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​The memories of Sof’town lived on at a commemoration of that awful day more than half a century ago when its soul was ripped out. But it was also a time to plan for the future.
ON a rain-soaked, gloomy morning on 9 February 1955, thousands of police officers swarmed the streets of Sophiatown and ripped families out of their homes, carrying out the apartheid government’s forced removals two days earlier than expected.

Isaac Moletse, Sally Motlana and Trisha Simmons at the 1958 forced removals commemorationsIsaac Moletse, Sally Motlana and Trisha Simmons at the 1955 forced removals commemorationsFifty-seven years later, on an equally overcast and miserable morning, staff from the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre gathered with residents and media to commemorate the day that Sophiatown’s soul was stolen.

Hosted at the Sophiatown Heritage Centre, which was previously the home of the former ANC president, Dr AB Xuma, the gathering served the dual purpose of both paying tribute to the past – including marking Sophiatown’s centenary – and planning for the future.

Acknowledging those who suffered during the removals was an important part of the event too; as such, Isaac Moletse and Sally Motlana, who were moved from their homes, were at the briefing and shared their experiences.

“We had all colours and languages united in our Sophiatown until people were removed without consultation,” Motlana said. “I am happy we are meeting here today at Dr AB Xuma’s house as a true rainbow nation,” she said.

“We commemorate this day with optimism,” said Moletse. “I am excited that we are back to a Sophiatown connection and I hope that together we will not forget that fateful day.”

As part of remembering a century of the famous Joburg neighbourhood through their Sophiatown 100: Motswako Celebration campaign, the team from the Sophiatown Heritage Centre has a number of events and developments in the pipeline.

Motswako means “the mix” and, in this context, refers to the blend of people who have always been the heartbeat of Sophiatown, which was renamed Triomf after the forced removals but reinstated as Sophiatown in 2006.

Heritage and culture
To reclaim the spirit of the suburb, which always boasted a pulsating abundance of jazz, literature, art, progressive politics and gangsterism, various initiatives have been proposed. The biggest of these is the heritage and cultural centre, which is planned to cover Dr AB Xuma’s house and the neighbouring plot.

Isaac Moletse shares his experiences of the forced removalsIsaac Moletse shares his experiences of the forced removalsXuma’s house was bought by the City of Johannesburg in 2007 and has served as a museum and function centre for exhibitions, community meetings and jazz concerts. The neighbouring plot was bought by the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre in 2009, and the space has been proposed as the site for the new Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre, with the help of Henry Paine Architects.

“This concept was used predominantly as a fundraising tool and in early 2011 the centre received partial funding for the new development from the National Lottery,” said the community participation report published after the first phase of consultations.

The National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) contributed R4-million towards the project. Another R4-million is needed to bring the project to fruition, but the development is still very much in its early stages and more consultation with affected communities is needed.

The first phase of engagement involved workshops with residents from various areas in Joburg to ascertain what they would like to see at the space. “We went to Meadowlands, Lenasia and Sophiatown, trying to get from people what the need is for a heritage and cultural centre and what activities would make them engage with the centre,” said Katlego Gabashane from the Sophiatown Heritage Centre.

Results from these sessions were published in the report released on 6 February. A recurring suggestion was to use the centre for education and training. Using it as a performance space and gymnasium was also high on the list of suggestions.

Trisha Simmons, also from the Sophiatown Heritage Centre, said: “We are trying to set a high standard [of] engagement.

“We want people to feel a sense of ownership; for it to be a home away from home for people who don’t know the history and for those who suffered through the history.”

Further consultations are needed, but Simmons says the aim is to open the new centre in February 2013.

For those who would like to get involved in the project and celebrate the colourful neighbourhood, the timetable for consultations as well as for events will be available on the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre website and on local posters, online events sites and through the media.

The report is available from the Sophiatown Heritage Centre at Dr AB Xuma’s house on the corner of Toby Street and Edward Road.

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