Take a last look and say goodbye. Sophiatown, the city that was within a city, the Gay Paris of Johannesburg, the notorious Casbah gang den, the shebeeniest of them all. Sophiatown is now breathing for the last time. I was robbed on her streets, beaten up in her dark corners and I will never forget the day when a woman friend of mine was grabbed from me by Sophiatown’s tough sons. Her people do not like the fact that she is being murdered and I sympathise with them because she was a free city. There were no superintendents who kept files on each house-hold and there were no Black Jacks who could wake you up at 4 a.m. to take you to a location superintendent who comes at 8.30 a.m.
There is pathos, mirth, murder and sweet abandon in her past history. Way back in the early thirties, where the Odin Cinema now stands abandoned, was the Undermoon Hall where African Jazz was born. The young set used to buy dagga from a Pedler opposite the hall, and he hid his stuff in a big tree. This hall was a rough house. Randy dames from nearby suburbs used to come for their entertainment and they caused trouble. Guys used to fight over them, using bicycle chains and knuckle dusters.
Soon after, gangs sprouted. There were the Cowboys, who controlled a big hunk of Sophiatown, the Black Cops, the Orange and Blacks. Vivian Dladla arrived with his Berlins. The Berlins were the best gang in Sophiatown and they ruled. After the war years, came the Americans with Kort Boy, and Chanam, who was sometimes known as The Durango Kid. The former was an expert with a gun, and the latter was a two-gun toting hombre. The last of the gangs in Sophiatown were the Wibeys and on a wall at the corner of Gibson and Victoria you can see an epitaph to the gangs reading, “He who comes to destroy Dead End shall himself be destroyed and that goes for the F.B.I. too.” The F.B.I. are the cops.
There are a lot of Boys famous in Sophiatown history. There is Boy Malaita, Kort Boy, and Fat Boitjie. You find such names as Lefty Tengo because this guy killed Tengo Jabavu, and Lefty Spoiler, because he was a member of the Spoilers. Names like Peter Bedwin, Kush Cadillac, and Steele Mercury, too. Where the folks excelled was also in naming the she-beens.
There was Aunt Babes, in Edith Street. Bright’s place in Tucker and opposite him the Carlton Hotel, run by a Chinaman. Then there was the Clubhouse where guys drank beers and at the same time picked up weights. The House on Telegraph Hill, in Milner Street; Back of the Moon at the corner of Gibson and Milner, and the Thirty Nine Steps. Just shows you that they had imagination. This naming craze was only excelled by Can Themba’s shindicks, House of Truth and the House of Saints.
Honest Men, Too
Don’t get away with the idea that Sophiatown’s population was only composed of the pleasure loving and the rough. She had her respectable citizens. There was Dr. A.B. Xuma, the African M.D., and Mr J. R. Rathebe, who reminded everybody that he was once in America. Mr. B.J. Mabuza, owner of Benma Court, is still sticking to his place because he can’t forget Sophiatown and its charm.
And Sophiatown will also boast that it built two gentlemen who fell in love with her, Anthony Sampson and Father Trevor Huddleston, into world figures.
Walking on her streets today she looks like a bombed city. The signs that say ‘We Won’t Move’ stand as a mockery to people who thought they could defend their beloved homes. The few citizens who remain are hounded out of their houses for not possessing permits. Women lock their houses during the ay because police demand pass books from them. And today there are hundreds who sleep on verandahs, live with friends, and live in the ruins.
The City Council was urged to make a tent town and its answer was to open a red tape office. The rains are coming, and they will find many people homeless. Meantime, whites are sleeping snug in two good houses which used to belong to Dr. Xuma and to Mr. Manabhay. What can I say? It is not going to make any difference, anyhow.
by Benson Dyantyi
Published in Drum Magazine, November 1959
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