We don’t live in Sophiatown, we are Sophiatown. We dance, we whistle, we get drunk, we make love. Sometimes we kill each other — Bloke Modisane, South Africa, 1957.
There was a gun on the table, a bottle of Commando Brandy, and a Complete Works of William Shakespeare minus the front and back covers and most of Titus Andronicus and King Henry VI Part I.
Outside, in the dark/ there were two thousand policemen armed with rifles and sten guns. There was an armed policeman every fifty yards along Main Road, Toby Street and Johannes Street.
It had been raining all night, pounding down on the tin-roofed town. Nobody was sleeping. Thousands of people sitting around talking in whispers, crouching in their tin shacks and drinking home-brew. Beneath their uneven floors the Earth moved uneasily.
At the Back of the Moon, Fatty Nkoana was singing quietly to General Duze’s guitar. They knew they were surrounded. Come three o’clock, the police would move into the narrow streets and back alleys, and then the beatings and the killings would start.
They’d been waiting for Chief Albert Luthuli to address the meeting in Freedom Square. But when he landed at Jan Smuts there was a banning order from Justice Swart:
no meetings for the African National Congress that night.
Major Spengler had other plans. Anthony Sampson had called on the major earlier in the day, seeking a story for Drum magazine. He had asked the chief of the Johannes¬burg Special Branch if they were expecting trouble.
“Trouble?” said the major. “No. Are you?”
Close on the first gunshots came the noise of the police dogs and the screams of the children. By dawn the broken doors swung open on homes full of overturned chairs and tables, scattered pots and pans, women tending the wounded and consoling their children. Here and there a house was still burning, an overturned car was gutted, and people were standing in small groups just looking at the clothing and cans in the puddled dirt streets.
Henry Clarke was in the House of Truth — that was what Can Themba called his shanty town shack. Can poured a drink for the young man and asked, “Where were your cameras. Henry?”
“Don’t,” said Henry.
“Why are you sitting there looking like that? Henry? You have no problems. Shit, man, all you have to do is go back to your hotel and have the houseboy run you a nice, hot bath, and you can sit down and write out all your indignation in a long letter to your liberal friends back home. Perhaps they’ll get up a fund to send us some blankets and tins of powdered milk.”
“Tell me, what I can do?”
“If I have to tell you, then you cannot do it!”
“I was shit-scared. Can. I expected them to come bursting in here any minute.”
Can Themba’s eyes grew so wide that the white showed all round the pupils, a red-veined, yellowish white. “Hey, you one young English fellow in the right place at the right time, eh? Really dangerous, eh? Welcome to Softown, baby.” Can pushed the latest copy of Drum magazine across the table to Henry. “Hey, read this while I make us some breakfast.”
The piece was called “This Modern African Miss”. Henry read, “She’s city slick and sophisticated. You sit back and look in wonder at this woman, not long out of the loincloth, now draped in python gowns. She now talks about those unheard of things: divorce, abortion, feminine rights . . .”
Sophia’s town in the 1950s.
Can’s piece finished with the description of a trip he had made out to a country village.
“It was very romantic, just the sedative for jaded, city nerves. But the thought came to me that the shattering silence would get me down, and I would panic back to the near-thing life of Sophiatown . . .”
The near-thing life of Sophiatown. The truth was that, as far as Africa was concerned. Henry was more than a little naive. Henry liked to make out that he was a documentary film director. In fact, he had been brought out to Africa to write advertising films for the African cinemas.
“You are selling firewater to the natives. Henry,” Can told him.
“We’ve got a doco coming up on bilharzia/’ said Henry.
“Oh you really care, man, you really care.”
What drew Henry to Sophiatown was jazz. The wisdom of Sophiatown may have been somewhat esoteric, but its jazz was everywhere: street music from the Boy Scouts to the funeral parades; kazoo blues from the tin shanties;
and, best of all for Henry, the music of the shebeens. Henry may have been selling firewater to the natives but he sold it with jazz.
When he had found out that Gallotone Records recorded township jazz he thought he’d just wander round to the studios to buy some for background for his commercials.
When he got there they were cutting Miriam Makeba’s “Pass Office Special”. He didn’t know much about passes, and he knew nothing about Miriam Makeba, but he did know he liked what he heard.
The African musicians didn’t trust him at first and tried to connect him with the police. What was he doing in the recording studios with black musicians? It took a long while for them to accept that he just happened to like their music.
And that’s how he found himself invited out to Sophiatown by the Manhattan Brothers. Nathan Mdledle said, “Just don’t tell anyone you’re coming out to Softown man. Just get a taxi to the Greek cafe and 111 meet you there. Outside.” So Henry Clarke found his way into the great melting pot.
Being young. Henry thought little about danger/ or history. He seemed to be always just around the corner from where danger actually threatened. And he sort of slid across the top of history/ a skin-deep adventurer. Henry only had ears for the jazz and the city slickers.
Henry’s township friends may have seemed de-tribalised to him/ but many of them traced proud histories back twenty generations or more/ on carefully drawn family trees. Back in the fifteenth century King Ngubennguuka had been the great leader of the Thembu warriors. Chief Madikizela was the wily mountain chieftain who led the Pondo. Sometimes they formed alliances against common foes/ but more often Thembu and Pondo fought each other. The day Henry went to drink in the House of Truth/ the Thembu warriors living in Cape Town had cut their faces and bodies and rubbed in the medicines that would make them invincible in battle. Then they had gone to the railway station to buy tickets to Natal where they intended to kill Kaiser Matanzima leader of the Pondo.
But that night police stopped the train before it could leave Cape Province the Thembu warriors were sent back to their migrant quarters and the Pondo never knew what they had missed.
Author’s note –
How do I say thank you to so many people who have helped me in my search? In Sophiatown they excited me with music and dancing. In Rishikesh they calmed me with meditation. In Big Sur they showed me how to speed it and heat it. In Devon they showed me how to slow it and cool it. And in Australia they gave me the space and time to clear my troubled mind.
My special thanks to the anonymous teachers of the esoteric schools who have helped, and stillhelp, me in my search.
I hope that, as well as being entertaining, this novel will
be of some help in the search for the truth of everything.