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IIf the walls of Dr. A.B. Xuma’s venerable home in Sophiatown could speak, what tales would they tell?
As one of two houses to elude the destruction of Sophiatown under the apartheid government’s forced removal programme, Dr. Xuma’s historic dwelling holds scores of engrossing stories dating back to 1935.
Tales of black excellence
As one of the first few medical practitioners in South Africa, Alfred Bitini Xuma built a fashionable and modern home that appropriately represented him as one of the country’s most influential black thinkers and leaders. While most black families lived in semi-detached houses in the 1940s and 1950s, he opted for a single-storey dwelling that occupied two stands.
Luckily, Xuma didn’t live alone in this house, which was considered "big" at the time. He shared this glorious space with his second wife, Madie Hall Xuma – an American activist and the first president of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League (1943 – 1948). Like her husband, Madie embodied black excellence, which transcended through the concrete walls of their palatial home.
TTales of Kofifi
Standing tall and enviably on Toby Street, Xuma’s house played a part in the close-knit, lively and multicultural community of Sophiatown, popularly known as Sof’town or Kofifi among its swanky residents.
House of Dr. A.B. Xuma in Sophiatown
TThe suburb was one of the last places in Johannesburg where people of all races could live or do business together in the early decades of the 20th century. 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 that was in some ways the barometer of the time.
But Sophiatown is perhaps best known for its jazz musicians: 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 for which Sophiatown was famous. In doing so, it helped engage the world in the struggle against apartheid.
TTales of Empilweni (a place of life)
Upon completion in 1935, Xuma’s house was named Empilweni (a place of life). Befitting its name, Empilweni also served as consulting rooms for Dr. Xuma’s medical practice. This access to medical care for the local community was housed in a separate wing from his residence.
Tales of the African National Congress (ANC)
As the seventh President-General of the ANC, Xuma often had visitors over to discuss policies and political agendas. Treated to the beauty of a traditional and high-quality interior, it’s no wonder a young Nelson Mandela was left in awe in 1943 when he (and his fellow comrades) paid Xuma a visit to propound a radical ANC Youth League manifesto and draft constitution to him.
In his autobiography, Mandela recalls having been impressed by Xuma’s house, which he describes as “grand”.
Tales of the last days of Sophiatown
In an effort to purge black South Africans from developed neighbourhoods, Sophiatown was earmarked for destruction under the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act in 1955. The people of Sophiatown resisted the removal, but over the next eight years, 65 000 residents were forced to relocate. Among them was Xuma, who - despite having been the Chairperson of the Western Areas Anti-Expropriation and Proper Housing Committee - was compelled to move to Dube, Soweto, with his wife in 1959. The area became a whites-only suburb called Triomf. However, Xuma’s house, built of red brick with a corrugated tin roof, remained. A big and significant part of Sophiatown remained.
Tales of a legacy
Xuma’s historic home was not only declared a national monument in 1998, but the following year it was formally given Heritage Site status.
Today, when visitors peruse this house (also called the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Museum, since 2008) they should listen out for the tales of all South Africans working towards excellence and a non-racial future.
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It was an act that had played out many times in South Africa: a forced removal. In 1904 bubonic plague broke out in the town centre, in an area known as Brickfields. Once the brick makers had been removed 25km south, to Klipspruit, the area was fenced and razed to the ground. And so Soweto was born.
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