What we can learn from Sophiatown


During Monday’s Assembly, I spoke about Sophiatown, an area of Johannesburg that by the 1930s had developed into a multi-ethnic community.

Through a mix of indigenous cultures and the influence of American jazz and cinema, Sophiatown became a hotbed of culture for three decades – music, journalism, literature, photography, theatre all flourished. Drum magazine, launched in the early 1950s and aimed at the Black urban population, was significant in encouraging these arts as well as documenting the injustices under apartheid. Musicians such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, composer and journalist Todd Matshikiza, writers, Can Themba and Es’kia Mphahlele, actor and short story writer Bloke Modisane all lived and worked in Sophiatown and were influenced by life there.

Es’kia Mphahlele and Bloke Modisane

Writer, Es’kia Mphahlele and writer / actor, Bloke Modisane

The ethnic mix of Sophiatown flew in the face of apartheid policies. In 1955, despite individual and mass protests, the authorities started the first forced removals, dismantling the township, relocating people to areas in and around Johannesburg – to areas designated by ethnicity. My wife’s family, parents and grandparents were part of this forced removal. Over the next few years, forced removals and the bulldozing of houses continued. Sophiatown was designated a ‘whites only’ area and renamed ‘Triomf’.

But the struggle against apartheid went on.  Although many artists had their work banned, through their influence, whether at home under the apartheid laws or overseas in exile, they shaped attitudes and worked for political change. In 1963 Miriam Makeba was invited to speak at the United Nations to explain how life was under apartheid. Subsequently banned from returning home, she continued to bring awareness about the situation in South Africa to audiences around the world through her performances.

Sophiatown - Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Over the next thirty and more years, international opinion and political conditions changed, domestic unrest increased and eventually the new democratic South Africa arrived. In the elections of 1994, Nelson Mandela was voted in as president and the principle of diversity was enshrined in the new constitution. Just as the rich cultural life of Sophiatown had an impact on shaping the new South Africa, so too the values we portray through art, photography, music, writing and drama – all accomplishments for which Bedales students are notable – can influence people and help bring about justice and change in the wider world.

By Martin Jones, Teacher of Maths