Don Mattera

This is another extract from Don Mattera’s autobiography, Memory is the Weapon. He grew up in Sophiatown. You will remember that his grandfather was Italian, his father was Coloured and his mother was African. A lot of his writing looks at the divide-and-rule tactics of the Apartheid government – how they were able to encourage divisions between oppressed people as a way of weakening resistance. For example, he argues that the ‘tribal’ conflict in the 1950s came about because of the way Apartheid grouped people according to ethnicity in the new townships. He is also very critical of the way ‘Coloured’ people were created as a buffer group between black and white, encouraged to see themselves as closer to white people, and to look down on Africans.

Here he describes the forced removals in Sophiatown. This gives us a vivid picture of the events, and the enormous despair felt by people whose families were scattered and split up into different townships. The extract also shows the ways people resisted, but it does not hide the fact that not all residents were opposed to leaving.

While you read, think about issues that might have made some people more willing to go to Meadowlands or Diepkloof than others.

An Extract from Memory is the Weapon

Author: Don Mattera

The Big Move

It was the 9th day of February, 1955 and I recall that excitement ran high as meetings were held on township squares, street-corners and in churches. The people were urged not to move and the ANC promised to stand by them. Most stand-owners and businessmen exploited exploited Used. the political platforms for their own gain because the removals would mean a decline in profits and finally, loss of livelihood. But not all the people were businessmen and property owners. Some lived in horrible conditions and the promise of four-roomed houses doused doused Put out. harassment Pressure or intimidation. the spirit of revolution in many of them. There were mixed feelings. However, the agitation increased, followed always by the usual police harassment. Houses, shops and church walls were painted in bold letters with defiant graffiti:




Bands of young people marched through the streets of Sophiatown and Newclare, carrying posters. Many were arrested, among them students and journalists; they paid admission of guilt fines and returned to the streets to protest and march again. Foreign newsmen and local journalists virtually lived in Sophiatown. They wanted to see it all; see the revolution in its initial stages. It was coming for sure, so we all believed.

destitute Very poor. augured well Were a sign of good things to come.

For many of the homeless and destitute the removals augured well, for the sly government protagonists advised them to move. Were they not going to get their own houses with a large yard for their children to play in, and their own taps and lavatories? Was that not what they wanted? They would be away from the leeching Indian, Chinese and white businessmen; away from the unproductive Coloureds. …unproductive Coloureds Mattera is speaking in the voice of government propaganda here, to show how it was trying to encourage racism between oppressed people. There would be businesses and money and even power. Did not the big baas baas The Afrikaans word for boss. Verwoerd promise all this.

And so, the people sang…

… Are we not leaving behind the rusty tin shacks and crowded hovels? hovels Small, poorly-made houses. Nights of terror and uncertainty? Nights of death? Perhaps in the new place called Meadowlands it will be different. Perhaps our sons will become men before being cut down by violence and gangsterism. Perhaps our daughters will not become mothers before their time. Perhaps we will make love without the children peeping and laughing through the curtains dividing the room. Perhaps there will be peace of mind and escape from the cruel hands of the police. Perhaps, perhaps, Lord, perhaps…

contingent Group.

On a dark morning early, near the winter of 1955, a strong contingent of police, soldiers and Saracen tanks surrounded Sophiatown. The armed units stood on alert as army trucks moved into the silent streets. There had been talk and promises by the ANC of resistance and revolt. The sun rose and briefly touched the shacks and houses.

cowardly Lacking courage. Bewilderment Confusion. deliberate Purposeful; planned. Father Huddleston Father Trevor Huddleston was a white, English-born priest who served as head of the Anglican mission in Sophiatown and Soweto. He became a part of the anti-Apartheid struggle by contesting forced removals, as well as Bantu education. He was a close friend of Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo.

A child must have stirred.

And dawn came. But it would be a day different from all other days. The beginning of the end. Rain, slow and deliberate, pattered down on the town. Too moved, perhaps too cowardly, the sun hid its face behind grey clouds. Bewilderment, laughter and strange expectation showed on the dark faces. Then, the move began, slow and deliberate like the rain.

In Bertha Street, I saw Father Huddleston help one family. A tall government employee who was directing the removals spat as the priest turned around. I cannot say that he spat at the priest, only that he did spit. I took in every detail of the move that my eyes could see. The wind lashed the people’s faces and the heavy-coated soldiers and the black policemen carried furniture to the waiting trucks. The priest smiled now and then, but his smiles gave no warmth. Perhaps it was the waving and calling, the tears of mixed feelings. Excitement and expectancy. And laughter and disappointment. Some people were singing: ‘Let’s leave, O my children, let’s leave Sophia alone, let’s go to a place where we’ll stay in peace, let’s go to Meadowlands.’

A group of student protesters marched down Bertha Street. They were surrounded and quickly hustled into a police van. Journalists from the world over had come for the revolt. They were disappointed, as lorries rode westward free of incident. A smile of victory must have crossed the face of Dr Verwoerd, wherever he was.

The exodus to Meadowlands was a long and tedious tedious Slow and boring. affair. The authorities must have wondered where all the people came from, because the more they moved, the more people there seemed to be. Shrewd Shrewd Sharp; strategically clever. politicians and businessmen who owned properties induced induced Persuaded people to do something. rural Africans to inhabit the vacant vacant Empty. houses. The numbers swelled until the government authorities and the police introduced a permit system. When Klopper the Vicious stepped in, the night raids resulted in mass arrests. Bribery and corruption usually followed because the people always offered money. Those who could not pay were jailed. Men, women and children became the victims of the government’s brutal campaign to discourage unregistered tenants as well as the remnants of the ‘won’t-moves’. I have vivid recollections vivid recollections Clear memories. immune Protected; untouched. of those raids, when families scurried like squirrels and slept in the open veld and the broken-down buildings. Some took refuge in our yard. We were Coloured and thus temporarily immune to this one form of hardship. But it was inevitable that we too, would be forced to sell and move. It was just a matter of time.

Earlier, in August of 1954 – nine months prior to the first removals, various individuals; churchmen, politicians to the left, social workers and political scientists, local and foreign – had warned the Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, that his decision to resettle the urban Africans of Johannesburg’s western areas on an ethnic basis would result in faction warfare. Spokesmen from white, liberal-orientated organisations also expressed grave misgivings about the enforcement of tribal Apartheid on Africans who had lived in cosmopolitan cosmopolitan Diverse; containing people of many different nationalities or backgrounds. townships such as Vrededorp, Alexandra Township and Sophiatown. Certain Native Advisory Board officials – known at the time for their docility docility Submissiveness; being easily controlled. regarding politically contentious contentious Controversial; likely to cause an argument. matters – publicly opposed Verwoerd’s proposals, which they said would only exacerbate exacerbate Worsen. the tensions already created by the government’s decision to remove the Africans at gunpoint if need be. The white anti-government groups said Verwoerd’s plan would further frustrate relations between the state and the African people, who saw the policy as another ‘divide-and-rule’ tactic.

But Verwoerd was determined to rewrite history and show the world and South Africa that the Boers were not only masters of their own destinies, but also the captains of black people’s souls.

Meadowlands and Diepkloof, which were to accommodate the African people evicted from the cosmopolitan townships, were accordingly divided into tribal sub-sections, the Nguni language groups, with the Shangaans and Vendas, carefully separated from the Sothos and Tswanas. The single-sex hostels for migrant workers, in these areas and in Dube, housed mostly Zulus.

Verwoerd had told South Africa and the world that ethnic separation would not cause any violence. But in early September of 1957, bloody battles began in Meadowlands and Dube and several other south-western townships of Johannesburg. Hundreds of Zulus and Basothos fought each other savagely with an assortment of weapons, ranging from guns to home-made swords. Forty men died, five of whom were Zulu warriors, shot dead by police using sten guns. More than a hundred Africans were admitted to hospitals, and some of them later died of their wounds.

The odour of death pervaded pervaded Spread throughout all parts of. the township of Meadowlands as strong units of police cordoned cordoned off Closed. off the danger spots only after much damage. Bloodstained weapons were scattered on the dusty township streets and cries of protest and fear echoed in the halls, the churches and the corridors of the white Parliament, but Verwoerd would not relent.

The tribal wars spread to the single-sex hostels in the city of Johannesburg and outlying Reef areas, increasing the death toll as well as the number of injured and maimed. maimed Injured or impaired. The government’s policy of enforced tribal grouping was roundly condemned and blamed as the primary cause of the inter-tribal slaughtering. The rage of unrest – which the police had guaranteed the frightened white voters would not come to the city – sparked off at several mines. Police gunfire and baton-charges were the order of the day. The death toll rose as fierce violence continued. The Basotho clan – known as ‘Russians’ or ‘Ma-Russia’ lost several top men. Zulu faction leaders claimed the police had sided with the Russians – and some people in the city laughed at the paradox paradox A situation which seems contradictory or impossible but might be true. – the South African Police in league with Russians – while death continued to ravage the townships.

But the stubborn and arrogant Verwoerd blamed the tsotsi element and sternly warned that ‘hooligans’ would be deported to their ‘home’ territories, whatever that meant.

A newspaper editorial in The Star of 16 September 1957 ran: ‘The brutal and bloody clashes between Zulu and Basotho factions in the townships indicate both a residual residual Underlying or left over. savagery among many Native people of our urban communities and a failure of the European civilisation mission …’ The Star was an opposition paper! …an opposition paper! Here, Mattera is criticising how even some white people who thought of themselves as liberal and anti-Apartheid, still held very racist views.

Crime reporters wrote that Mau-Mau Mau-Mau Kenyan Anti-colonial movement. tactics were being used in the clashes. The police were praised for their firm action in quelling quelling Suppressing; putting an end to; extinguishing. the unrest.

The white local authority councillors blamed the government’s ethnic grouping policy. But the shrewd shrewd Strategic; making clever judgements. Dr Verwoerd blamed the local authorities for lack of control over their so-called ‘tsotsi element’. Government-supporting whites believed Verwoerd’s analysis. And while the whites blamed each other, scores of Africans were butchered to death.

More than three thousand policemen and soldiers were put on alert as the clashes continued. African homes were raided for weapons and ‘unemployed hooligans’. The white policemen were armed with automatic guns and rifles and their black colleagues carried spears. The raids were apparently effective for by late September of 1957, all was quiet for a while. The peace pow wows pow wows Talks or conferences. arranged by ‘concerned’ whites and frightened black leaders came to nothing because leaders of warring factions, especially the Zulus, refused to attend the meetings.

The local authority instituted its own commission of inquiry in view of the government’s refusal to probe the tribal violence. Three retired judges, A van der Sandt Centlivres, E R Roper and L Greenberg agreed to head the commission.

High on the list of those who blamed the government for the clashes was the then Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg, Bishop Ambrose Reeves. He said – and many thousands of blacks and some whites shared his views – ‘There were far deeper causes for the riots in Dube and Meadowlands ….’ Bishop Reeves cited cited To point out, as explanation or evidence. lack of communication and failure on the part of the white people to give the Africans a greater say in their own affairs. Most of all, he blamed Verwoerd’s government and called for an end to ethnic grouping.

The ANC’s Oliver Tambo submitted a memorandum to the commission of inquiry, also blaming the state and bitterly condemning the ‘brutal behaviour’ of the South African Police, whom he and countless other individuals and organisations accused of ‘mishandling, assaulting and insulting township folk … Miserable wages, ethnic grouping, the general Apartheid policy and the continual hounding hounding Harassing or bothering all the time. of the African people are only some of the causes,’ said the ANC document.

resided Lived.

When the three judges submitted their reports, it was found that four-fifths of the African people who resided in the resettled areas in south-western townships of Johannesburg (later to become Soweto) lived on or below the poverty line. Other findings were:

… Dr Verwoerd laughed at the findings and dismissed them as exaggerations inspired by liberals.

We were among the last coloured families to be removed. The township was ravaged by demolition squads and only a few buildings, shops and the Christ The King Anglican Church remained. After the demolition of houses, young boys looked for valuables under the flooring of the shacks. Others collected copper and brass. Men and women cleaned bricks which they sold to building contractors. There was money in destruction. And there was longing. I often stood on the verandah of my grandfather’s house and strained my ears for familiar noises like the bright, sharp whistling of the milkman, the sound of milk bottles kissing each other as they parted ways. Many of my friends and enemies had gone. The two cinemas – Odin and Balanski – previously the scenes of heavy gang clashes and political rallies, were quiet and subdued. subdued Not lively; quiet or depressed.

Zwide Siwisa, the ANC man who had said ‘Africa is not dying,’ had himself died in prison – from natural causes it was found. from natural causes it was found Mattera is being ironic here. What do you think he is actually saying? Several politicians known to me were arrested for treason against the State. The two political lecturers, Comrades Slovo and Goldberg, were among them. They had been released and the newspapers reported several persons self-exiled. Others were banned or rearrested. Moometsi Lekoto was among them. My father feared that I would be arrested for my part in the assault on the police during the clashes in 1958 in Sophiatown and Newclare, and wanted to send me away, but I refused.

Something was dying inside of me; small and unnoticeable, but dying nonetheless. Perhaps it had something to do with the change and decay around me. Or the sweet memories that had gone with the twilight.

Our departure from the old houses at 16 Gerty Street was sad because our once closely-knit family was scattered without hope of reunion. reunion The act of uniting or coming together again. It seemed that by moving out of our houses, we had in fact volunteered our final destruction. It may be thought melodramatic, but I swear that when I walked out of my grandpa’s house, I heard the soft, deep voice of my granny, untroubled and reassuring, emerging from the mist and clutch of the grave. Her voice rekindled rekindled To relight a fire. my joy and lifted my spirits. Home was where I wanted to be, wanted to remain until the end of my days.

Outside in the yard, my grandpa’s ancient sideboard and its extraordinarily long dinner table with fourteen chairs were gently loaded onto a truck. The vintage radio and Victorian-style brass bed took with them the odour of furniture and family that could warm any death-house. Everything was finally loaded and I jumped on. My grandpa moved slowly around the massive yard like a storeman performing the annual stocktaking. But for my Papa Mio there would not be a replenishing replenishing Filling up. of the dwindling dwindling Becoming less or fewer; shrinking. filial Between a child and their parent. compassionate Caring, loving. stocks; no return to the houses that he as an immigrant Italian miner had built for his coloured family and its offspring. And as I looked at him a strength beyond me and emanating from filial fondness flowed through my veins and revitalised my being with a determination to survive the destruction, because the house was only part of the whole. What was inside of us, our dignity and our humanity as a generous, compassionate and charitable family, was beyond the reach of the crushing bulldozers or the might of the system.


  1. Who was opposed to the removals? Who was not? Why do you think this was the case?
  2. What did people hope for in Meadowlands?
  3. How did others protest against and resist the removals?
  4. What were the different explanations for the riots in the new townships? Which ones does Mattera agree with?
  5. What happened to Mattera’s own home and family? How did he respond to this?