On Sunday I went on a guided tour of Sophiatown, presented by the area’s cultural and heritage centre. It was the 59th anniversary – to the day – that police entered the suburb to clear it of its residents. Sophiatown tends to represent two things to South Africans: on the one hand, the vibrancy of life in multiracial and multicultural suburbs in early twentieth-century South Africa. Sophiatown attracted writers, musicians, and activists to a socially mixed suburb – one where Dr AB Xuma, President of the ANC during the 1940s, could buy a grand, wooden floored and high ceilinged house with ample garden, but where poor families squeezed into dank, dirty, and often crime ridden slums.
And on the other, it represents the forced removal of people partly as a result of the Group Areas Act (1950), which segregated all residential areas according to race. As a ‘mixed’ suburb, Sophiatown – alongside District Six in Cape Town, for instance – was deemed to be in contravention of this legislation. Over the course of eight years, Sophiatown’s residents were moved to areas on the edges of Johannesburg: Africans to Meadowlands, Asians to Lenasia, and coloured people to Eldorado Park. The area itself was bulldozed, rebuilt, and rezoned as white. It was renamed Triomf (or ‘triumph’). (And was the subject of a harrowing and damning 1994 novel by Marlene van Niekerk.)
In 2006, the Johannesburg City Council restored the suburb’s name to Sophiatown, and there have been several attempts to excavate the area’s complex – even hidden – past. The Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre has an exhibition of photographs of Sophiatown before the bulldozers arrived, and attempts to provide some sense of what it was like to live there. One of its most successful exhibits is a large, rectangular Perspex box filled with sand and what appears to be, on first glance, rubbish.
But the objects partially hidden by brown dirt are things dug up by Sophiatown’s new residents – those who moved into Triomf – since the early 1960s: frying pans, children’s toys, cutlery, combs, and even sewing machines which families had to leave behind in the chaos of forced removal. What makes the display so poignant – other than the way it demonstrates how apartheid legislation was worked out on a domestic, personal level – is that it connects the suburb’s past and present residents in a shared remembrance of a profoundly violent episode.
It also resonates during the Centre’s guided walk around Sophiatown. Only three buildings survived the bulldozing: Xuma’s house (currently the site of the Centre), a decrepit building now renamed the ‘ghost house’, and the Church of Christ the King – in some ways the epicentre of resistance to the removals. The tour moves between these buildings, making detours to the remains of the oak tree in Bertha Street, and to part of a wall – once part of the Odin Cinema – which miraculously was not torn down during the late 1950s.
Today, Sophiatown looks much the same as any working-class South African suburb, and, despite the valiant efforts of the tour guide, it was difficult to imagine how bustling and full of people – and energy – it must once have been. What did help was the presence two former residents, both of them anti-apartheid activists, whose memories were able to evoke the suburb before and during its destruction.
Over the course of the afternoon, I was reminded powerfully of Antoinette Burton’s remarks about the archive, and historians’ relationship with the archive:
The history of the archive is a history of loss…. I would argue … that it is the archive itself which should be subject to continuous suspicion and radical doubt, serving as it often does to normalise, through classification and re-representation, what are invariably ‘fragmented, fractured and disassembled’ strands of historical evidence and experience. If we fail to recognise how historical practice (or, indeed, any practice of looking) is in danger of reassembling and recalcifying what counts as evidence … we miss a valuable opportunity to interrogate our own investments in those domains.
The few fragments that remain of Sophiatown – the objects unearthed in residents’ gardens, the two houses, the wall, the tree, the church, photographs, newsreels, and people’s memories – draw attention to the incomplete, piecemeal nature of the archive. We have access to the past only through the bits and pieces – the papers, objects – which have managed to survive bulldozers, fire, water, decay, and archivists’ best intentions.
As a result of this, argues Burton, historians need to be acutely aware of how they assemble these fragments into portraits – interpretations, narratives – of the past. There has been a tendency to romanticise Sophiatown in its heyday, not only to ignore the crime and poverty endemic to the suburb, but also to erase histories of anti-apartheid groups other than the ANC which were active in the area. Writing a more complicated, nuanced social history of Sophiatown is a useful way of demonstrating how historians, themselves, are complicit in remaking the past, and that the past is being constantly remade and reinterpreted.
Antoinette Burton, ‘Thinking beyond the Boundaries: Empire, Feminism and the Domains of History,’ Social History, vol. 26, no. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 60-71.
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