‘Locked in the fraternal embrace of filth and felony’: Gangsterism, territoriality and resistance in Sophiatown.

Sophiatown, a suburb which until the late 1950’s remained exempt from the Apartheid governments 1934 Slum Act -consequently becoming one of the few areas where different races could live side by side – has come to occupy a key place in the post-apartheid South African imagination. Fondly referred to as the “Greenwich Village” or Harlem of Johannesburg, the suburb became a famous multi-cultural creative hub, with poet and activist Don Mattera arguing that it was a space which birthed South Africa’s first truly  cosmopolitan population (quoted in Rörich, Mary., Shebeens, Slumyards and Sophiatown, p. 87).

Mattera is right, of course. Sophiatown was an extraordinary place. That said, what the history books seldom mention is that Sophiatown, like most ghettos and areas’ of relative ‘lawlessness’ was a haven not only for revolutionaries,  but also for gangsters and ordinary criminals.

This series of blog posts will explore the suburb’s dark underbelly by looking at the extent to which racketeering, sexual coercion, petty theft and inter-group violence were features of everyday life for Sophaistown’s 40 000 inhabitants. This post will briefly consider the emergence of and practices adopted by street gangs in Sophiatown.

Street Gangs?

In the 1930’s and 1940’s a variety of social institutions were developed to help migrant labourers and their families  cope with the demands of a new and alien urban environment. These included religious sects, squatter movements and, perhaps most noticeably, migrant/ immigrant gangs. The most notorious of these gangs had their own unique titles (e.g. the Russians, the Japanese, the Americans), territories and security apparatus. These gangs tended to be exclusively male, although occasionally women were allowed to act as decoys and lookouts.


Why did these gangs become so popular?

  • High unemployment rates, especially amongst the young male population.
  • Parents and adults were working and therefore absent for much of the day, leaving their older children to supervise themselves and their younger siblings.
  • Gangs provided a sense of identity and belonging in an otherwise alien space, where the norms and structures of traditional society no longer applied.
  •  Gang participation could provide a more immediate route to status and wealth than menial jobs down the mines or as factory workers.
  • Gangs provided a space within which individuals could reject and rally against the middle-class Christian value system which both their parents and the State ascribed to.
  • The influence of the United States and African American cultures and lifestyles must also be emphasised. Hollywood depictions of Chicago’s ganglands, the Wild West and Harlem’s Jazz milieu were everywhere and many gangs chose to fashion themselves by looking and and adopting similar practices and names to these groups/place


How did people feel about/respond to these gangs?

Reactions were mixed. To some, these youth gangs represented relatively harmless groups of youths, who, whilst guilty of ” gambling, chasing girls and smoking dagga, where ultimately more interested in attacking/ confronting rival gangs rather than endangering ordinary community members. And yet, there were others who saw these gangs as posing a real threat to their personal safety and to the security of their communities.

The Berliners( a prominent gang) ravaged the areas under their direct control, robbing and raping, and extorting businessmen and taxi owners, …carrying more guns than the local police station and using them more effectively...” writes Mattera (Memory is the Weapon, pp. 101-102) .

In my next post I will explore how women – whose bodies were perceived as symbolic entities to be owned and policed – were especially vulnerable within the matrix of gang violence.

Lau xx.


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