Sophiatown is a hidden Johannesburg gem located next to Westdene, close to Melville and Auckland Park. This small area is full of rich history that dates back to February 1955, when the National Party destroyed the area under the Group Areas Act under Apartheid law.
Sophiatown was known as a vibrant area where people could just be people and the question of race was nonexistent. Jazz, art and unity transcended in the streets. History has it that when a wedding occurred in Sophiatown, no invitations would be handed out, instead, a notice would be put up in a public area, so anyone and everyone was welcome to attend – that is how strong the sense of community at the time was.
Being a mixed-race development where race was arbitrary, when the obliteration occurred in 1955, apparently most people did not know what race they were – this was how the pencil test and others were introduced to verify each person’s race. People of Sophiatown were forcibly evicted and relocated to areas based on their race, as the Apartheid law believed at the time, ‘divide and rule’.
Eventually, people of Sophiatown began leaving on their own to prevent the destruction of their belongings. All property was bulldozed and, even though records do not reflect this, people died due to the depression evoked from losing their property and their homes. Sophiatown was then renamed Triomf, which meant ‘triumph’, and was turned into an all-white suburb.
In 2006, Sophiatown was officially renamed as such. Residents believe that the spirit of the old Sophiatown still lingers in the streets of new Sophiatown. The Sophiatown Heritage Centre is where most of the area’s history is exhibited, from donated pots, sewing machines, and other property that was found under the rubbles of Triomf, to photographs, letters, and a dedication to Trevor Huddleston – who stood against discrimination during Apartheid. All this history is just a drive away, definitely worth a visit!
For more information, visit their website here.
By Cleopatra Shava