Pain of forced removal still real for South Africans

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

While only a handful of those that were forcibly removed from the once vibrant town of Sophiatown are alive today, the pain of being uprooted during forced removals is still all too real for those who experienced it, writes Nthambeleni Gabara.

In 1899 Sophiatown was a vibrant town. Its 65 000 indigenous people had come to the big city to find work and found solace among their neighbours of similar circumstances. However, all that changed when government enforced forced removals.

On Monday, surviving community members and the City of Johannesburg commemorated 54 years after the forced removals.

Sitting inside the house which was once occupied by Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma who served as the African National Congress president from 1940 to 1949, former residents told BuaNews their old memories.

Son of the well-know trumpeter, Gershon Manana, Stompie Manana said the community had been sophisticated because most of them were American orientated. "We emulated the lifestyles of those indigenous people who were taken to Europe to work as slaves, starting from music and clothing."

It was probably due to his musical family that Mr Manana founded the band, Stompie Manana Quartet and he was able to boast about teaching Hugh Masekela to play a trumpet.

He described Sophiatown as a black township where people stayed in peace and harmony irrespective of their ethnicity and nationality. He explained that people were full of love and respect for each other which led them to originate their own Afrikaans slang language to understand each other.

"We were a true rainbow nation, but government uprooted us as another way of dividing us."

He said it was a difficult and painful memory to relive when the police force arrived, carrying machine guns to load people and their goods onto the back of police trucks.

They were dumped in Meadowlands and Orlando East and West and Soweto where they had to begin picking up the pieces of their lives all over again.

"It was so painful," he said.

Steven Rangwaga remembered how in 1954, when he was just ten-years-old, his family was forced to pack up and return to Rustenburg.

The elderly Joseph Ngwenya, who was born in Sophiatown, said the apartheid government had planned the segregation because some of the residents had been politically active. This, however did not make it any easier.

"As young stars we could not understand what was happening; the forced removal was so traumatic. It was a planned segregation due to a hatred for us," he said.

Mr Humphrey "Satch" Jacobs said his family survived the first removal, but when the second removals were carried out, they were also loaded into police trucks and dumped in Meadowlands just like the thousands of others.

"I was 14-years-old when we were forced to move, it was painful. The regime wanted to divide us and make us hate each other. We went from dressing in designer clothes to having to start all over again," he said.

Mr Jacobs said it had always been a personal pleasure to see people sitting in groups drinking traditional sorghum beers such as skokiana and thothotho back then.

Over the next eight years Sophiatown was flattened and removed from the maps of Johannesburg to give way for Triomf - Afrikaans for "triumph" - a residential suburb for whites created by the policy of apartheid.

Afrikaners were moved in and still largely occupy the small houses that replaced the lively but desperately poor three-bedroomed homes and backyard shacks of Sophiatown.

While many of the original houses were damaged, Dr Xuma's house was not destroyed. The City of Johannesburg and the owners of the house have agreed to covert it into a museum. In January 2007, the house was estimated to be worth R1.2 million which the owners have accepted.

Also forming part of the commemorations on Monday, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre signed an agreement aimed at promoting reconciliation among the residents.

The collaborative initiative is another way to mark a step forward in the journey towards connecting Sophiatown residents to the past and the future 54 years after the forced removals.

The five year partnership agreement was signed to explore the African belief that "Motho ke Motho ka Batho Babang" loosely translated as a person is a person through others.

Wife of the late Dr Nthato Motlana and former resident, who was directly affected by the forced removals, Sally Motlana said this was an important step on the roads to democracy.

"The Sophiatown community is made up of all those who lived here and together with the current residents, we should remember our painful past and celebrate our freedom."

Dr Motlana, who was a respected anti-apartheid activist, community leader and medical doctor, died at the age of 83 last year after a long battle with cancer.