This map plots the settings and references in Cry, the Beloved Country

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Sophiatown, 'where any may own property'
Sophiatown was founded in 1904
Public DomainSophiatown was founded in 1904 - Credit: Chris McDonald

In 1897 Herman Tobiansky bought a 237-acre area of farmland, 6km to the west of Johannesburg, for development as a residential area.  He named it Sophia, after his wife.  He began selling the plots in 1904, on a freehold basis, targeting the aspirant working classes.  However the new suburb was right next to the sewerage works.  White buyers, who could choose to live in more fragrant areas, stayed away.  Johannesburg’s black, coloured and Indian residents, who were very restricted in terms of where they were allowed to purchase property, quickly snapped up the freehold plots.   Sophiatown thus became a mainly ‘black’ suburb, to the disquiet of the country’s white rulers. 

Christ the King Anglican Church
Public DomainChrist the King Anglican Church - Credit: Chris McDonald

In 1913 the government passed the Natives Land Act, which prevented black people buying property anywhere except in designated Native Homelands. These ‘homelands' together accounted for just 7% of the country’s land (grudgingly increased to 13% in 1936).  Black people who had purchased freehold property prior to the passing of the Act were initially exempted, leaving Sophiatown as one of the only places outside the rural homelands where black people could legally own land.    

By the 1940s Sophiatown had a population of nearly 54,000 Black Africans, and just over 5,000 Coloureds, Indians and Chinese.  The majority were tenants and sub-tenants. Several families might share a single room, and backyards were filled with shacks built of cardboard and tin.  Despite the poverty, Sophiatown was an epicentre of politics and creativity, with a vibrant cultural life and many shebeens selling home-brewed beer.    

The home of Dr Xuma, one of only 2 houses to survive Sophiatown's demolition
Public DomainThe home of Dr Xuma, one of only 2 houses to survive Sophiatown's demolition - Credit: Chris McDonald

By this time Johannesburg was sprawling in multiple directions.  Sophiatown was no longer on the edge of town – it had been surrounded by white residential areas.  By 1944 the authorities had decided that the black population would have to move. The community put up fierce resistance, and plans stalled for a while.  But with the election of the National Party in 1948, the doctrine of racial segregation became official government policy.  In February 1955, 2,000 armed policemen descended on the suburb and began the process of forced removals. 

Between 1955 and 1968, 65,000 people were removed.  Different race groups were relocated to new, racially-segregated suburbs on the edges of Johannesburg.  Sophiatown was demolished, house by house.  The only buildings left standing were a church, a children’s home, and two residential homes, one of which had belonged to ANC leader Dr A.B Xuma.  The area was re-zoned for whites only and renamed 'Triomf’ (Triumph). 

Memorial to Trevor Huddleston, at Christ the King Church
Public DomainMemorial to Trevor Huddleston, at Christ the King Church - Credit: Chris McDonald

The Anglican Church of Christ the King, built in 1933, survived the destruction.  Under Rector Trevor Huddleston, an outspoken opponent of the government’s race policy, it had formed a centre of resistance to the forced removals.  Huddleston's active opposition to Apartheid saw him recalled to England in 1955. The church was deconsecrated in 1964 and sold.  It changed hands several times in the following decades, but was re-purchased by the Anglicans in 1997 and restored to its former state.

In 2005, the name of Sophiatown was restored.