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THE TOWN DESTROYED TO STOP BLACK AND WHITE PEOPLE MIXING


By Ellen OtzenBBC World Service
11 February 2015


Sophiatown, in the suburbs of Johannesburg, was once known for its bohemian lifestyle and vibrant music scene. But 60 years ago, the South African government decided to clear the multi-racial neighbourhood to turn it into a whites-only area.

The sound of horses’ hooves and shouts from police woke 10-year-old Victor Mokine early one morning.


It was February 1955, and Mokine lived with his family in Sophiatown, home to 65,000 people – black, white, mixed-race, Chinese and Indian.


“I could see policemen on horseback in our yard. Our parents told us to stay inside the house as they thought there would be violence,” he says.


“They were armed with rifles, pistols, some with machineguns. We could hear the sound of rolling trucks that had arrived to carry people’s belongings.”


The residents of Sophiatown had been told that they were going to be moved to a new site ten miles to the west. But in order to pre-empt any resistance, the authorities arrived three days earlier than planned, while it was still dark, catching the residents unprepared.

When Mokine and his family eventually went outside, they realised that 2,000 police had descended on the sleeping neighbourhood.

Sophiatown was one of the few areas in South Africa at the time where black people were allowed to own land.

But the government used the Group Areas Act, which compelled different racial groups to live separately, to enforce its policy of segregation.


Find out more

Victor Mokine spoke to Witness  on BBC World Service Radio.


It had decided two years earlier that the people of Sophiatown should be moved to a new site called Meadowlands after residents in neighbouring white suburbs started agitating for their removal.


Over the next couple of days, the evictions began in earnest.


"There was a great deal of fear. Some of the policemen simply kicked the doors in, while they shouted in Afrikaans at people to get outside. It felt like a war situation," says Mokine.


Victor Mokine and his family were removed from Sophiatown when he was 11

Paul Joseph, then a factory worker in his mid-20s and a member of the Indian Youth Congress, lived in nearby Fordsburg and went to Sophiatown the day the removals began.


Paul Joseph

There would have been a massacre if they [resisted] Paul Joseph


I went there and stood on the fringes and watched people being loaded onto the trucks very quietly. There was no singing, no shouting, no opposition,” he says.

“It was clearly [a campaign] of overpowering intimidation.

But the authorities portrayed it as a time of celebration, saying the residents were happy to get away from a “plague spot”. A local news bulletin proclaimed they were rejoicing, their “hearts are filled with happy expectation” as they headed for a new home.


.The “plague spot” was, until 1955, known for its musicians, artists, and writers as well as its gangsters.

There was overcrowding and shared toilets in the yard but also a relentless energy and optimism, recalls Joseph.

People went to Sophiatown to listen to music,” he says.


The scene there attracted people from across Johannesburg and musicians who later went on to become big stars, such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, started their careers performing in Sophiatown’s jazz clubs.

But this wasn’t just the home of dance halls and parties. It was also a hub of ANC activity and one of Paul Joseph’s friends, a young Nelson Mandela, was a frequent visitor.

Paul Joseph

In the months leading up to the removals, the ANC and the Indian Congress organised joint protests in Sophiatown against the government’s clearance plans. Mandela, then the ANC’s deputy president, gave a speech in Sophiatown’s Freedom Square, telling the crowd that the time for passive resistance was over, and the ANC’s local youth league launched the slogan “Removal over our dead bodies.”

But when they realised how heavily armed the police were likely to be, ANC leaders – including Mandela – advised residents not to resist.