Sophiatown

Life in Sophiatown

As population in the freehold townships swelled, overcrowding and rack renting became the order of the day. Black property owners in Sophiatown were themselves poor. In order to pay back the mortgages on their properties, they had to take in paying tenants. Thus, they built shacks, rooms and huts in their backyards, for letting. Yards with only one toilet or tap, or none at all, were shared by several families.

A great many daily activities - cooking, singing, washing, talking, learning, fighting, partying - took place in communal yards and streets. A close-knit, vibrant and lively community developed and it is this aspect of Sophiatown that is fondly remembered by the people who lived there. Yet despite this vibrant sense of community, it was also an extremely harsh environment, with a great deal of poverty, suffering and violence.

These two conflicting images of Sophiatown stand side by side - the romantic vision of a unique community juxtaposed with the seedy and violent township with dangers lurking at every corner.

Don Mattera captures the harsher aspects of Sophiatown - overcrowding, the griminess, the exploitation, in this extract.

It had its gregarious, cosmopolitan image already; because Africans of all tribes, Chinese, Mulattos like me with white fathers and black mothers or the other way round - I knew of a family with a black father and white mother - were moving in there. It was a place where the poor were victims of subtle exploitation at the hands of shrewd Chinese, Indian, white and in a few instances, African businessmen, who drained the masses very discreetly.

Food was sold in small quantities but at huge profits. A five-penny loaf of bread would be sliced into twelve or fifteen pieces and sold at a penny a slice. Other commodities such as cooking oil, sugar, maize-meal, tea and candles were neatly packed into three-penny or five-penny parcels, which realized big profits. And the unsuspecting customers paid, unaware they were victims of bloodsucking. Even house rentals were paid on an installment basis.

Property owners, especially the Jews and Indians, built several single quarters on small plots and also encouraged the erection of wood and zinc shanties at rentals of two and three pounds a month. Most of the yards had a single lavatory and one tap shared by 150 to 200 residents. People and the township dogs relieved themselves against the same walls and put their mouths under the same taps. Beneath the same tree they had their brief sexual encounters. And you would find a man or woman lying drunk in the grime and slime and debris, breathing the foul air of the dispossessed and forsaken life - men and women robbed of those vital fibres that divide man from beast."

Sophiatown was quite unlike other African locations in South Africa. And that is because it was never a location. It was a freehold township, which meant that it was one of the rare places in South African urban areas where blacks were allowed to own land. This was land that never belonged to the Johannesburg municipality, and so it never developed the form of those matchbox houses, built row upon row, with the same uniformity and lack of character.

Sophiatown developed its own colourful character and history.

The houses were built according to people's ability to pay, their own tastes, and cultural background. As a result, there were some houses that were built of brick, and may have had four or more rooms; some were much smaller. Others were built like people's homes in the rural areas; while still others may have been single room shacks put together with corrugated iron and scrap sheet metal.

Perhaps more importantly, Sophiatown developed a sense of community like no other. People struggled to survive together, and a rich culture based on shebeens, mbaqanga music, beer-brewing developed. People remember Sophiatown fondly.