I first saw Johannesburg in May 1951 when I had just come to South Africa from London to work for the new Drum magazine. I was driven up from Cape Town for two days along a thousand miles of sand road, across the half-desert Karoo, to find the Golden City looking as harsh and hostile as the Cape was lush and friendly. I stayed in a bleak and beery hotel in Jeppe Street in the city centre. I could see no river, park or lake: only patches of brown grass. I thought it was the end of the world.
But I soon discovered an amazingly creative city, not in the white suburbs, but in the black slums where the Drum writers and readers lived. In Johannesburg in the early 1950s there was an explosion of jazz, writing, drama and sport which seemed like the cultural explosion of Harlem in the 1920s: the expression of people who were embracing city life with an energy and optimism which carried its own political message.
The Drum office was in downtown Johannesburg, just next to the Rand Daily Mail, but it was seen as an alien enclave: visiting white secretaries were astonished to see black men using typewriters, discussing books, even using the same teacups as whites. Few white journalists bothered to visit, but for black writers, politicians and sportsmen it became a social centre as much as a magazine: in the late afternoon the office would fill up with African visitors who would later set off for refreshment at a nearby shebeen.
I felt out of place in white Johannesburg. The more prosperous English-speaking set enjoyed a lifestyle which I had only known from Hollywood movies, in mansions with black servants wearing bandoliers and white gloves who reminded me of Gone With The Wind. Many of them had emigrated from England only recently, to escape form post-war Labour austerity; but they seemed to have been transformed by the sun and the servants into a different breed, with much more confidence and fewer doubts.
They seemed like an earlier generation of English, living in streets called Empire Way or Eton Road, retreated to country clubs with immaculate cricket pitches and bowling greens. And they nearly all shared the same views about ‘the native’ who seemed to have no relationship with the black writers I worked with.
I chose to live in unfashionable Yeoville where I could invite black visitors without attracting notice. But I soon felt more at home in the black townships, in Soweto or Sophiatown, than in most white gatherings. It was Can Themba, the most brilliant of Drum writers, who first lured me into the seductive world of Sophiatown, the multiracial slum where he lived in a dingy room which he called ‘The House of Truth’. He introduced me to shebeens like Back of the Moon and specially the Thirty Nine Steps, where teachers, gangsters, messengers and politicians were drawn together by illicit liquor. Sophiatown was an impossible place for normal family life, with people jammed up against each other in hovels, sheds or shacks – even in old trams. In many countries it would have been condemned as a dangerous slum, but under an apartheid government it had a special magic as the meeting place in Johannesburg of all colours, where the strands could combine to create a multiracial culture and language.
White writers like Alan Paton in Cry the Beloved Country described bewildered tribal Africans arriving in Johannesburg, with its bright lights, shiny cars like boxes on wheels and skyscrapers like houses piled on top of each other. But most of the new Johannesburgers I encountered had embraced the big city with gusto, to become more eagerly urbanised than most Afrikaners. The tens of thousands who had arrived during and after the Second World War had to live on their wits or go under, and they faced constant battles – to travel to town, to survive in the streets, to earn extra money or to outwit the police. The most educated newcomers, like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, still retained their rural roots while they responded to the challenges of the city with constant resourcefulness.
But survival was becoming more difficult, and I had a preview of the full ruthlessness of apartheid when the government decided to demolish the ‘black spot’ of Sophiatown and to forcibly remove its African inhabitants to Meadowlands, on the edge of Soweto. It was the first major political challenge for the ANC: the walls were scrawled with ‘We Won’t Move’, crowds listed to protest meetings and Nelson Mandela made explosive speech. Even the cynical Can Themba was infected with the revolutionary spirit, reciting Dickens: ‘It was the best of times, the worst of times’. Many Sophiatowners still believed that their spirit could prevail against force. But on the first day of the removals two thousand police arrived in Sophiatown, while the occupants offered no resistance, and the workers meekly queued up to take buses to work. Mandela recognised for the first time, as he wrote later, that ‘we have no alternative to armed and violent resistance’.
In 1955 I was given my farewell party in Sophiatown, when part of it was already demolished, in a dingy room called the House of Saints. It filled up with the Drum writers and local black star, including the singers Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klaasen, the guitarist Alpheus Nkosi, the saxophonist Ben Gwigwi. The music started and everyone sprang into jive; the room filled with writhing bodies, the floorboards shook and the lights swayed. The walls seemed to disappear altogether, spirited away by the music and the fast-moving shapes of bodies, legs, or trombone tubes flashing in the light. I would return many times to black Johannesburg over the next half-century: to witness the revolutionary excitement after Sharpeville, the desolation after the Soweto uprising, the euphoria after Mandela’s release, the patient voting during the first elections. But I would always remember most vividly the bursting optimism of Johannesburg in the early Fifties. The slums and shacks of Sophiatown disappeared almost half a century ago, but its creativity is still alive in the music, the paintings of Sekoto and the stories of Can Themba.
From: Jo’Burg to Jozi: Stories from Africa’s Infamous City