Sophiatown

Sophiatown had been in the government’s cross-hairs since before World War II. Until the ’50s, however, it had been saved by the government’s reluctance to build alternative housing for the African workers that South African industries and households so desperately needed. With the coming of apartheid– the reinforced and reinvigorated form of white supremacy that the Nationalist Party had ushered in after its victory in the 1948 all-white election — Sophiatown’s time was clearly coming to an end. (Other neighborhoods that were racial anomolies, such as Cape Town’s District 6, were also targeted.)

By the early ’50s, the government was making plans for its destruction and for the removal of its residents to the newly constructed township of Meadowlands, many miles to the southwest of Johannesburg.

Residents and political activists resisted the government’s plans. The African National Congress [ANC], for instance, initiated its “anti-removal campaign” in 1953. Throughout that year and 1954 an 1955, as well, it held frequent public rallies, often attracting thousands of participants, and pledged that Sophiatown would be destroyed “Over Our Dead Bodies.” It was a promise, however, that the ANC couldn’t keep. Nelson Mandela, a leader of the campaign and the man who was to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president, in 1994, admitted that the organization’s efforts were “too little and too late.” Most importantly, it had failed offer Sophiatown’s residents a realistic alternative to the government’s scheme and few — very few — were prepared to risk their lives for a promise that had proven to be empty. “In the end,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “Sophiatown died not to the sound of gunfire but to the sound of rumbling trucks and sledgehammers.”

The government built Triomf [Triumph], a housing development for working-class whites, on the ruins of Sophiatown. In 2006, 12 years after the fall of apartheid, the area was renamed Sophiatown.