More than 60 years ago, brutal authorities choked the life and jazz out of a vibrant corner of Africa.
They called it Sophiatown – the Chicago of Africa – a free-wheeling, musical, multiracial community close to the heart of Johannesburg and the birthplace of many an African musician. Too close, according to the apartheid authorities.
“We won’t move!” was written on the walls. Police made sure people did on a February morning in 1955. Before sunrise, they drove out 110 families with nothing but hastily packed belongings. This foreshadowed almost two decades of forced removals of thousands throughout South Africa.
One of them was 14-year-old Don ‘Bra Don’ Thinane who had grown up with Indian and Chinese neighbors – “a mixed bag” he says. He recalls his father leaving to search for a new home two days before the trucks and bulldozers arrived to take him away. “He knew that in about a day or two days they are going to demolish the place,” says Bra Don, who found himself dumped in Meadowlands, Soweto, with his grandmother and uncle, because of his race.
We go for a drive in search of memories from 60 years ago. Bra Don tells me this was his playground where he used to rollerskate: we are on 5th avenue heading towards Sophiatown. “Hey! Isn’t that Xuma’s place,” he exclaims as we pass the home of the first black South African to become a medical doctor, former ANC President A.B. Xuma. One of few places that survived the nationalist government’s wrecking ball.
We drive on looking for Gerty Street, where Bra Don used to live. I spot the name, barely visible, worn and stencilled in black. We turn right into the street, immediately the mood in the car changes, and so does Bra Don’s face; his eyes widen and light up as nostalgia washes over.
“I used to scale this wall,” says Bra Don when we get to the barrier that stretches from Gerty into the Melville Koppies, a place where he spent his afternoons, and one of the few things left. “There’s nothing that can show me our house here! They literally broke it down,” he says as we carry on looking for anything familiar.
It was also in Sophiatown that he found the discipline of boxing, under the strict coach Harry Mikela. In playing the trumpet, he learned from the elder brother of Stompie Manana, one of the fathers of African jazz. It helped him escape the rough streets and in 1980, through study, he became a lawyer. Now, at the age of 71, he is one of the best known black advocates in the land.
Bra Don is one of many happy to see Sophiatown back on the map. The apartheid administration renamed it Triomf – meaning triumph in Afrikaans. In 2006, it was rechristened Sophiatown.
The jazz that died under the ugly din of bulldozers, removal trucks and police batons, is also back.