Sophiatown: Where Township Culture Begun

By Katlego Mereko

It is easy, nowadays, to take for granted that the townships have always been there, easy to presume that its vibrant, boastful, fast-talking element which have become the fabric of township life are proud products of respective townships. However, this is not the case. The birth of township lingo, the characteristic walk and even the gangsterism have an origin in the heart of the20th century in a peculiar urban set up called Sophiatown.

Initially, a farm outside the growing industrial area of Johannesburg, the area was bought by a white businessman, Hermann Tobiansky, in 1899, with the intentions of turning it into a white suburb comparable to the likes of Houghton and Parktown. He named it Sophiatown in honour of his wife Sophia and named some of the streets after his children and other family members. His dream to rival the most beautiful white suburbs was not to be, though, after the municipality decided to build a sewage disposal facility near neighbouring Western Native Township (Westbury today). The stench would go on to affect even the area of Sophiatown, which led to the rejection by the white residents who feared the value of their houses would decrease because of this development. They subsequently moved to other areas like Westdene, Brixton and others.

This left Tobiansky with no other choice but to sell land to anyone who could afford it. With the growing population of black people in urban areas surrounding the areas, especially during the war years, Sophiatown became a desirable place due to its proximity to the city. 

What quickly became unique was the fact that different sections of the non-European community; the Africans, Coloured and Asians lived side-by-side. Due to this, interracial relationships became the norm thus creating a situation which would become the antithesis of the apartheid policy.

Growing industrialisation and population increase led to overcrowding in such areas like Sophiatown, precipitating poverty and the resultant criminality. As a place already possessing a unique feature, American films would even further influence the culture of Sophiatown, with the formation of gangsters springing up in different sections of the suburb in mimesis of the American movies that they would consume in such cinematic establishments like Odin Cinema. Gangster groups such as “the Americans” and the “Vultures” would mimic the attire, swagger and opulence of American films such that luxurious cars like Cadillacs were a common feature in the area.

Sophiatown: The home of tsotsi taal

With this came the lingua franca, “die Taal” or ‘Tsotsi taal’ as it is more popularly known. It is a mixture of Afrikaans, English and Indigenous South African languages. That this language is still found in similar variations in all the townships around Johannesburg is a testament to the legacy of Sophiatown. The Americans were also known as the African Robin Hoods because they would rob and steal white shops in the CBD and then come back in Sophiatown, or Kofifi as it was otherwise known, to sell the items for next to nothing and sometimes for free.

Sophiatown had a vibrant jazz culture in the form of Blues, Marabi and Mbaqanga. Groups like the Manhattan Brothers and the Cuban brothers were famous countrywide and vocalists such as Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuka and Mirriam Makeba emerged to become continental and eventually global superstars. 

In the 1950s under the Native Laws Amendment Act, the Nationalist Party government sought to begin entrenching their apartheid policies and an end to the multiracial Sophiatown was of symbolic importance for the party. 

Forced removals started in 1955 and would last for the next seven years as residents resisted being removed from their homes. Most black people were moved to Meadowlands, but some would move to other areas such as Orlando, Dube, Pimville and in the eastern townships like Alexandra. Coloureds were moved to areas like Eldorado Park, Westbury, Noordgesig, etc.., while Indians were moved to Lenasia. The successful removals of Sophiatown residents culminated in a new area for white municipal workers and it was christened Triomf, Afrikaans for triumph, in celebration of Sophiatown’s destruction. The nerve!


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