In 1897 a man named Herbert Tobiansky purchased some land just west of Johannesburg, South Africa.  Later it became an area where low-income whites could lease property and was named Sophiatown (after his wife, Sofia).  Sophiatown was established in 1904, but didn’t get its first inhabitants (which were primarily white families) until 1912.  It was during this time period that black South Africans had freehold rights and were able to buy properties, creating a racially mixed area that became increasingly black.  Many middle class  Africans were attracted because they had “opportunities for property ownership, family and neighborhood life, and relative freedom from government interference” (Coplan 172).  By the 1920s whites moved out because white residence was discouraged after the extension of unrestricted purchase of  and in  nearby areas.  Their departure left behind a community of blacks,  coloureds, Indians, and Chinese.  As slum yards grew vacant, Sophiatown’s population grew rapidly.

From 1940 to 1949 Dr. Alfred Bitini Xuma, MD was the president of the African National Congress (ANC). Xuma built houses in Sophiatown and made the suburb represent the efforts to achieve access to the dominant society.

Sophiatown developed into the center of urban African music and culture and starting in the 1940s it began to enrich its musical performances and elements of popular culture.  African identity was expressed through the mixing of cultures; such as that of African Americans and other musical styles that they were exposed to.  More than any other urban community, the creation of Sophiatown represented the hopes of urban blacks in the event of westernization while maintaining conditions that were somewhat satisfactory for them.  For the working-class, Sophiatown symbolized something greater than the struggle of fitting in socially; it symbolized the fight for survival while having to deal with expensive rent, poverty, overcrowding, unfair wages, and unfair treatment.  The people of Sophiatown established a strong community identity.

Dolly Rathebe was a famous voice of Sophiatown. She was considered to be the most glamorous star of Sophiatown and the center of all bands and male quartets she sung with. Rathebe was known for her sensual stage presence while performing African jazz and African versions of American jazz favorites. She also helped define Sophiatown as an urban social location through her celebration of African-black American culture.

The leading artists that were produced through Sophiatown were compared to New York’s Harlem Renaissance and were called the “Sophiatown Renaissance”.  Many Africans also began to speak American slang and some even referred to certain parts of Sophiatown as “Little Harlem” as Sophiatown began to become the Harlem of South Africa with its own Renaissance.  Sophiatown had the first  female vocalists or “songbirds” to lead major African orchestras.  They were an important advancement of African jazz and the image of Sophiatown culture during the 1950s before apartheid began to take control.

Dorothy Masuka was another great voice from Sophiatown. Although she sung with many bands, vocal groups, and stage companies, she was the first woman to actually accomplish fame primarily as a recording artist. Masuka’s styles consisted of African jive and swing jazz. ‘Masuka music’ became a dominant style of vocal jive when Masuka released her first greatest hit of the 1950s called Hamba Nontsokolo.



In 1955 on February 9 about 2,000 armed policemen forcefully moved the families out of Sophiatown to Meadowlands and other parts of Soweto.  Many families were torn apart and because of the government’s racial classifications and strict separation of group areas, they were forced to live in separate townships.  Sophiatown represented music that was created to symbolize self-direction for the African community, only to be destroyed by apartheid.  Over the next eight years Sophiatown was demolished so that it could be made into an area for whites and it was renamed Triomf (Afrikaans for Triumph) by the apartheid government. The name Sophiatown was officially restored 11 February 2006.


This photograph is from 1959 when Sophiatown residents were forced to move to Soweto to live in another area also known as the Meadowlands.


  1. Coplan, David B. In Township Tonight! South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.
  3. Sindane, Lucky. “Sophiatown: recalling the loss.” South Africa. info. Big
    Media Publishers, n.d. Web. 13 Nov 2011.  <>.

Picture sources (in the order shown above):

  1. “Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma South African History Online.” South African History Online. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <>.
  2.  “South Africa Holiday: Dolly Rathebe (information for British Tourists in South Africa).” South Africa Holiday: Home Page (information for British Tourists in South Africa). Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
  3. Afropop Worldwide. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <>.
  4. “Our Soweto « Road Travel Africa.” Road Travel Africa. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <>.


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