The hunt is on for Sophiatown’s treasures

A “Sophiatown treasure hunt” was launched by the Trevor Huddleston Centre in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Human Rights Day, in the hopes of creating a unique collection of historic artefacts for Sophiatown’s new heritage museum, said Jerry Masoleng, the centre’s heritage officer.

“We are appealing to communities to bring in artefacts from Sophiatown’s past,” Masoleng told the Mail & Guardian Online. “We will catalogue, display and archive material that is donated or loaned as a memorial to the old Sophiatown and its life, loss and rebirth in the new South Africa.”

Sophiatown was one of the country’s last freehold areas under apartheid, where people of all races lived side by side and everyone was allowed to own property.

In the 1950s, 65 000 residents were forcibly removed and Sophiatown was dismantled by the nationalist government. It was turned into an all-white area called Triomf (Afrikaans for “triumph”).

Last year, the area, which is still primarily residential, officially reverted to its original name of Sophiatown.

“The community started to dilute some years back from about 1999, and now I’m happy to say it’s completely mixed,” Masoleng said. “Sophia means ‘wisdom’, and this is surely a place of wisdom.”

Sally Motlana, board member of the centre and a former resident of Sophiatown, said: “Everyone who visited or lived in Sophiatown will possibly have some kind of treasure in their home — photographs, birth, wedding certificates, posters, ticket stubs, theatre programmes, magazines, books, china ornaments, two-tone shoes or a hat.

“All these things and more, if they came from Sophiatown, are national treasures. We would like to gather them together in our museum, so our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can read about our lives then, and understand why human rights are important for all people.”

The Trevor Huddleston Centre was established in 1999 in honour of the Anglican priest who lived and worked in Sophiatown in the 1950s. “He fought against the injustices of apartheid; he was in constant dialogue against the government of the time,” Masoleng said. “The centre was established to carry on the humanitarian work of Father Huddleston.”

The proposed museum, which will be spearheaded by the City of Johannesburg, will hopefully be completed by the end of 2007, he said. It will be housed in Dr Xuma House on Tobie Street in Sophiatown, one of the few remaining original structures in the area.

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