This article traces the major segregation laws in South Africa that acted as precedent for the 1954 Native Resettlement Act. This apartheid law authorised the forced removal of Africans from “any area in the magisterial district of Johannesburg.” This Act was specifically instituted to displace Africans from Sophiatown, a largely African township of Johannesburg, which had become a threat to the apartheid regime. Sophiatown menaced the White regime for reasons including its established sense of African identity and community; its high incidence of gang violence and violent resistance to apartheid legislation; its increasingly vocal community of political activists; and its proximity to other (White) Johannesburg townships. Through organisations, protests, publications, and conferences, Africans demonstrated immense resistance against the removals. By 1955, when the removals began, the Government’s creation of new administrative bodies (such as the 1953 Natives Resettlement Board) and new laws (such as the 1954 Native Resettlement Act) overpowered African opposition. Nevertheless, the story of Sophiatown, the struggle of political parties and individuals, to sustain the African community in the face of enormous opposition, should inspire courage that social justice and solidarity may overcome the violent forces of inequality.


Sophiatown, Newclare, and Martindale””the western townships of Johannesburg collectively known as the Western Areas””constituted the most significant African urban settlement in South Africa during the 1940s and 1950s. The Western Areas was also the centre of political activism, fronted by the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party. Between 1955 and 1963, Africans were evicted from the area. Sophiatown was bulldosed, reconstructed as a White township, and renamed Triomf (“Triumph”), designating the event as a proud accomplishment of the apartheid regime (1948-94) (Goodhew, xv-xvi).

The South African government passed some 100 laws between 1919 and the 1970s in order to channel the country into a spatial and demographic reconfiguration like that which proceeded in the Western Areas (Kane-Berman, 70). This initiative took place in full throttle after 1948 with the inauguration of Apartheid. The principle of racial segregation and disenfranchisement in South Africa, however, was much older, and federal efforts to standardise this policy were made as early as 1913 (Ibid., 71).

The Natives Land Act (1913) and the Native (Urban Areas) Act (1923) looked forward to the policy of Apartheid. In 1913, the Union of South Africa permitted only seven percent of the total landmass to be owned by Africans. Outside of these “reserves,” Africans were no longer entitled to land in rural areas without approval from the Governor-General. The second Act ordained city authorities to enforce residential segregation. The prejudicial ideologies that motivated these bills include the removal of property rights from Africans, their subjugation to Whites (by removing their right to property), and the attempt to prevent social, political, and sexual consorting between the races (Ibid., 70-71).

South Africa underwent a significant economic transformation at the turn of the century. Prior to the seminal events of the discovery of diamonds at Kimberly and of gold on the Witwatersrand in the late 1860s and 1880s respectively, South Africa was still predominantly an agrarian country. These discoveries, however, spawned industrial development and urbanisation. This transition altered real estate demands from rural to urban areas. African communities in the towns were not treated as having landed there due to their forced removal from their communities in the countryside; they were seen as irritants of the White agenda (Ibid., 69).

Racist values collided with the forces of industrialisation as white employers sought to hire black labourers, who were not entitled to the same wages as Whites. The Urban Areas Act was passed to limit the number of Africans entering urban areas to that required by employers and to order those who could not find work to leave. This resulted in the enforcement of “pass” laws, which required Africans to carry proof of residency and facilitated the close surveillance of the influx of Africans into towns around the country (Ibid., 69-72).

Local authorities varied in their enforcement of the influx control provisions of the 1923 Act in the 1920s. As time passed, the Act was amended to regularise its use and extend the reach of its control. A 1930 amendment instructed local authorities to deny African women the right to enter urban areas unless they had written proof that accommodation was to be made for them. A 1937 amendment prohibited the transfer of property between non-Africans and Africans in municipalities, thus infiltrating the influence of the 1913 Land Act into the urban domain (Ibid., 72-73).

In 1936, the Native Trust and Land Act enlarged African “reserves” by 6.5 percent of the land. This change did not alter the living conditions of the 6.6 million Africans by any radical means compared to the 2 million Whites. This was not an act of mercy on the part of the Government; it was an attempt to prevent what would have occurred naturally as a result of industrialisation: the development of interracial cities in which Africans were permanent residents and constituting the majority (Ibid., 70).

The war effort during World War Two (1939-45) warranted African labour in Johannesburg and the relaxation of influx controls. Political pressure to reassert the controls arose towards the War’s end, once officials took note of the population increase of urban Africans. A want of labour on farms combined with white concerns about social purity. In 1944, political pressure in Johannesburg resulted in the resolution by the Johannesburg City Council (JCC) to remove all non-Whites from Sophiatown, a neighbouring suburb. In 1947, the federal government began talks about farm labour as a compensation for violating influx control laws (Mandy, 181).

Sophiatown was important for the Government to destroy and for Africans to protect because it defied the image of South Africa that the apartheid regime was trying to construct. The Western Areas were not African “locations,” but suburbs””townships originally intended for white occupation. The proximity of a refuse dump disinterested whites from the Areas initially. Sophiatown was a freehold suburb and one of a number in the Transvaal where Africans had purchased property before the 1923 Urban Areas Act. The racial segregation of Johannesburg in 1923, moreover, encouraged the spillage of Africans out of the city and into the suburbs. The 1930s boom in manufacturing demanded housing for the African working-class in Johannesburg, and landlords in Sophiatown increasingly rented rows of shanties in their backyards to African and Coloured families and single persons. The population of the Western Areas doubled between 1928 and 1934, from 12 000 to 24 000, and again to 60 000 by the 1950s. The Western Areas developed gradually as a congested and dynamic community, less constrained by the administrative controls of the African “locations” (Lodge, 109-10). It was also multi-racial where 54 000 Africans were integrated with 3 000 Coloureds, 1 500 Indians, and 700 Chinese (Ibid., 82). Poor whites moved into the western townships of Brixton, Newlands, and Westdone during the 1920s. As these White townships and the Western Areas expanded, alarm as to the proximity of the groups intensified (see Figure 1) (Mandy, 180-81).

Sophiatown was not a slum, although living conditions were certainly poor for the African majority working-class. It had been targeted by speculators as a candidate White suburb and, before the demolitions, contained 20 schools, various missions, 17 churches, 2 cinemas, and shops. Yet, it also boasted a slumyard counterculture: in the shebeens and jazz clubs, alcohol was brewed and sold illicitly, women engaged in prostitution, and men gambled and hawked. The population density, the poverty, and the relatively light enforcement of influx controls fostered the rise of gangs. The sense that Sophiatown was an African town in a white state was reflected in the modest chances for economic uplift that were provided through these contraband activities (Lodge, 111-12). There was also a flourishing intellectual community comprised of journalists, writers, and artists such as Bloke Modisane, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Todd Matshikiza, Arthur Maimane, Don Mattera, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, and Lewis Nkosi. Through the publication of their writing and their musical collaborations, these people gave the township culture literary and artistic expression. Their work celebrated institutions like the shebeen where the revelry of locals was sometimes interrupted by gangsters or the police (Baines, 43). The Western Areas acquired an array of formal and informal associations through which the political interests of Africans found expression. The Non-European Ratepayers Association galvanised the minority of African landlords; landlords occupied the higher ranks of the local ANC chapter””Simon Tyeku, J.D. Matlou, and A.B. Xuma to name a few””with the working-class filling a portion of the ANC’s regular membership (Ibid., 115).

By the mid-twentieth century, Sophiatown, Newclare, and Martindale came to be seen as hotbeds of African dissidence. In the words of Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs (1950-58) and Prime Minister of South Africa (1958-66), the Western Areas were “for many years a source of difficulty,” and, as of late, sources of the Administration’s distress. On four occasions between November 1949 and March 1950, gangs of the Western Areas demonstrated their ability to resist any threat against what they considered to be their territory. Sophiatown was the heart of underground activity and gave rise to more gangs than any other location or township. Gang activity saw violent crime increase by 20 percent in neighbouring Johannesburg in the later 1940s; post-World-War-Two unemployment rates and low African wages were likely paralleled and contributing factors (Lodge, 118-20).

On 1 November 1949, a protest against the increase in tram fares from Sophiatown to Johannesburg escalated into armed conflict with the police. On 29 January 1950, a mob spirited a man out of the hands of the police during his arrest for illegal possession of alcohol. When the police returned with reinforcements, the mob had grown in size, and a two-hour confrontation ended in the police tear-gassing the streets. The following month, on 14 January 1950, a pass offender was arrested and a riot ensued, which lasted into the next day. Cars were stoned, street lamps extinguished to hamper the situation for the police, and several Asian-owned stores lit on fire. In March 1950, a labour strike, organised on May Day by the ANC, the Communist Party, and the Transvaal Indian Congress, erupted into shooting. The strike was called to protest the 1950 Suppression of Communism Bill and the bans on public speaking placed on J.B. Marks, Moses Kotane, and Yusuf Dadoo. Thirteen civilians were killed (Lodge, 117-18).

Each confrontation involved issues of everyday importance: transportation fees, alcohol distilling as a means of income, influx controls, public speech, and political expression. The riots gave expression to the antagonism that brewed between the executors of repressive power and the repressed but politically engaged working class (Ibid., 119). In this context, the first meeting to marshal a plan of action for the Western Areas’ removals took place between the Native Affairs Department and the JCC’s Non-European Affairs Department on 17 February 1950. In March 1951, Verwoerd settled the plan to clear the Western Areas of “Black Spots.” The JCC started to inform African ratepayers in April of 1952 (Ibid., 122).

After the Nationalist rise to power in 1948, the Administration staff was populated with apartheid zealots, such as Verwoerd as Minister and W.M. Eiselen as Secretary of Native Affairs in 1950 (Kane-Berman, 73). The new government ordered the JCC to implement the plans drawn up for the removal of Black residents from Sophiatown. The JCC voiced reservations against this instruction for practical and ethical reasons: 90 percent of Sophiatown’s population of 60 000 was Black (Mandy, 181).

The National Party institutionalised the policy that property in urban areas was the right of Whites alone, who accommodated those Africans who came into town to satisfy labour needs (Kane-Berman, 73). The plans to demolish Sophiatown sparked a stand off during the early 1950s, putting the federal government on one side and JCC and African organisations on the other. In 1952, the Government established a temporary Resettlement Board to supervise the removal of Africans from Sophiatown and Newclare to Meadowlands in Soweto, further southwest of Johannesburg. In a 1953 memorandum, the African Anti-Expropriation Ratepayers’ Association protested the non-consultation with those residents that were to be impacted. The South African Institute of Race Relations organised a conference on the proposed plans for Sophiatown to which a representative from the Government was invited, but who did not attend. In reaction, the JCC resolved a policy of non-cooperation with the federal government in the execution of the removals (Mandy, 181-82). The Government played its trump card in this power struggle when it created the Native Resettlement Board (NRB) in 1954. This imperious executive office subordinated the JCC and ensured Johannesburg’s compliance with the NRB’s urban policies (see Figure 2) (Evans, 152).

The Native Resettlement Act of 1954 authorised the federal government to override recalcitrant local authorities such as the JCC. With the municipal government under control, Verwoerd and his army of bureaucrats launched a scheme to sabotage communal opposition efforts to the removals. Verwoerd proselytised the removal scheme as beneficial to the impoverished Africans. He asserted that housing in the new locations would be spacious and that recreational facilities, like those in Sophiatown, would be provisioned (Mandy, 181). Propertied Africans of the Western Areas mobilised immediately against this plan, which they rightly saw as just another ploy by the federal government to appropriate land and sweep Africans to the peripheries.

Gang members would not have been much happier either at the prospect of relocating to a state-controlled township (Lodge, 127). Yet, there was a class division in the ranks of the mobilised opposition. J.B. Marks, a leader of the ANC, attributed the failure of the campaign against the removals to this divide in the African population””the unwilling to move, the select group of landlords and homeowners, and the willing to move, the mass of squatters, tenants, and subtenants (Evans, 156). For the former, the loss of capital in land was at stake. For the latter, the much more populous and propertyless group, Verwoerd’s agenda was not without allure: short-term relief from the rent debts and squalor that were widespread in the Western Areas (Ibid).

The ANC launched a “Defiance Campaign” against six of the apartheid laws in June of 1952.1 Volunteers, inspired by Gandhi’s methods of passive resistance, broke apartheid laws and submitted to jail time rather than pay fines. Over 8 000 volunteers were arrested that year for infringements such as refusing to carry passes, burning passes, defying “European-only” signs in public spaces, and entering restricted areas without a permit. In 1953, Parliament responded to the Campaign by passing the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Accordingly, it became illegal to protest any law and to encourage or help any person transgress a law (see Figure 3) (Kane-Berman, 74).

Between 1951 and 1962, there were over four million convictions for pass and associated offences (Ibid., 75). This accomplishment undoubtedly took a toll on the ANC membership by the time it came to mobilising a campaign against the planned removals. According to Ivan Evans, “the clearance schemes met with little organised resistance,” because “the ANC failed to give practical direction to blacks targeted for removal” (Evans, 155). At the same time, he concedes, activists had to work around the prohibition of public gatherings and the surprise arrival of the removal forces at Sophiatown two days earlier than the proposed date (Ibid., 155-56). On 9 February 1955, before daybreak, 86 army trucks, carrying 1500 soldiers, brandishing stun guns and rifles, forced 150 families out of Sophiatown. That Sophiatown civilians were brutalised along the move to Meadowlands is supported by ample evidence (Ibid., 156). In total, around 60 000 Africans were displaced from the Western Areas, leaving only 82 families in Sophiatown by 1959 (Ibid).

Those who were moved and given housing in Meadowlands or Diepkloof1 satisfied the conditions of Section 10 of the Native (Urban) Areas Act: “birth in the area in question; lawful residence there for at least fifteen years; being the son under eighteen, the wife, or the unmarried daughter of a person born, resident for fifteen or employed for ten years in the area; or having permission from a labour bureau to remain there” (Kane-Berman, 74). Those who did not satisfy these terms, “illegals,” were displaced to the African rural reserves or to work on white farms, where working conditions and wages were worse than in urban areas. Between 1955 and 1963,

The Campaign opposed the following: the Group Areas Act (1950), the Stock Limitation Act (1950), the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), the Separate Representation of Voters Act (1951), the Bantu Authorities Act (1951), and the Natives Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act (1952) (Fine & Davis, 118).

Because Meadowlands was not large enough to accommodate all the Africans moved out of the Western Areas, the JCC made Diepkloof available for settlement mostly for people removed from Newclare and Martindale (Mandy, 182).

the Native Resettlement Act authorised the removal of 465 000 Africans, those who had failed to qualify for urban residence, from 23 major towns, such the Western Areas. This mass resettlement of Africans demonstrated one of the primary objectives of the influx controls and the geographic reorganisation of urban areas: to remove Africans from the towns and to provide farms with cheap labour (Ibid., 74-75).

Bloke Modisane (1923-86) was born and raised in Sophiatown and forced to leave in the late 1950s. He wrote about the damaging effects of state-initiated violence under Apartheid in Blame Me on History. Whereas in principle, the laws of state protected citizens against the abuse of power, it functioned under Apartheid as a subjugating force that coerced non-Whites into legal obedience. Modisane defined apartheid law as a system of “violence,” which imposed colonial order (that is, white supremacy and racial discrimination) rather than justice (Lenta, 106-08). Apartheid designates a time period in South African history when the federal government invented and instituted an unprecedented number of these laws devised to reinforce black inferiority.

Until 1955, Sophiatown undermined the legal framework of apartheid in many ways, most overtly by existing as an African suburb. From the mid-1950s onward, the forcible partition of “races,” Africans, Coloureds, and Indians, and their spatial reorganisation became standardised in all urban areas. This did not simply facilitate the administration of urban communities according to apartheid law; in building the new conditions of law and order into the spatial environs, the regime committed a further act of violence by coercing civil society to comply with the legal framework (Evans, 158-59).

The story of Sophiatown, the struggle of political parties, organisations, and individuals to sustain the African community in the face of enormous opposition, should inspire courage that social justice and solidarity may overcome the violent forces of inequality (see Figure 4).

This article was written by Honor Lay and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship

Collections in the Archives