The Destruction of Sophiatown
Apartheid's Truimph Over Non-Racialism
The destruction of Sophiatown is widely documented, considered as the Nationalist Party (NP) government's model for its urban apartheid legislation and policies. However, there are still glaring gaps in critical areas of the township's history that need to be plugged to achieve a fuller account of Sophiatown community experience of the Apartheid regime.
More significantly, there is a need to explain how and why the NP government succeeded in destroying Sophiatown where the United Party (UP) dominated Johannesburg City Council (JCC) failed for nearly two decades.
The NP government had a number of strategic advantages over the JCC in its endeavour to destroy Sophiatown. As with the destruction of inner city slumyards and resettlement of the communities in Orlando, the JCC was expected to provide alternative housing for Sophiatown's community earmarked for resettlement in Soweto. The JCC did not have the budget to finance a low cost housing scheme. The NP government, eager to implement its apartheid policies, provided the budget and logistical support to achieve this.
In 1950, the NP government passed the Group Areas Act, which designated specific areas for particular race groups. All blacks living in so-called white areas had to be resettled in areas set aside for black occupation. Consequently, the destruction of Sophiatown moved from being a matter of local government interest to that of Central government vision and strategy. In 1953 the NP government created the Native Resettlement Board (NRB), a statutory body acting as a local authority for the Western Areas. The NRB replaced the JCC's Non-European Affairs Department (NEAD).
The Native Resettlement Board: Apartheid's Local Authority
The NRB was responsible for drawing up and implementing operational plans for the removal and resettlement of Sophiatown residents in different parts of Soweto. And once Africans were resettled in Soweto between 1955 and 1960, the NRB acted as a local authority in respect of the new townships. The NRB started the process by undertaking a survey of Sophiatown. The survey was detailed, covering the ethic breakdown, size and composition of families, family incomes, and distribution by gender and most significantly, length of residence in Johannesburg for the townships' inhabitants. The most critical indicator though, was the breakdown into Landlords, Tenants and sub tenants.
Armed with this elaborate information, the NRB began formulating concrete plans for the relocation of the community of Sophiatown to Meadowlands. By the middle of 1954 the NRB was already sending notices to residents informing them of its intention to resettle them. This was after the building programme of low cost housing in Meadowlands was apace.
The figures gleaned from the survey are critical in the analysis of resistance to removals. A key question facing historians is whether all three social groups (property owners, tenants and sub-tenants) would have shown the same level of enthusiasm for the resistance movement. Some argue that tenants and sub tenants did not have much to lose, but a little more to gain from being resettled in Meadowlands.
Others point to the fact that shared historical, collective experience helped to blur what would have otherwise been a deep hiatus between different social groups, helping to forge a "working class" identity. At this stage groups threatened by forced removals began preparing for the eventuality. Some historians have argued that the resistance movement was forged at this time, gaining momentum as the NRB's plans unfolded. There is no consensus among historians on the responses of various constituencies in Sophiatown to these developments.
Sophiatown is celebrated as a township known for its gangsters, musicians, artists and other social and anti social activities that generated some form of income for those involved. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that some social groups in Sophiatown had their means of livelihood threatened by the impending forced removals.
It is often argued that the majority of Black, African landlords was wholly dependent on rentals collected from tenants and sub tenants. Facing economic ruin once resettled in Soweto, these landlords are deemed to have been particularly vocal in the resistance movement.
Similarly, gangsters were also threatened by removals. Sophiatown was not subjected to effective policing. Resettlement in Soweto, surely, would be accompanied by increased levels of policing. It is for this reason that gangsters in Sophiatown were seen to be particularly active in the resistance movement. Robert Resha, the prominent ANC leader in the township appears to have understood this dynamic of the resistance movement. He is reputed to have helped mobilize gangs against the impending forced removals.
The role of tenants and sub tenants in the resistance movement has generated some disagreements among historians. Many argue that tenants and sub tenants were particularly concerned about having to commute long distances once resettled in Meadowlands. This would have entailed additional costs as well as the inconvenience of using a public transport service that could only be erratic, at best and probably dysfunctional, at worst. These considerations would have induced tenants and sub tenants to join the resistance movement.
Sometime in 1954 residents received the first batch of notices from the NRB informing them of the dates earmarked for their removal to Meadowlands. At this stage several hundreds of match box houses in Meadowlands were nearing completion. Some residents had had the opportunity to view the houses in Meadowlands before the fateful day of removals. Again here there seem to have been conflicting accounts of what impression residents formed of the standard of houses provided as compared to what they had in Sophiatown.
Many felt the houses were sub standard, some felt they were an improvement on the kind of accommodation they had in Sophiatown. It is not clear which of the groups predominated. What is apparent is that if the majority thought the houses sub standard, resistance would be more intense.
Accounts of the destruction of Sophiatown have suggested that these developments galvanized the whole community, preparing them for a showdown with authorities in what was expected to be a fierce resistance to the resettlement scheme. Others have suggested that Sophiatown was not a homogenous community united against the NRB's proposed plans. That in spite of the appearance of unity of purpose articulated in song and the slogan "Ons Dak nie... Ons phola hierso", meaning "We are not moving...we are staying here", others were ambivalent, at best and guardedly reluctant, at worst to join the resistance movement.
This was the mood that gripped Sophiatown between 1953 (when the NRB first activated its resettlement scheme) and February 1955, when the first of the bull dozers rolled into the township. It is suggested that during this period definite plans for deepening resistance were being hatched. Nelson Mandela is thought to have developed the M-Plan at this stage in anticipation of a confrontation between authorities determined to have their way and residents anxious about the loss of their way of life if resistance collapsed.
Don Mattera's poetry shows the agony of having seen Sophiatown being brought down, and black people forcibly removed.
Armed with bulldozers
to do a job
just hired killers.
We gave way
there was nothing we could do
although the bitterness stung in us
and in the earth around us.
("The Day They Came For Our House")
The ANC protested the removals and launched an 18 month campaign against the proposed removals "We won't move / ons sal nie dak nie / Asihambi were the slogans popularised by Congress. The people of Sophiatown were mobilised against the removals. And in parliament, the Minister of Justice claimed that the ANC would oppose the removals with force, using machine-guns, cars loaded with explosives, and tyres which would be filled with explosives and rolled towards the police.
Two days before the removals were scheduled to take place, 2000 police, armed with automatic rifles, invaded Sophiatown and started moving out the first families. The armed resistance was nowhere to be seen. That first night, in the pouring rain, 110 families were moved out of Sophiatown to the new township of Meadowlands in Soweto.
Otla utlwa makgowa arei
Are yeng ko Meadowlands
Meadowlands sithando sam
you'll hear the whites say
Let's move to Meadowlands
Meadowlands, my love
Otlwa utlwa botsotsi bare
Ons dak ni ons pola hier
Pola hier pola hier
Pola hier sithando sam
You'll hear the tsotsis say
We're not moving, we're staying here
Stay here, stay here
Stay here, my love
The removal of all the families, and the physical destruction of Sophiatown took several years, but the failure of the resistance had been shown on the first night.
• Giliomee, H and Mbenga, B. (2007) New History of South Africa Cape Town) p318
• Evans, I. T. (1957) Bureaucracy and race administration South Africa (London) pp145-55
• Mattera, D (1987) Memory is the Weapon (Johannesburg)
• Bonner, P and Segal, L (1998) Soweto: A History (London)
• Modisane, B (1963) Blame on History (London)
• A History of Soweto from South SAfrican History Online [online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/places/villages/gauteng/soweto.htm [Accessed on 27 January 2011]