Soweto History: The 1900s

The history of Soweto and the surrounding area is grim and dishevelled one. However, today the township stands as a beacon of hope that the struggle for liberation is never in vain, and the people of Soweto are as resilient as they are vibrant.

The Seeds of Apartheid are Sown: 1904 to 1930

©Andile Bhala

1904: A plague breaks out in the unsanitary town where migrant Indian workers lived; it is then razed and the residents are moved further to the south-west, to Klipspruit. 1910: The Union of South Africa is declared and a policy of white supremacy is entrenched. 1912: A group of black lawyers organizes a convention at which the South African Native National Congress is formed; this organization later becomes known as the African National Congress (ANC). 1913: Parliament passes the Natives' Land Act and lays the foundations of apartheid.

Segregated land for whites and 'Africans', and suppression of urban squatting and black ownership in urban areas is the plan. Rural 'reserves' for blacks are established on land not already claimed by white farmers. 1918: An influenza epidemic kills a third of Johannesburg's black labour force. The city council provides a properly serviced township for the Klipspruit squatters, building 20 small but respectable houses there. This is the beginning of Johannesburg's south-western township, Soweto. 1922: The Stallard Commission is convened to look at black land rights. Led by the hard-line segregationist Frederick Stallard, it persuades the Government to alter its sympathetic stance regarding black rights and outlines a plan for urban blacks:

'The Native should only be allowed to enter the urban areas when he is willing to enter and to administer to the needs of the White man, and should depart there from when he ceases so to administer'. 1923: The Government withdraws the right of black people to own land, and begins enforcing strict residential segregation on racial grounds.

Only in Johannesburg Sophiatown and Alexandra townships do freehold land rights remain secure. 1929/30: The Great Depression sees a new influx of the rural poor to the Witwatersrand, now the established economic centre of South Africa. More land near Klipspruit is purchased by the Johannesburg City Council where another 3 000 'matchbox' houses are built to form Orlando East township.

Second World War: 1939 to 1945

A new wave of urbanization begins as industry gears up for a long war, but all black housing developments are halted to concentrate resources for the war effort. Housing shortages in and around Johannesburg become critical. 1944: The charismatic James 'Sofasonke' Mpanza leads a group of subtenants from Orlando to set up a squatter village on a piece of open ground. Iron and wood, cardboard and hessian shelters are quickly erected and Shantytown becomes a permanent part of the township's growing character.

Decades later 'matchbox' houses are built to house the squatters in the suburb of Pimville. As the squatting increases, new areas are added to the jigsaw. (Mpanza was a former death row prisoner; he was reprieved and became a leader and champion of Soweto's poorest, as well as their self-styled evangelistic preacher.) Today the Sofasonke Party controls the Soweto City Council.

It is supported by the conservative, poorer people but run by some of the city's wealthiest men. They have ridden to power on the fact that anti-apartheid groups have, to date, boycotted all municipal elections.

Afrikaner Nationalists Entrench Apartheid: 1948 to 1960

1948: Against all odds the hard-line, Afrikaner-created National Party comes to power. The principles of the Stallard Commission are reinforced and the influx of blacks to urban areas is strictly controlled. The Government issues 'pass books' to those blacks who are necessary for the industrial machine, and anyone caught without one is summarily arrested with the intention of being sent back to rural 'homelands'.

This hated book is dubbed the 'dompas' (stupid pass). At this time an estimated 50 000 black people in the greater Johannesburg area are in need of housing. 1955: Johannesburg's Sophiatown, where blacks and whites live together with freehold title to the land, stands against all that is held dear by the racist Nationalist Government.

Sophiatown is the cultural, swinging heart of black urban life on the Witwatersrand, its Greenwich Village. Writers like Drum magazine's Can Themba and Nat Nakasa use a racy, almost intoxicated writing style to describe the vibrant and vulgar, confused life in penumbral Johannesburg, a literary reflection of the jazz music that is its heartbeat.

The Government decides that Sophiatown has to go. Despite strong protestations from residents, churches, the liberal newspapers and progressive whites, 60 000 people are forcibly removed from this colourful settlement which has been home to a generation of leading black writers, musicians and politicians, workers and gangsters.

The ANC's Freedom Charter: 1955 to 1958

1955: On a grey morning in February, policemen are armed with machine guns advance; there is no alternative for the residents but to move. Over the next few years, all of Sophiatown's black residents are relocated to the new suburbs of Meadowlands and Diepkloof — regimented, dull ghettos with names evoking a mythical countryside.

The tiny houses, built on narrow, dusty, potholed streets, have no bathrooms, no hot or cold running water — only four walls, a roof and an outside tap. As the jackhammers begin to tear down the old houses, so dies the people's last hope for some personal freedom in a darkening world. In the words of Sophiatown's Anglican priest, Father Trevor Huddleston, the destruction of the township reflects a loss 'not only of a place but an ideal'.

Where Sophiatown had stood, the suburb of Triomf (Afrikaans for 'triumph') is built to house poor-white Nationalist supporters. In the same year, thousands of delegates and observers from all over the country overcome great obstacles to attend the Congress of the People, held in an open field at Kliptown (now part of greater Soweto). The purpose of the weekend meetings was to ratify and sign the African National Congress' Freedom Charter.

In the absence of a democratic constitution, many South Africans regard this historical document as the country's own 'declaration of human rights'. 1957/58: As a result of the Congress, 156 delegates were arrested and made to stand trial on charges of treason — ironical, since their aim was to produce a truly democratic document. This assumption is borne out when, after two years, the last of the accused are acquitted on all charges. The trial attracts worldwide interest and support for the defendants grows.

Apartheid Continues and Soweto Comes of Age: 1960 to 1975

1960s: The Government puts into effect its plans to make every black person a citizen of a rural, ethnic homeland and deprive them of political and social rights in 'white' South Africa. Those needed for their labour are allowed to remain, albeit on a tenuous basis, in 'white' urban areas, but their families, the elderly and the handicapped must be resettled — despite the fact that some Sowetans are by then already second and even third generation.

With donations from Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and foreign bank loans, thousands of more homes are built, but this expansion, and plans to beautify Soweto, fall short of catering for the township's growing needs. 1960: The ANC formed a military wing 'Umkhonto we Sizwe' and a new leadership emerges among Youth League activists, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki. 1963: A police swooped on a farm in Rivonia leads to the arrest the entire top echelon of 'Umkhonto' and the ANC.

The sensational 'Rivonia Treason Trial' followed, in which most of the accused are found guilty and given life sentences. Unwittingly, the Nationalist Government thus deals itself a political hand that will eventually undermine its legitimacy. 1971: Against great opposition, Bantu Administration Boards take over control of black urban areas. Johannesburg City Council subsidies fall away, and under the West Rand Administration Board (WRAB), housing developments in Soweto came to a virtual standstill. In keeping with influx control laws, no family housing is provided — after all, urban blacks are only temporary sojourners.

Business rights cannot be obtained, not even to cater for a city that by the mid-1970s has become the largest in the country. 1975: Some freehold and 99-year leasehold residential rights were granted in Soweto. Plans were made to begin a ten-year electrification project, aimed at 'switching on the lights' in Soweto in the early 1980s.

The stage is set for the events that are to throw the spotlight on this ghostly city, the alter-ego of South Africa's golden empire, long before the Electricity Supply Commission's cables are even laid. Before long, Soweto will draw world attention and impress itself upon the consciousness and conscience of white South Africans, who have for so many years pretended that it is just a nightmare that will fade away in the bright light of an all-white future.

By David Bristow