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Tales from Dystopia V: Sophiatown and ethnic cleansing

31 January 2010

Sophiatown lies about seven kilometres west of the centre of Johannesburg and when I first visited it, in 1959 and 1961, it was a weed-covered wasteland, piles of rubble, with the people gone. The people had been removed, ethnically cleansed, and the place looked like pictures of cities shattered by war, like the pictures one still sees of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Berlin at the end of the Second World War.

Naught for Your Comfort Naught for Your Comfort by Trevor Huddleston

I’m rereading this for the third or fourth time, after a fairly long interval. Trevor Huddleston was an Anglican priest, and a member of the Anglican monastic order, the Community of the Resurrection (CR). For 12 years, from 1944-1956, he served as the parish priest of Sophiatown, a black suburb in western Johannesburg. While there he saw the coming of the National Party government, and the implementation of its policy of apartheid, which led to the ethnic cleansing of blacks from Sophiatown, which Huddleston opposed.

With Sophiatown going or gone, Huddleston was recalled to the CR mother house in Mirfield, Yorkshire, to be novice master, and many thought that if he had not been recalled when he was, he might have been deported by the National Party government, or even have been arrested, and among the accused at the Treason Trial that began that year. He was able to return to Africa a few years later as Bishop of Masasi in Tanzania, and when he died his ashes were buried in the Christ-the-King Church in Sophiatown, where he had served.

Reading his book after more than 50 years brought back memories of the apartheid years, and I think it is a good book to read even today. It shows something of the ministry of a parish priest in a black working-class suburb in those days, and both the evil of apartheid, and the failure of most white Christians in Johannesburg to come to grips with that evil. I commend this book to young South African Christians, especially those who are too young to remember apartheid and what it was like. Huddleston saw the first eight years of apartheid, when it was still being introduced. Though many of our problems today are different, some of them have their roots in that period. Seeds were planted then that grew up into trees. Since the end of apartheid, some of the trees have been chopped down, but still their stumps remain to trip us up. And some trees have not been chopped down, but are simply under new ownership.

For example, Huddleston describes how Newclare (near Sophiatown) was terrorised by a criminal gang called the Russians. But the police would do nothing about the gang. Eventually residents formed a civil guard to protect themselves, but when the civil guard opposed the Russians the police would disarm the civil guard and leave the Russians alone. Eventually people moved out of Newclare, and set up a shantytown on a vacant piece of land some distance away. Tuis was condemned as a health hazard, and the authorities threatened to forcibly remove the people to somewhere far away, like Hammanskraal. The authorities did nothing about the Russians, however, who, in some cases, occupied the houses that had been abandoned by the people living in the shantytown. Eventually Huddleston came to suspect that the authorities were conniving at the Russians’ reign of terror, because they would make these places, which the government saw a blackspots in white areas, seem unsafe and less permanent, and would make ethnic cleansing easier when the time came. And now, as I write, more than 50 years later, fifteen years after the end of apartheid, there are refugees living in the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, which the authorities condemn as a health hazard, and want to remove them, but offers little criticism of Mugabe and his gang of “Russians” who drove them out of their homes in the first place. How much has changed?

Soon after Huddleston left, the ethnic cleansing of Sophiatown was completed. The Anglican Church of Christ the King stood alone in the veld at the top of the hill, and a little way away was the former priory of the Community of the Resurrection, but the rest was ruins and rubble. The place was replanned, and redeveloped as a white suburb. And its name was changed, obscenely, to “Triomf”, to celebrate the triumph of ethnic cleansing. Now the name has been changed back to Sophiatown again, but some whites, with nostalgia for apartheid, still call it Triomf.

Yes, read the book if you can. We have different problems today, and sometimes they can seem overwhelming, but it can be encouraging to be reminded of the darkness from which we have come.

View all my reviews >>

Within a few months of Naught for your comfort being published, Alexander Steward, one of the National Party’s spin-doctors, published a rejoinder, You are wrong, Father Huddleston. You can read a review and a summary of Steward’s arguments here. I read Steward’s book, also fifty years ago, and it was perhaps as good an example of PR spin as you can find, completely misrepresenting Huddleston, and concentrating on putting the political philosophy and policies of his masters in the best possible light. In doing so, he missed Huddleston’s main point, which was where he was coming from theologically. For Steward, Huddleston was a “foreign agitator”. But Huddleston was writing as a Christian pastor, who cared deeply for his flock. Steward either couldn’t, or didn’t want to see this. For him the policy was grand and benevolent, and though there might be a few glitches in implementation, people needed to admire the grand vision. For Huddleston, not only was the implementation of the grand vision crushing people, for Christians the vision itself was evil.

Waiting for the GG removal lorries

Waiting for the GG removal lorries

I have recommended this book to young South Africans, to see where we have come from. Steward shows the kind of spin that helped to pull the wool over the eyes of so many white South Africans for so long. I was a teenager when Huddleston left, and I was a teenager when I first read his book, and saw the ruins of Sophiatown. And I heard the adult conversations, where they said that Father Huddleston was well-meaning but misguided, who exaggerated and tried to sensationalise the evils that he saw. These were not the Nati0nal Party supporters. These were the white English-speaking Christians that Huddleston talks about in his book. They might have regarded Steward’s book as a bit over the top, but nodded knowingly and thought he had a point. Huddleston was an inconvenient trouble maker, and when he left, good riddance.

I also recommend this book to emerging church people who like to contrast “going to church” with “building community”, as if they were somehow mutually incompatible activities. Consider this, where Huddleston writes:

Behind them all, behind the “problems” which come the way of every priest in every parish in Christendom, there is that great mass of folk who live ordinary lives in extraordinary conditions, and who are the Christian community in Sophiatown. And a more vital Christian community it would be hard to find anywhere. I wonder, for instance, how many parishes in England to-day would have a Mass in the dark of a winter morning at half past five and get a congregation of twenty or thirty people? And that not just once, but week after week? I wonder how many churches to-day are full on Sunday morning at six o’clock and again at eleven? Yet this is but the outward form of something far deeper and more profound. It is in fact the answer to the sociologist’s question — at least it is part of the answer. The only thing which is meeting the need for a sense of “community,” of “belonging,” of the broken and shattered tribalism of the town-dwelling African is the Church. It is for that reason that these present years of crisis are of tremendous significance. If the church fails in bearing her witness on the colour question now, she will never, in my opinion, have a second opportunity. Here, in Sophiatown, over the past thirty years and more, we have been engaged in building a Christian community. It is that community which is now being smashed to pieces in the interests of a racial ideology. And as we watch our people’s homes being reduced to heaps of rubble, we watch also the destruction of something which cannot be built again so easily or so fair. When Sophiatorn is finally obliterated and its people scattered, I believe that South Africa will have lost not only a place, but an ideal.

Sophiatown was but the firstfruits of the destruction wrought by the ethnic cleansing in the name of a racial ideology. By the end of apartheid, some 3-4 million people had been forced from their homes and made to live somewhere else.

And now apartheid has been ended, and some people say (very often the same kind of people who thought it was a good thing in the first place) say that it is over now, we mustn’t dwell on the past, we must forget the past and “move on”. But sometimes you can’t move on. In some places, there have been land restitution programmes, and the land that was expropriated back then has been restored to its original owners, or their descendants. But what had not been restored is the communities that were destroyed. In rural areas, some of these communities were agricultural, smallholdings were people raised cattle and chickens and fed themselves and sometimes their neighbours too. But in many cases where the land has been restored, the owners are absentee landlords engaged in people farming. The land has been restored, but the community has not.  As Huddleston says, that is “something which cannot be built again so easily or so fair”.
Tales from Dystopia is a series of blog posts I am writing on memories of the Apartheid era in South Africa. Click on the link to see others in the series.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. revolvermaedle permalink
    22 September 2011 11:37 pm

    I wish you could come to visit us in Sophiatown. There are many things happening, deeply in the spirit of Father Huddleston. Have a good evening, Kat


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