Respectability and Resistance: A History of Sophiatown

By Kynoch, Gary | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Respectability and Resistance: A History of Sophiatown


Kynoch, Gary, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Respectability and Resistance: A History of Sophiatown. By David Goodhew. Westport, Conn,: Praeger Publishers, 2004. Pp. xxvi, 190. $84.95.

Although Sophiatown receives top billing, this study embraces the entire Western Areas of Johannesburg, including Newclare and Western Native Township (WNT). Sophiatown's almost mythological status as a cosmopolitan, multiracial Mecca of township culture, and the fact that it was bulldozed to make way for an exclusively white suburb, probably accounts for its title privileges. Nonetheless, the African inhabitants of Sophiatown's less glamorous neighboring townships were subject to the same forced removals in the 1950s and 1960s when the apartheid government rezoned Newclare and WNT as Coloured areas.

Goodhew pays homage to township residents' determination to construct a "respectable" lifestyle in the shadow of a state that was actively hostile to such ambitions. His working definition of "respectability" rests on the three pillars of religious devotion, reverence for formal education, and desire for law and order. He rejects the notion that the African petite bourgeoisie, corrupted by its acceptance of white authority, had a township monopoly on "respectability." Instead, Goodhew credits the majority of working-class Africans with the requisite values and claims that "respectability was at the forefront of the area's resistance to state oppression" (p. xvi). Taking issue with the social banditry literature, he completes his argument by cautioning that "unrespectable" criminal elements undermined opposition to the state.

The book begins with a sketch of the origins of the Western Areas, concentrating on the economic privations endured by the first generation of inhabitants. The restrictions on black economic advancement blunted class divisions and difficult living conditions served to unify African communities around the issues of poverty, security, and state repression. Only a tiny minority of Africans were able to rise above a working-class existence and Goodhew argues that as the Western Areas developed into an important urban center in the 1920s and 1930s, the bulk of the population had ties to various churches, struggled to provide their children with at least a few years of formal schooling, and condemned the criminals who preyed on law-abiding residents. These values provided the foundation for a "popular culture of respectability" that characterized township life by the 1930s.

Respectability did not automatically beget resistance and organized opposition in the Western Areas was muted until the late 1940s when the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC) tapped into the respectable potential for protest. Residents participated in various demonstrations, boycotts, and stay-aways that typically focused on localized grievances such as poor schooling and rising transport costs. One of the more successful community campaigns emerged in the early 1950s when informal policing initiatives known as Civic Guards were mobilized to combat rising crime. This "respectable" attempt to restore law and order attracted widespread support before a series of bloody clashes with an "unrespectable" migrant criminal society, based in the poorer enclave of Newclare, provided the state with an excuse to ban the Guard groups, which it viewed with suspicion because of their ANC and Communist Party connections.

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