The multiculturalism of Johannesburg's Sophiatown in the 1940s nurtured the dreams of a non-racial country. These dreams came to life in the music, art and writing of a talented group of Sophiatown's jazz musicians and intellectuals. This vision of what South Africa could be inspired a generation and Sophiatown’s legacy lives on today.

Did you know?

The forced removals in Sophiatown began in 1955 which was the same year that the Freedom Charter was adopted.

The Sophiatown of South Africa in the early decades of the 20th century was as much a mindset as a physical place. In the 1920s and 1930s, efforts to clear Johannesburg of black and racially mixed suburbs intensified. This historic Johannesburg suburb was initially spared.

This meant that Johannesburg's Sophiatown was one of the last places in the city where people of any race could live or do business together. It flourished, attracting entrepreneurs, lawyers, activists and teachers. Musicians, writers and artists were inspired by the mix of cultures and races that became characteristic of Sophiatown.

By the 1940s, this historic suburb was a living example of South Africa’s potential for a multicultural society. This potential was personified by the likes of Oliver Tambo, who taught at Sophiatown’s St Cyprian's School, the largest primary school in South Africa. It also inspired Gerard Sekoto, who captured the spirit of Sophiatown in his art, and journalists like Henry Nxumalo who worked for Drum magazine, a publication which was in some ways the barometer of the time.

But this suburb is perhaps best known for the South African jazz musicians from Sophiatown: Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba. They went on to become some of the most respected jazz musicians in the world. Sophiatown's jazz musicians' artistic and political influence radiated from South Africa, reaching the African diaspora and beyond. It expressed the ideals of freedom and equality that Sophiatown was famous for. In doing so, it helped engage the world in the struggle against apartheid.

In 1955, however, Sophiatown was earmarked for destruction under the apartheid government’s forced removal programme. The people of Sophiatown resisted the removal, but over the next eight years the 65 000 residents were forced to relocate. The area became a whites-only suburb called Triomf.

On 11 February 2006, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Council re-christened it Sophiatown. Its legacy lives on in the music it inspired and in the aspirations of all South Africans working towards a non-racial future.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

The Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre
Tel: +27 (0)11 673 1271

Around the area

Visit the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, established to honour the legacy of the Anglican priest who ministered to the community of Sophiatown, and gave Hugh Masekela his first trumpet. It is housed in the original St Joseph’s Orphanage, a landmark institution in the old Sophiatown.

Tours to do

Walking tours of Sophiatown, run by the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, are a popular way to learn more about the creative and political significance of Sophiatown in South African history.

What's happening

Once the home of Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma, ANC president from 1940 to 1949, the Sophiatown Museum is the dynamic custodian of Sophiatown’s vibrant history. It holds regular exhibitions and events.

Best buys

'Made in Sophiatown' is a brand initiative that promotes handcrafted products produced by people from today’s Sophiatown. These unique products include traditional African garments, bead items and hand painted mugs, bags and T-shirts.

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