Jazz, kwela, fashion and culture, all encompass the colourful character of old Sophiatown. Located to the west of Johannesburg, this freehold township of homes owned by blacks, coloureds, Indian and white people was a unique occurrence in a time when the separation of races was enforced by law. Although heavily populated and poor, the circumstances created an integrated, vibrant community.
In February 1955, this jazzy spirit was shattered when two thousand armed policeman bulldozed the suburb and forcefully removed its inhabitants to Meadowlands. Years later, with song, storytelling and entertainment Mbali Zwane transports us back in time on her walking tour through Sophiatown.
Eyitha Tours is run by Mbali and its takes groups on tours around various places of historical and cultural significance. I met Mbali a while ago and reconnected with her at the Indaba and promised to come on her tour. So, I roped in my friends and we met her outside the KFC, which was the meeting point. It turns out my friends know their Jozi better than me because no one asked which KFC and that’s what I was wondering. Anyway, it’s the only one in the area but to be pedantic, it’s at the Sophiatown Shopping centre.
Our first stop was a walk through the park and a brief introduction of the history of Sophiatown. Sophiatown was a plot of a farm that was bought for development by Hermann Tobiansky, he named it after his wife ‘Sophia’ and named all the roads after his children.
Mbali tells us stories about the life, music and culture of this suburb dubbed “little Chicago” at the time. She also introduces us to some of the people synonymous with the area like, Trevor Huddleson (the local Anglican priest during this time), Dolly Ratebe (a glamourous singer known for her sensual performances of African Jazz and popular songs) and Dr Alfred Xuma (a qualified doctor with a surgery on Toby street) among others. The church where Huddleson was a priest and the home of Dr Xuma are two of four building that were not demolished during the forced removals.
The walk itself is not particularly strenuous as the suburb is lush with greenery surrounding the colourful houses along the way. It also has great views of Johannesburg along the way with small nuggets of information on various corners. The streets we walked through where rather quiet with the occasional person passing by much to the excitement of the dogs in each house. I don’t have the stats but I’m sure this area has the most dogs per house per street that I have ever experienced. So, they are loud…very loud. They are all behind gates, so you can swagger down the street like it’s 1949.
Movies played a large role in setting the culture, fashion and vibe of the suburb. Hence, Odin Cinema was a popular, iconic place of entertainment. It was also used as a venue of for parties, plays and political meeting. While the cinema is no longer there (it is a private residence now). Mbali and her team provided all the entertainment with song and dance which I loved. To describe a particular scene they would sing, do monologues and dance. (I know Mbali was just experimenting with this particular aspect but I hope they find a way to continue incorporating it into the tours. )
From the singing and dancing we took a walk for a talk under the oak tree. Or what would’ve been the oak tree. The oak tree in Bertha street was over a hundred years old and it’s branches could tell many a s story.It’s had people hung from its branches, provided shade for social gatherings and concealed nighttime political meetings. Due to its history it was made a Heritage tree which meant it could not be cut down.
Mam Elizabeth Nobethane who was a young girl on that fateful 1955 night. Tells us about life during that time and since.
Mam Elizabeth is a local resident. She was born in Sophiatown and recounted her experience of growing up on Sophiatown, the day her family was removed to Meadowlands in Soweto and ultimately, her return home. She also told us about how the ground shook on that night the big oak tree fell. The tree had been ailing for a while as a result of old age, urbanisation or poison by a previous owner who annoyed at not being able to chop the messy thing down (enter conspiracy theory).
I had done a trip with Mbali before this one and had a completely difference experience because there is such so much to see and learn in this area.
Mbali Zwane – Eyitha Tours
Cell: 0793190578 or firstname.lastname@example.org