JOHANNESBURG (AFP) ― Yellowed cover pages of South Africa’s iconic Drum magazine evoke a 1950s black fashion and jazz culture which perished when apartheid forces razed Sophiatown, a racially-mixed Johannesburg suburb.
This year Drum turned 60 and even today South Africans link the magazine to Sophiatown, a restless and vibrant suburb which was home to blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese.
Between 1955 and 1960, residents were forcibly removed and relocated to townships outside Johannesburg because white blue-collar areas sprang up nearby, fuelling the perception that Sophiatown was too close to white suburbia.
It was flattened, repopulated with poor whites and renamed Triomf, which is Afrikaans for “Triumph.”
“Sophiatown set the pace, giving urban African culture its pulse, rhythm, and style during the 1940s and 1950s,” said cultural anthropologist David Coplan in his book “In Township Tonight.”
“Even as government bulldozers were levelling its houses, Sophiatown generated a cultural flowering unequalled in the urban history of South Africa,” Coplan said.
Sophiatown’s snazzy gangsters drove around in chrome-laden U.S. convertibles inspired by African American culture. The 70,000 locals proudly called their suburb “Little Harlem.”
And, just like its role model New York, Sophiatown brimmed with jazz, with star performers such as legendary protest singer and Africa’s most famous diva Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Dollar Brand and Hugh Masekela.
At the centre of this vibrant suburban life were Drum journalists who “produced the best investigative journalism, short fiction, satirical humour, social and political commentary, and musical criticism South Africa had ever seen,” Coplan wrote.
German photographer Jurgen Schadeberg made a name with his cover page photos depicting the town’s urban life, challenging racist views of Africans as simply farm or mine workers.