As Johannesburg expanded, so did its need for African labour. After the First World War, a large number of factories were being established and were growing in size. More and more Africans moved to the city. As the African working class grew in Johannesburg, the population of the freehold townships expanded.
But it was Africans, Coloureds and Indians, mainly, who were attracted to Sophiatown in larger numbers than other population groups. Developments in the city and beyond attracted an ever growing number of inhabitants, mainly African, to Sophiatown. Sophiatown's population in 1921 stood at just under three thousand. Of these, just under half were Africans, with Whites accounting for just fewer than 600 and Colourds almost a thousand, the number of Indians stood at barely a hundred. As the population of the township grew during the 1920s and 1930s, the racial breakdown changed dramatically.
Sophiatown is often used to refer to the entire Western Areas of Johannesburg, comprising Sophiatown, Martindale and Western Native Township (later Western Coloured Township). In 1928 there were 12 000 people living in the three townships. By 1931, the population had increased to 17 000 growing to 26 000 in 1934. Consequently, Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare became overcrowded.
This sudden and dramatic increase in three years can be attributed to the successes of the Johannesburg City Council (JCC) in its slum clearance programme. Buoyed by increased revenue following South Africa's departure from the Gold Standard, the JCC managed to provide alternative housing for communities earmarked for removal from the inner city slum yards. Between 1931 and 1934 thousands of African families were removed from the inner city slumyards and resettled in Orlando East, a township established in 1932. Many slum dwellers were reluctant to relocate to Orlando as it was situated too far from the city. Many just slipped into the anonymity of Sophiatown, becoming tenants and sub tenants.
The growing manufacturing sector early in the 1930s coupled with increasing levels of poverty in rural South Africa combined to produce increased levels of migration to the cities. The composition of those migrating during this period is significant. Although women migration was in evidence from the 1920s, Sophiatown tended to attract mainly single males in the early part of the 1930s. The exception was Basotho women who were attracted to Newclare as opposed to Sophiatown, where beer brewing became a lucrative trade.
During World War II Sophiatown's population experienced unprecedented growth levels. The outbreak of the war, along with increasing levels of poverty in rural South Africa led to thousands of people heading to the city of Johannesburg. And with slum yards cleared, and Orlando being policed effectively by the JCC, many opted for the anonymity of freehold townships of the Western Areas. And again here, it was Sophiatown that absorbed the majority of the new arrivals.
By 1950, the population of the Western Areas as a whole had grown to approximately 60 000, with the majority resident in Sophiatown. These were broken down into about 54 000 Africans, 3000 Coloureds, 1 500 Indians and just under 700 Chinese. The number of whites in the area remained negligible. When removals began five years later, the number of African families had increased slightly, as more people moved into Sophiatown in anticipation of being allocated houses in Meadowlands.
As more people were squeezed out of the inner city slumyards, the freehold townships became even more overcrowded. These were the only areas where Africans could live without a permit. The result was that the practice of taking in tenants intensified. It was not uncommon to have 16 rooms on a stand of 50 by 100 feet, and sometimes there were as many as 80 or more people living on one stand. With the growing shortage of houses in these areas, rack-renting intensified. Many of the stands were owned by absentee, white landlords in the 1930s. Landlords built 'barracks' on the stands and charged exorbitant rents, leading to overcrowding, high rents, crime and violence.
Even though property owners and tenants lived cheek-by-jowl with each other, some form of social differentiation was not imperceptible. It is estimated that at the time of removals in 1955, 2% of Sophiatown's population was made up of property owners, 14% were tenants and a staggering 82% were sub-tenants. This breakdown becomes important in anticipating the course of resistance to forced removals in 1955 and also shaped the resettlement patterns of Sophiatown's communities in Soweto. Anecdotal evidence gathered from former Sophiatown residents suggests that the most vulnerable of these groups, sub tenants, had the least access to scarce resources.
In the three freehold townships, about two fifths of the stands were owned by blacks, and they paid rates for their property. Yet very few services were provided by the municipality. By the 1930s, the roads in Sophiatown were not tarred and there was no street lighting. The supply of water was a real problem for the people of Sophiatown. Water was obtained from wells dug by the people themselves.
These wells were open and often dirty. As a result, disease was easily spread through the water supply. Sanitation facilities were also vastly inadequate. People made use of sewerage buckets but these were not collected regularly, usually only three times a week. This also aggravated the spread of disease. The Johannesburg Municipality claimed that the rates paid by the residents were not enough to cover the costs of installing a proper water and electricity supply.
The Johannesburg Municipality certainly did not provide for other services such as health and education. Schools were run in most cases by dedicated and committed white and black people. And the churches played a dominant role in providing clinics and schools. But these were clearly not adequate for the needs of the whole community and by 1929, the estimated number of deaths of babies under a year was 750 for every 1 000 births.