Letter: Memories of Sophiatown

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The Independent Online
Sir: I greatly enjoyed Anthony Sampson's account of life in Sophiatown before it was racially cleansed ('Rise again, Sophiatown', 11 April).

It brought back such wonderful memories of music and hope and energy where white, black, coloured and Indian all lived together. But I must disagree on one important point: Sophiatown was not filthy. Architecturally ad hoc, ramshackle, dilapidated, muddy, overcrowded beyond belief, but not filthy.

I used to go to meetings in Josie Pama's house every Thursday night, held in her warm lamp-lit kitchen, with Josie wielding her two black 'smoothing irons', which she heated on a roaring great black coal stove, expertly spitting on the iron to check the temperature. Josie was a washerwoman, and the chair of the Sophiatown group of a certain illegal organisation.

The Sophiatown group had a lot going for it - the wisdom and cunning of Josie herself, the eagerness of the members to learn, and my ability to find jobs. Membership soared when the publishing group I worked for imported new machinery from Germany and needed lots of machine cleaners. The black printworkers' union was born there, started by Bennett, one of Josie's group.

One of the duties imposed on the group was to sell the Guardian, a party newspaper, price one penny. I solved my distribution problem by throwing money at it, paying for my 12 copies then going over the road to the shebeen and giving a copy to everybody present, including those prone on the floor. God knows what dreams they thought they were having when a nice white lady loomed over them in the dark and tenderly covered their faces with the paper.

Sophiatown was where it all started - wonderful, noisy, overcrowded Sophiatown - from the posh end where the doctors and lawyers lived to the backyards where the sub-tenants of the sub- tenants lived in their tiny shacks, the walls papered with newspaper pictures of singers and sportsmen, from where they went forth in their thousands to the city each day. Messengers in gleaming white shirts, washed and polished schoolchildren, black girls in their neat skirts and blouses, a miracle of 'smutness' and style.

Yours faithfully,

THELMA ROUTH

Brighton

12 April

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