This feature examines the history of forced removals in Johannesburg up to the destruction of Sophiatown. It begins by establishing the link between the destruction of Johannesburg’s inner city slum yards and the significant growth in Sophiatown’s population. It concludes that a significant proportion of individuals and probably few families removed from the inner city slum yards opted to relocate to Sophiatown instead of Orlando. It also asserts that the growth in Sophiatown’s population in the decade straddling World War II, 1936 to 1945 is attributed to the war and subsequent relaxation of influx control regulations.

At this stage, Sophiatown was best suited for single, male migrants. Families tended to seek accommodation in locations like Orlando where houses of up to three rooms were on offer. It also points out that the peculiarity of Sophiatown’s average family structure at the time of forced removal in 1955 was rather complex. The majority of tenant and sub-tenant families were made up of one or two persons. This peculiarity in the suburb that was over forty years in existence is overlooked in existing literature and needs to be explained.  

Another significant issue is the role of the Johannesburg Municipal Council (JMC) in the destruction of Sophiatown. Dominated by the majority United Party (UP), the JMC failed to carry the motion proposed by the Nationalist Party (NP) that Sophiatown be destroyed. Between 1950 and 1952 each motion related to the destruction of Sophiatown and the resettlement of the community in Soweto was defeated during voting. To realise its objective of removing Africans from Sophiatown and settling them in Meadowlands, the NP established its own local authority, the Native Resettlement Board (NRB), in respect of Black residents of the Western Areas (Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare).  

In 1923, the South African Labour Party (SALP) and the South African National Party (SANP) formed the Pact Government that ousted General Smuts’ South African Party (SAP). One of the key pieces of legislation that the Pact Government agreed on was the need to ensure that Blacks, and Africans in particular, were denied urban residential rights. To achieve this government passed the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923. According to the Act, Africans were only allowed to remain in urban areas for so long as they administered the needs of employers. It went on to propose that once they cease to so administer, they were to return to their homeland in the reserves.

In the second half of the 1920s, the JMC attempted to enforce some of the provisions of the Act in undertaking massive slum clearance in the inner city. Slum areas had developed in Doornfontein and Prospect Location, east of Johannesburg. More slum areas were identified in Bertrams and other suburbs east of the city. The JMC began issuing eviction notices to residents, pointing out that slum dwellings were to be razed once residents had been cleared. These notices were challenged in the courts. In the majority of cases the courts declared the eviction notices invalid, demanding that the municipality provide alternative housing for residents before evicting them. With no revenue to provide alternative accommodation for slum residents, the municipality was forced to shelve its plans.

Early in the 1930s the situation changed in the municipality’s favour. The end of the Great Depression of 1929 to 1932 was followed by South Africa’s departure from the Gold Standard. It is argued that this led to the revitalisation of the mining industry and the expansion of manufacturing industry. From this windfall the JMC reaped some significant benefits. Revenue accruing from taxes enabled the municipality to budget for a housing scheme in Orlando. By the end of 1931 and early in 1932 construction of the new housing project had begun. During the second half of 1932 the first of Orlando’s residents moved into the township to settle. Slum clearance from the inner city continued and was only completed in 1936 when Prospect Township, the last of Johannesburg’s inner city slums was cleared.

Not all slum dwellers removed from the inner city slum yards were relocated in Orlando. It is possible that more families were forced out of the inner city slums than could be accommodated in Orlando. Those who could not be accommodated in Orlando sought accommodation in Sophiatown, resulting in Sophiatown experiencing a sharp population increase in the 1930s. The next spurt in Sophiatown’s population growth happened during the Second World War.  

When World War II broke out Whites were conscripted into the army, creating a massive demand for labour, particularly in the growing manufacturing industry. With heavy engineering industry showing an insatiable appetite for semi and unskilled labour to meet increasing demand created by the war, Africans were allowed to enter the city and fill the gap. In 1942 the government passed the War Measures Act, suspending influx control regulations and enabling Africans to flood into the cities. Johannesburg was the most preferred destination for the new urban migrants. The new migrants could be accommodated in one of three types of settlements in the city at this stage.

Some of the new migrants were recruited directly from the reserves by prospective employers. Those recruited by the mining houses were accommodated in its compounds. The JMC also recruited its own labour and accommodated these in council owned hostels. Others, coming into the city as single males, preferred to reside in Johannesburg’s freehold townships, Sophiatown and Alexandra Township. Only a few opted to enter the municipal location of Orlando East, where new housing units were being constructed during the 1930s, increasing significantly in the 1940s. 

Patterns of migration had also changed by the end of the 1930s and in the early 1940s. Families, as opposed to single males, were migrating in ever growing numbers. Single males, as pointed out, preferred to rent single rooms in Sophiatown and Alexandra Township. Families required more spacious dwellings and would have found two and three roomed homes in Orlando more suited to their needs. Throughout the 1940s and during the first half of the 1950s more family migrants entered Orlando while single males continued to opt for Johannesburg’s freehold townships.

Another critical factor about Africans migrating into the city during the period under consideration is their origins. African migrants in the city came from the reserves  where they were experiencing greater levels of impoverishment and White commercial farms that were rapidly mechanising and laying off African workers and labour tenants. Those migrating as families, from White commercial farms, came largely, though not exclusively from the Orange Free State (now Free State Province)and the Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) Midlands. Single males tended to come from the reserves, mainly from the Northern and Eastern Transvaal (present day Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces) and Western Transvaal (present day North West Province).       

Questions of origins of the new migrants also shaped and influence their preferred destination in the city. Those migrating as families required bigger dwellings and were eager to move to the municipal locations. In the case of Johannesburg they opted for Orlando Township. Families continued to enter Orlando Township and soon the number of new migrants began to exceed houses available. This led to a proliferation of backyard shacks constructed by the Council’s tenants for purposes of subletting. The JMC turned a blind eye to this obvious transgression of location regulations.

Soon tensions surfaced between the Council’s tenants, their sub tenants and back yard shack dwellers. The issues ranged from exorbitant rentals to restrictions imposed on them by homeowners. As conditions worsened for sub tenants in the back yards of Orlando Township, the demand for more houses became a subject of political contestations in the Advisory Boards or local councils in which residents were represented by political parties. Different political parties took up the issue of housing shortage and petitioned the JMC to provide accommodation for new migrants and in this political contest James Mpanza’s Sofasonke Party adopted radical measures. In 1944 Mpanza led disgruntled back yard residents to an open veld outside Orlando where they erected make shift structures and dwellings.

Sophiatown continued to attract single males who were generally restricted to a single room. Throughout the 1940s and early in the 1950s Sophiatown’s population continued to grow. When the NP government passed the Group Areas Act in 1950, it intended to remove Blacks residing in settlements that were situated on the fringes of the city. Sophiatown, being a freehold township and falling outside of the JMC’s jurisdiction, was targeted. In terms of the law, the JMC was supposed to preside over the destruction of Sophiatown and the relocation of the community to Meadowlands, a new township being built alongside Orlando Township.  

Between 1950 and 1953 the Apartheid Government attempted to force the JMC to implement a resolution declaring the Western Areas of Johannesburg (Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare) a “black spot”. At this time the JMC (later renamed the Johannesburg City Council or JCC) was dominated by the United Party (UP) who were a majority in the Council. Deliberations in the JCC about the future of Sophiatown stalled, leaving H. F. Verwoerd frustrated. The JCC consistently voted against the resolution to destroy Sophiatown and relocate residents in Meadowlands.

In response the Apartheid Government created its own local authority in respect of the Western Areas of Johannesburg. The local authority, the Native Resettlement Board (NRB), was established in 1953 and immediately started with the process of removing Africans from the Western Areas of Johannesburg. The NRB started by conducting a survey of the African population in Sophiatown. The NRB needed to determine the number, size and patterns of families to be resettled. They were also eager to determine the length of residence in the city of heads of households. According to the NRB officials, only Africans who qualified under Section 10 (1) of the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 would be permitted to legally reside in Meadowlands.     

Africans who qualified under section 10 (1) (a) to be resettled in Meadowlands were those who were either born in the city or had been working for the same employer for a period of 10 years. The second group qualified to be in Johannesburg under section 10 (1) (b). This applied to those who had been working in the city for different employers for a period of fifteen years. Strictly applied, this rule would have disqualified a significant proportion of Sophiatown’s residents from Meadowlands. However, the NRB had no reliable records to prove whether applicants for homes in Meadowlands qualified under influx control regulations.

In fact, the majority of Sophiatown’s residents did not qualify for resettlement in Meadowlands. The NRB was more eager to move residents and destroy Sophiatown and was lax in enforcing rules in approving applications for houses in Meadowlands. The screening process that was put in place relied on anecdotal evidence to determine whether applicants qualified or not. For instance, applicants were asked questions about landmarks and popular personalities to determine how long they lived in Sophiatown.

The NRB completed its survey early in 1951 and began issuing eviction orders to residents. According to the findings of the survey, more than 70% of Sophiatown’s families were 1 or 2 person families. On average, families with five or more members made up less than 10% of all families in the township. This meant that typically, two or more single males may have been sharing a room. When moved, each would have to be allocated a separate home. It was the peculiar family circumstances of the majority of Sophiatown’s single male residents that was a factor in the decision whether or not to resist the order to vacate the freehold township.  

Some historians tend to explain resistance to Sophiatown removal in terms of the desire to preserve a non racial community from being destroyed by the Apartheid Government. Others argue that relocation to Meadowlands posed serious problems for many employed in Johannesburg. Commuting between Meadowlands and Johannesburg implied added cost at the time when incomes were low. Secondly, the longer distance would also result in numerous other challenges, including increased fares and more time spent commuting between home and work place.

Another, more compelling reason appears to have been the impact the forced removal would have on single males in Sophiatown and their extended families in the reserves. As noted earlier, the majority of single males entering Sophiatown in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s were predominantly, though not exclusively, from the reserve areas of the North, East and Western Transvaal. While they were single males when in Johannesburg, these men were heads of families back home. Typically, many were in polygamous unions, with several wives and children. Faced with the prospect of removal from Sophiatown these men had to decide whether they would be joined in the city by their families.

Many saw relocation to Meadowlands as providing access to a house with three rooms. Unlike in Sophiatown where a single room could be shared with just about anyone, houses in Meadowlands were meant specifically for families. Influx control regulation measures prescribed that only married men were allowed to occupy the houses in Meadowlands along with their spouses and biological children. Details of all members of the family were recorded in the house permit.

This ruling created problems for men in polygamous unions and whose wives were in the reserves. In Sophiatown wives took turns visiting their husband and staying for extended periods. In Meadowlands the NRB recognised only one wife who was allowed to join the husband. Men were therefore forced to choose one wife, often the most senior, who would be their companions in the city. During holidays and over long weekends these families would join the rest of the kin in the reserves and return to the city. This meant that other wives not recorded in the house permit will not be allowed to visit the husband. This was the case throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Early in the 1980s influx control regulations were scrapped  


The destruction of Sophiatown is extensively documented in the history of resistance to Apartheid. In explaining the response of Sophiatown’s marginal social classes, tenants and sub-tenants to the impending forced removal, their extended families in the reserves are overlooked. Yet the outcome of removals and the relocation of the community first to Meadowlands and later to Diepkloof and other parts of Soweto adversely impacted upon their family structures extending to the reserves. A fact overlooked in the literature.

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