where is the mix now?
It is here. It needs to grow a Little bit more, but it is here. The problem which the building answers is where do we mix because there hasn't been places that we could go to unlike old Sophiatown where there were shebeens and dance halls and churches and things. Churches are still pretty racially segregated. Where do you socialise? If you have money you go to Melville or town and if you are poor you don't go out. The thing about Sophiatown is you could go to the dancehalls for one penny or the Odin, so people mixed in those days like they can't in this generation because the places and actual physical space is not there, so we have stayed in our tribal churches and schools or whatever. In schools people mix and universities mix but that is only 21 years old. So that was the purpose of having a building. It becomes a place where people can mix, ordinary South Africans can mix with people they wouldn't otherwise possibly meet for cultural things; education. We are talking about most people who still don't go to university. And if you go to school in the townships you don't see any white people there. So, at what point do you mix if you are growing up in Thembisa? You are quite old before you mix. We are saying geographical boundaries need to be broken down and places like this need to be put up. Public library doesn't have to be a place like this, a place where everyone can go and are equally able to give something and receive something. so, hopefully it will be increasingly mixed as we go along.
How did it come to fruition?
When the Trevor Huddleston centre was first founded by Thabo Magoba now archbishop of Cape Town it was based out of church of Christ the King because that is where he was in charge. And as the programme is developed because they offered classes for kids going into matric and winter school, summer school. Essentially it was for youngsters. He saw that the future was about bringing young kids together. So, as they grew they grew bigger so we needed more room. We bought the house next door to the church and that became the office, so we used the house, the church hall and the playground to run the programmes. We had a theatre company, an HIV and aids programme, IT. Literally in the church itself in the gallery upstairs we made that into an IT lab. We ran electricity points, we built desks, so basically we were teaching IT in the gallery of the church Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings, because it was secure. So that is how it started, so essentially the demand for the services and the demand for the programmes dictated we needed more space. So we moved from there to St Josephs home because that was Anglican property and we were able to expand exponentially. We tried to buy that property but the Dioceses in Joburg quite sensibly saw it is an asset and could not sell it and now it has become their offices and their teaching facility. So, we moved there in 2006, but because we couldn't buy it, we were insecure because we were renting, so if we wanted the legacy of Huddleston to really continue we needed our own space and then the city asked us to run the AB Xuma house and we sensed to look for a stand close to that so we could create one integrated space, because also running the museum we don't receive any money from the city so we have to generate everything in order to pay salaries. You will realise no museum is self sustaining in the world unless you are in New York or somewhere. So, in order to develop an income stream in order to run the museum we needed another offer so this has become both our permanent location of the vision of the legacy of Huddleston among young people. Our permanent source of sustainable income so we can run both the historic house and run programmes into the future without being overly grant dependant. We are always going to need some sponsorships and grants for some things that are new and innovative, but to pay the phone bill and the water bill and the security costs, very few funders pay the core costs so we needed to do that our self and we needed an asset to do that.
The renaming of Triomf to Sophiatown, was there a cross influence?
It was very much the City of Johannesburg fixed heritage that drove the renaming. They saw the importance of renaming Sophiatown. They gazetted it in 1998, but it took until 2006 for it to be officially renamed. There was a lot of protest in the beginning and a lot of descent from current residents and it was resolved in the classic South African way. If you wait long enough the descent dies away and you can move forward so that was how that was resolved. That was when all the blue plaques were put up. The idea was to establish it and put up the blue plaques saying what buildings were here from before. One of the advantages was the names of the streets had not changed. That grid was almost the same, apart from Shoprite and the flats, that band where that was, was completely destroyed. The grid itself is recognisable from the 50's. That was a big advantage. And we were obviously involved in that as far as the city was concerned. But, it was before this house was compulsorily purchased by the city. And then they allocated one million rand to renovate it. Which meant taking it back as close as we could to its former glory. So a lot had to come out like the stoop they had built on and extra bathrooms. All of that had to be ripped out. The city oversaw that project. The renaming was the cities vision because we were already in existence, we started in 2000. We tried to get them to do it in 2005 which would have been the 50 years, but it didn't quite happen it went into 2006.
The walking tours, in terms of returning Sophiatown to its former glory ?
We have a heritage trail plan which we developed with consultants. Laurence Seagull helped us with that and that was funded by RMB. That is sitting essentially as a plan waiting to be implemented at some point. We have partially implemented it in terms of where we walk to. The plan would be like other cities where cities have been bombed out and things have been changed. It would be ideal to have some markers on the pavement and mosaics on the current spaces to give people an idea of what was there before. That would be our ideal to work towards creating a heritage trail that spoke for itself. We tried to get current residents to engage wit the richness of what was there before ...
The spirit of Sophiatown spread out to Meadowlands, Lenasia etc.
That is right. When we get former residents we see them going into corners and nattering. The most moving experience for me was when we would bring people back who had never been here for fifty years. That was very moving. Literally grown men would cry remembering how they were removed. The women were tougher. So they would be a bit more angry. And people had never told their children or grandchildren so those stories started to come out which was very moving. And then people hadn't seen each other for fifty years. There were these layers of unravelling which was very powerful. And those things happen over time.
When Fikile Bam was alive, he and I were working on a reunion. We really wanted to do a reunion of former Sophiatown residents. And we have got the space for it down at St Josephs. We conceived the plan and he was talking to Tokyo Sexwale about it who at that time was looking for a feel good project to fund. It wasn't very much money, 2 million rand or something, bringing people, feeding people, having dancers and entertainers, and having little spaces where people could go and natter with people they hadn't seen for fifty years. That would be truly amazing if someone had the heart for that. That is something you could film, it would be a powerful documentary of what has been lost. That spirit is intangible. You can see it when people are together. And you can see it in what people will tell you. But I couldn't explain it with people from England. But if you had a film it could explain itself. You will see when we did the groundbreaking for instance, women who were 80 years old would get up and dance like they were 25. The music takes them right back to that space. It is a great privilege to be witnessing that level of connectedness. When you get people from Lens and people from Meadowlands together, they completely connect. It is like they plug into each other in an unspoken way that is really knitted. That is the quote from one of the oral history projects we did. Mr Karachi said "we were really knitted." And that is what we see. It knits back together. The power of that connectedness, the power of that mutual recognition of another persons humanity, who have a common link. Even though it is not your home now, and may not have been your home then. You may have grown up in a rural area and come to Sophiatown with your mother, it was clearly a very important place. The closest I have got to describing it was that Sophiatown was freedom. Once you stepped outside you were faced with white people or the location. Sophiatown was this place where you could be yourself. And that is the spirit that has been retained. Sense of self was taken and reignited in Meadowlands, Lens, Fordsberg, Fietas were groups of people went and some people went overseas. In those areas what we find is that younger people, it doesn't make sense to them why their grandparents want to comeback here because they haven't experienced that connectedness. What they have experienced is their group area. The group areas act. If you were our age, we are busy creating careers, we have children, we are worrying about school fees. This thing from sixty years ago before we were born, I don't know what is going to connect the current generation with that past other than cultural heritage.
The thing we are fund raising for which we will relaunch on the day is an installation, a map of Sophiatown so that if you want to contribute to the physical manifestation of what is on the grid, as the grid will be re-created on the wall. And you will be able to buy a little bronze button which you can pin on your grid so that we can get people identifying with their name the street that they lived in. So, we are hoping that that will bring people and have some physical manifestation of that connectedness. That is what we are working towards. And on this side we will have a 3D art piece around the removals. And here we will have fairly traditional story boards that talk about Lens, Meadowlands and numbers of people. This will speak to the whole story. If we have a course or an event you don't have to go on a whole tour to get a sense of the community that was here before, that was lost, and where they went to. And you can also see what it is looking like today. We are trying to talk to the old through the new in the installation. That is the bit that is incomplete at the moment, but the idea is that it will be a rustic metal hard sturdy, kind of Sophiatown determination feel about it, so that these two buildings connect through that.
White and European people benefited greatly from Sophiatown. It was a place of freedom. Is there that narrative... ?
Huddleston's quotes epitomise that more than anybody in that he wrote about it at the time. There is a quote in Naught for your Comfort where he laments the loss of Sophiatown. But his focus was the people not the buildings. He saw them as grey and drab and as the sun went down, over the hills of Sophiatown it took on a glow of a Tuscan village, I think he likened it to. He was lamenting the people's lives that had been upturned and destroyed. He was somebody who really got that, and there were many, Jim was one of those people; he got the heart of people. He really connected at a spiritual level. He was completely moved by the generosity of African people. He had lived in England he had quite a monastic upbringing. He went to a public school and had a fairly limited world experience. He had done some stuff in poor areas in the UK, before he was sent out here, but his whole world had opened up because he had not come across the spirit of African people. People describe it as warmth and generosity and hospitality. At that time that confluence of his limited experience of humanity and the collective nature of Sophiatowns freedom as well as that clashing of rural and urban culture and that black urbanisation, American influences and people owning that freedom. It was pre and post war. '39 war and then post war. The 12 years he was here was a great period of change all over the world. Martin Luther, Jim Crow and all of that was emerging post war. There was a freedom about being human and an ability to connect at a very human level. The level of connectedness that existed in that society and those particular individuals were able to connect with it. They connected into something they had not experienced before.
How about the Sophiatown community today, it is clear that a lot of healing needs to take place?
I would hesitate to use that word. The way I would describe it, is there are going to be your die hard superior race people. And those are not movable. We have had three or four racist letters sent to us, saying, 'we are going to kill you if you don't move out of here'. I don't think they are serious. I think there are some double agenda's going on. Politics is very complicated. There are some bonkers people out there. So you are trying to deal with this stuff and build a better world for your kids and their kids.
There is no place where we can mix. Where do we have those conversations. In October we have a facilitated workshop which is a start of a process of conversations for community healing. There was no place to do it before. We can't do it in the Xuma house it is a political story, surrounded by the removal story. We needed a space that wasn't surrounded by that that enabled people to envision and see something distant that they could be part of creating. I would hesitate to call it healing because I think it could be slightly patronising for someone like me who is not from here to make those kinds of comments.
We need spaces where people can connect with each other at a human level. For me it is about creating the spaces where people can connect.
What about sites of trauma?
Marlene Van Niekerks book Triomf opens with the barking dogs. The dogs don't stop barking in Sophiatown because the spirits of people were left. That was here very creative literary interpretation. There was a haunted nature. When I first came here ten years ago, the church was bought back by the Anglicans and it was an oasis. There was a press cutting from the time, because the church had all sorts of problems. People broke their water pipe and cut their electricity one Easter; vandalism. One guy from the street said, no we don't want them here, they don't realise that this is not their area. This was post '94!
There is a story about a tree where people hung themselves because if they were not land owners they were not entitled. And it was a big humongous tree, bits of which we have still got and some of them are being worked up into sculptures so we can continue to tell that story. There were stories of people who died quite soon after being removed. A lot of men had heart attacks after being moved. The stress of being deprived of ones ability to provide protection and security for ones family and then being pushed to live in some shit-whole. The trauma of that was quite significant.
And particularly where the police flats are, because we did an oral history project, a short documentary film that was never quite finished. we have got the footage. It is somewhat watchable. As a piece of archive it is quite important. People are describing outside the Shoprite; at that point it was very bleak. They were talking about the stuff that happened and one old guy who died now, he said this is where I learnt to drive. He worked for the guy who had the fish and chips shop, who had a car and he sat in the car and polished the car as a kid. There were houses there all the way down to the koppie. There is no street now, you can't walk down a street anymore. That was very traumatic for them. This place was bulldozed and in their mind it is still bulldozed because it s just this very bleak landscape with these 1960's apartheid edifices put up like a big grave stone. When you drive up Beyers Naude and you are looking up, you can actually see. What they did is they literally just bull dozed stuff over the cliff. If you go fossiling you will find stuff from those days. We found tea spoons cups and saucers. And when they put the park in, a lot of stuff was found. It was literally buried. And people will talk about that in a very traumatic way, things that they have lost, that were buried in the rubble. I think there are a lot of ghosts in the largest sense of the word. The church never had a church yard, all the people who were officially buried are at Crusis, that is where people were buried from here, as Westpark was white.
To come back to the trauma point, part of putting the building up is a multi-pronged response to the need for neutral space, the need for something of the future. The need to put something up that former residents have been involved in that they can come to, because when they come home to Sophiatown, where do they go because those places don't belong to them anymore. Their places are gone. There are two houses still standing. There are some people who have come back to Sophiatown after being moved out, maybe ten or twelve families. A dream of mine that three or four families in the area would have an interest to say who lived here before me? And could I meet them? That would be an icing on the cake for me, but I think we are five six years off that kind of discussion where someone would come to the house of the stand that they used to live on. That would be traumatic, so ... "tea in Sophiatown.'
Is this renaissance tied into a global renaissance?
I think it is tied into the renaissance of Johannesburg. I don't know about other cities. Cape Town seems to be fairly moderated. It is not very African, it has beauty but is not wild. I think that Johannesburg's renaissance and its rise as the centre of culture of all sorts is important for the continent and important for South African and important for Sophiatown. The thing about Sophiatown is its quite affordable, it is quite near the city, it is neither suburb nor township, it is in between a bit like it was in its heyday and it is very mixed, racially, economically, socially, language wise. There are people here from overseas who did not know about Sophiatown. There are people here from Cape Town who did not know they were moving into a historic suburb. There are people here from Italy who have lived here for thirty forty years, who knew it is Triomf and have their own cultural background. It does make it a place of huge diversity. The land ownership is not massively diverse but I can't think of another area, Yeoville possibly, but Yeoville is a bit like being in town in the CBD, it is more overcrowded whereas here there is a little bit more space and a little more sky. And the by laws are implemented so it is a pleasant place to live in Johannesburg if you don't want to live behind a ten feet wall. There is an edginess still about Sophiatown. It has regained its potential for edginess and I hope we are part of that story. I think that is what South Africa brings to the world, it brings its manageable edginess. South Africa is cool and edgy but it is not chaotic in the sense that somewhere like Nigeria or Rio de Jeneiro ... too chaotic.
What are the events that are taking place ?
What we are using the space for is a platform for a wide range of opportunities to encounter. We like the word Encounter. The idea is that people can encounter other people, other cultures and possibly other forms of art they wouldn't normally access as well as practical support. The green incubator is about practical support for young people who want to start businesses in the green economy. The building is a green building. We will be looking at how we will reduce our carbon footprint on the city. The place will eventually run on solar. We are trying to be a place where people can grapple with what it means to the ordinary person to be interested in your environment, sustainable power sources and possibly to contribute to a better environment as opposed to keeping it static. How can we actually put clean water back in the system, how we can grow our own food and things like that. We are a space where lots of different catalysing ideas can be piloted or tested or tasted, maybe people will take those ideas back to their community or their house or their school. A place for encountering something that you were interested in and perhaps wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to experience, but we are rooting it in legacy. African people have always grown their own food. Having a food garden or a herb garden is not new, we are just bringing it into the 21st century setting. And saying that anybody can do this. If we don't understand how our environment works and where our soil comes from how can we understand how we eat and how we function. For us there is a legacy around land, environment, sustainability is a theme. Education is a theme. That was very much Huddleston's theme. Education not in a formal sense, but education in a possibility sense. And that links with the business. Perhaps you are not destined for university, you could be entrepreneurial, that is a life long learning thing. And also in the art. We have done work around creating opportunities for young people to get into the arts. The Kofifi theatre company came out of our programmes and we hope that they will come back and do things in our space. So, exposing people to theatre for people who might not got to the market or gold reef city as it is expensive or far away. It might be an out of body experience. The taster opportunity. In terms of culture, we have visual artists including photography. You will know with the Bailey's, Schaderberg to showcases how important photography is to heritage. For us that is getting young people to understand that they are creating heritage every day. In 20 30 years time we might be talking about projects that they were doing. Heritage is not just about the past but actually it is about what you leave in the future. Sustainability, heritage, arts, culture, it gives people ways in to meet each other without you needing a very large pay packet, without you needing to identity in any particular group. Culture allows people multiple identities. I am not just a European women from London who likes jazz. But I am also committed to the environment and actually am learning Tswana. I am able to encompass all of those things because South Africa has a constitution that allows us to be all and any thing we want to be. That is trying to make it real for people. It really does need to be a place where people are really engaging genuinely. Whether they are cross with each other or happy with each other, that doesn't really matter if we are connecting with each other. What we are doing in the future, these programmes we think we can bring value to what the city offers, the larger city landscape. What would people walk from Westbury to this site for? We know music, young people looking for opportunity, maybe renting a room to have a seminar, somebody might want to rent the space for a wedding. We are not all things to everyone. We are not a recreation centre. We don't do sport. Our bottom line is a place where you can encounter other people and yourself in perhaps in a different way, somebody else's cultural history and tradition that you wouldn't otherwise normally have opportunity for. In London where I grew up I had opportunity to go to museums and the movies and dance class. I went Irish dancing and I could go to the theatre and I could go to the public library. And I had a library in my school, and I could enter writing competitions and and and ... In South African you can do that if you have access to resources. If you don't? And our history means that some of those places like the recreation centre in Westbury is a hideous building. They were vast halls that were put up with no architectural merit in order to say we have given you your own space, don't come to ours. That is why they were built. That is unacceptable. We are not saying knock that down. We are saying create new in addition to. That space is great for basketball or indoor tennis. It is a hideous hall, but they also need libraries and spaces to sit and admire art or see theatre. Communities have made the most of recreation, if they had them. Sophiatown never had one. Westdene had one and then Westbury and Newlands. But you didn't go to them if you didn't live there. You need these new spaces which are in the gap between the old geography and where we are going with our new geography, corridors of freedom, you need these kind of spaces. What we are doing now in terms of culture, arts and festival is really just a pop up of what other people could be doing of they had the spaces. When we did the community consultations and we did a year of consultations of what the space would offer. What we wanted was spaces where people could be together in different ways. We are not trying to define what we can do forever. We are at the starting point of the journey. The place will evolve. We will do some training. We will do some talks. We would love to host something called Sophiatown Salon, that old idea of people coming together in a salon, not a hair salon, but in a talking space. The idea is that the Xuma house will become the living room, so we will be having events in the living room, to bring it down to size. So people can say there is a book launch, or a reading or a poetry in the living room. It will be the living room size and then you have the bigger size here. The idea is you have these flexible spaces which can work simultaneously or together depending on how the thing evolves culturally. We will have specific things that young people might want us to offer like writing poetry, taking photography class or things that are not on their radar.
The festival is a pop idea. It is about celebrating diversity. It is about saying can we rebuild that spirit that was here before? Now we have got this launch pad of the space. Can we do something that actually goes out into the community. The idea eventually would be to have a sort of circuit where in Westbury they are hosting comedy nights and house music and Westdene is having a restaurant table and we are doing outdoor film in the park. So people will be able to move around the historic Western neighbourhoods and connect again in the way they did. Martindale, Western Native, Sophiatown, people moved between those areas completely freely. People lived and stayed over night as it was too late to go back to the location. The idea was for people to freely move.
When I first came to South Africa I stayed in Benoni with friends but I spent most of my time in the townships in East Rand. I knew my way around Tokoza better than I knew my way around Benoni. People just couldn't understand that but that is where it is happening, that is where the community is, things are changing, the influence is. If you are not connected to the change in terms of peoples expectations, hopes and fears and aspirations. If you weren't connected to that you didn't know where you are heading. Now the premiere stated very clearly for Gauteng at least that township revitalisation is a priority. And I would say it is at least ten years behind schedule. We should have started. But now it is coming. And now people need to see real communities emerging from what were labour camps. This is a space that is open to everybody and there will be something for everybody across the year, both free and paid for and subsidised. Our vision is that it is a self sustaining circle. There has to be something for everybody in the cultural sense. Art exhibitions, workshops, community building, things that are around consultations or conversations.