Sophiatown

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Can Themba His Sophiatown home became the "House of Truth". Source: sylvesterstein.com

Sophiatown in Literature

An Invaluable Historical Source

The literature on "life in Sophiatown" by a generation of prose writers, novelists, playwrights and poets is recognized as providing the most poignant accounts of the township's and South Africa's history in the last sixty years. Many of them were linked to Drum Magazine and Golden City Post. Their biographies, short stories and prose have left a legacy that has captured the texture of Sophiatown and life in early Apartheid South Africa in ways that no other form of writing has.

The experiences of Sophiatown's community in the 1940s and 1950s have been captured for posterity by Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Todd Matshikiza, Henry Nxumalo and Eskia Mphahlele, among others. And in writing about shebeens, music, crime and gangsters and the hazards of beer brewing, they were reflecting their own experiences.

In many cases these stories are autobiographical, recounting the experiences of the authors themselves. The stories depict the culture and history of Sophiatown, focused on shebeens, music, the arts, gangs and daily experiences of individuals and the community and providing a rich source for historians to recreate the township's past. This group of literary figures inspired as much wrath and outrage in the authorities as did transgressors like gangsters and the violent crimes they perpetrated.     

Many of these literary figures left South Africa soon after the destruction of Sophiatown and the stiffening of Apartheid in the late 1950s and early in the 1960s. In some cases it is their experiences reflected in their writings, more than accounts of the overtly political liberation movements that received much of the media coverage in the US and the United Kingdom, where the majority spent their lives as exiles.

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Last updated : 09-Jan-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011

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