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IIf the walls of Dr. A.B. Xuma’s venerable home in Sophiatown could speak, what tales would they tell?
As one of two houses to elude the destruction of Sophiatown under the apartheid government’s forced removal programme, Dr. Xuma’s historic dwelling holds scores of engrossing stories dating back to 1935.
Tales of Black Excellence
As one of the first few medical practitioners in South Africa, Alfred Bitini Xuma built a fashionable and modern home that appropriately represented him as one of the country’s most influential black thinkers and leaders.
While most black families lived in semi-detached houses in the 1940s and 1950s, he opted for a single-storey dwelling that occupied two stands.
Luckily, Xuma didn’t live alone in this house – which was considered ‘big’ at the time - he shared this glorious space with his second wife, Madie Hall Xuma – an American activist and the first president of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League (1943 – 1948).
Like her husband, Madie embodied black excellence which transcended through the concrete walls of their palatial home.
TTales of Kofifi
Standing tall and enviably on Toby street, Xuma’s house played a part in the close-knit, lively and multi-cultural community of Sophiatown, popularly known as Sof’town or Kofifi among its swanky residents.
House of Dr. A.B. Xuma in Sophiatown
TThe suburb was one of the last places in Johannesburg where people of all races could live or do business together in the early decades of the 20th century. It flourished, attracting entrepreneurs, lawyers, activists and teachers. Musicians, writers and artists were inspired by the mix of cultures and races that became characteristic of Sophiatown.
By the 1940s, this historic suburb was a living example of South Africa’s potential for a multicultural society. This potential was personified by the likes of Oliver Tambo, who taught at Sophiatown’s St Cyprian's School, the largest primary school in South Africa. It also inspired Gerard Sekoto, who captured the spirit of Sophiatown in his art, and journalists like Henry Nxumalo who worked for Drum magazine, a publication which was in some ways the barometer of the time.
But this suburb is perhaps best known for the South African jazz musicians from Sophiatown: Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba. They went on to become some of the most respected jazz musicians in the world.
Sophiatown's jazz musicians' artistic and political influence radiated from South Africa, reaching the African diaspora and beyond. It expressed the ideals of freedom and equality that Sophiatown was famous for. In doing so, it helped engage the world in the struggle against apartheid.
TTales of Empilweni (a place of life)
Upon completion in 1935, Xuma’s house was named Empilweni (a place of life).
Befitting its name, Empilweni also served as consulting rooms for Dr. Xuma’s medical practice. This access to medical care for the local community was housed in a separate wing from his residence.
Tales of the African National Congress (ANC)
As the seventh President-General of the ANC, Xuma often had visitors over to discuss policies and political agendas.
Treated to the beauty of a traditional and high quality interior, it’s no wonder a young Nelson Mandela was left in awe in 1943 when he (and his fellow comrades) paid Xuma a visit to propound a radical ANC Youth League manifesto and draft constitution to him.
In his autobiography, Mandela recalls having been impressed by Xuma’s house, which he describes as “grand”.
Pretoria Central Prison is arguably the most infamous prison where Mandela was held before he was transferred to Robben Island.
The FNB stadium continues to be the preferred platform of choice for the Soweto derby involving Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
Regina Mundi Church a struggle landmark and a tourist attraction that continues to serve the community.
The Mandela House in Vilakazi Street, Soweto is now a small but interesting museum which you can go to in order to learn about his life.
National Archives and Records Service of South Africa - the Reading Room is open for public use and is free of charge.
The Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Facility gallows is now a museum. It memorialises the 3500 souls who met lost their lives here.
Thousands gathered to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy outside his Houghton home after his passing in late 2013.
Have you ever wondered where we, human beings, came from? What led to this evolutionary revolution on Planet Earth? All of the answers can be found in one place: the Cradle of Humankind.
Maropeng is the official visitors’ centre for the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site within easy distance of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
TTales of the last days of Sophiatown
In an effort to purge black South Africans from developed neighbourhoods, Sophiatown was earmarked for destruction under the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act in 1955.
The people of Sophiatown resisted the removal, but over the next eight years, 65 000 residents were forced to relocate.
Among them were Xuma, who - despite having been the Chairperson of the Western Areas Anti-Expropriation and Proper Housing Committee - was compelled to move to Dube, Soweto with his wife in 1959.
The area became a whites-only suburb called Triomf.
However, Xuma’s house, built of red brick with a corrugated tin roof, remained.
A big and significant part of Sophiatown remained.
Tales of a legacy
Xuma’s historic home was not only declared a national monument in 1998, the following year it was formally given Heritage Site status.
Today, when visitors peruse this house (also called Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Museum since 2008) they should listen out for the tales of all South Africans working towards excellence and a non-racial future.