We don't live in Sophiatown, we are Sophiatown. We dance, we whistle, we get drunk, we make
love. Sometimes we kill each other — Bloke Modisane, South Africa, 1957.
There was a gun on the table, a bottle of Commando Brandy, and a Complete Works of William
Shakespeare minus the front and back covers and most of Titus Andronicus and King Henry VI
Outside, in the dark/ there were two thousand policemen armed with rifles and sten guns. There
was an armed policeman every fifty yards along Main Road, Toby Street and Johannes Street.
It had been raining all night, pounding down on the tin-roofed town. Nobody was sleeping.
Thousands of people sitting around talking in whispers, crouching in their tin shacks and drinking
home-brew. Beneath their uneven floors the Earth moved uneasily.
At the Back of the Moon, Fatty Nkoana was singing quietly to General Duze's guitar. They
knew they were surrounded. Come three o'clock, the police would move into the narrow streets
and back alleys, and then the beatings and the killings would start.
They'd been waiting for Chief Albert Luthuli to address the meeting in Freedom Square. But
when he landed at Jan Smuts there was a banning order from Justice Swart:
no meetings for the African National Congress that night.
Major Spengler had other plans. Anthony Sampson had called on the major earlier in the day,
seeking a story for Drum magazine. He had asked the chief of the Johannes¬burg Special
Branch if they were expecting trouble.
"Trouble?" said the major. "No. Are you?"
Close on the first gunshots came the noise of the police dogs and the screams of the children. By
dawn the broken doors swung open on homes full of overturned chairs and tables, scattered pots
and pans, women tending the wounded and consoling their children. Here and there a house was
still burning, an overturned car was gutted, and people were standing in small groups just looking
at the clothing and cans in the puddled dirt streets.
Henry Clarke was in the House of Truth — that was what Can Themba called his shanty town
shack. Can poured a drink for the young man and asked, "Where were your cameras. Henry?"
"Don't," said Henry.
"Why are you sitting there looking like that? Henry? You have no problems. Shit, man, all you
have to do is go back to your hotel and have the houseboy run you a nice, hot bath, and you can
sit down and write out all your indignation in a long letter to your liberal friends back home.
Perhaps they'll get up a fund to send us some blankets and tins of powdered milk."
"Tell me, what I can do?"
"If I have to tell you, then you cannot do it!"
"I was shit-scared. Can. I expected them to come bursting in here any minute."
Can Themba's eyes grew so wide that the white showed all round the pupils, a red-veined,
yellowish white. "Hey, you one young English fellow in the right place at the right time, eh?
Really dangerous, eh? Welcome to Softown, baby." Can pushed the latest copy of Drum
magazine across the table to Henry. "Hey, read this while I make us some breakfast."
The piece was called "This Modern African Miss". Henry read, "She's city slick and
sophisticated. You sit back and look in wonder at this woman, not long out of the loincloth, now
draped in python gowns. She now talks about those unheard of things: divorce, abortion,
feminine rights . . ."
Sophia's town in the 1950s.
Can's piece finished with the description of a trip he had made out to a country village.
“It was very romantic, just the sedative for jaded, city nerves. But the thought came to me that
the shattering silence would get me down, and I would panic back to the near-thing life of
Sophiatown . . .”
The near-thing life of Sophiatown. The truth was that, as far as Africa was concerned. Henry was
more than a little naive. Henry liked to make out that he was a documentary film director. In
fact, he had been brought out to Africa to write advertising films for the African cinemas.
"You are selling firewater to the natives. Henry," Can told him.
"We've got a doco coming up on bilharzia/' said Henry.
"Oh you really care, man, you really care."
What drew Henry to Sophiatown was jazz. The wisdom of Sophiatown may have been somewhat
esoteric, but its jazz was everywhere: street music from the Boy Scouts to the funeral parades;
kazoo blues from the tin shanties;
and, best of all for Henry, the music of the shebeens. Henry may have been selling firewater to
the natives but he sold it with jazz.
When he had found out that Gallotone Records recorded township jazz he thought he'd just
wander round to the studios to buy some for background for his commercials.
When he got there they were cutting Miriam Makeba's "Pass Office Special". He didn't know
much about passes, and he knew nothing about Miriam Makeba, but he did know he liked what
The African musicians didn't trust him at first and tried to connect him with the police. What was
he doing in the recording studios with black musicians? It took a long while for them to accept
that he just happened to like their music.
And that's how he found himself invited out to Sophiatown by the Manhattan Brothers. Nathan
Mdledle said, "Just don't tell anyone you're coming out to Softown man. Just get a taxi to the
Greek cafe and 111 meet you there. Outside." So Henry Clarke found his way into the great
Being young. Henry thought little about danger/ or history. He seemed to be always just around
the corner from where danger actually threatened. And he sort of slid across the top of history/ a
skin-deep adventurer. Henry only had ears for the jazz and the city slickers.
Henry's township friends may have seemed de-tribalised to him/ but many of them traced proud
histories back twenty generations or more/ on carefully drawn family trees. Back in the fifteenth
century King Ngubennguuka had been the great leader of the Thembu warriors. Chief
Madikizela was the wily mountain chieftain who led the Pondo. Sometimes they formed alliances
against common foes/ but more often Thembu and Pondo fought each other. The day Henry went
to drink in the House of Truth/ the Thembu warriors living in Cape Town had cut their faces and
bodies and rubbed in the medicines that would make them invincible in battle. Then they had
gone to the railway station to buy tickets to Natal where they intended to kill Kaiser Matanzima
leader of the Pondo.
But that night police stopped the train before it could leave Cape Province the Thembu warriors
were sent back to their migrant quarters and the Pondo never knew what they had missed.
And neither did the Golden City's police force. When they tore through Sophiatown that night
they broke a lot of heads and arrested a lot of "troublemakers". But they missed the man whose
name Rolihiahia actually meant "troublemaker" and the woman with him called Nom-zamo
which meant "going through trials". He was the great-great-grandson of the Thembu king and
she the great-great-granddaughter of the Pondo chief and their full names were Rolihiahia
Nelson Mandela and Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winifred Madilizela. And they were to more than live
up to their names.
Rolihiahia had gone to Sophiatown to give legal help to its citizens who were facing eviction.
Nomzamo had been visiting as a social worker from the Baragwanath Hospital.
Henry had met Nelson Mandela briefly at Can Themba's place. Everyone who was anyone in
Sophiatown dropped in at the House of Truth. Can Themba was number one contact. And he
liked to break the rules. He was human enough to enjoy the admiration that Henry Clarke
bestowed upon him, so he decided to take Henry to the Bantu Men's Social Club.
No way would Henry have gone to the BMSC on his own/ but with Can he was just another one
of those crazy white people the Drum journalist attracted. And if it was okay with Can, it was
okay with the BMSC.
The smoke from cheap cigarettes hung like layers of diaphanous curtains strung across the hall.
It gave everything a sort focus and writhed around the jiving bodies like dirty gauze. Henry
couldn't get individual faces into focus/ just a glint of light on a sharp black cheekbone, whites of
eyes flashing, teeth, an octopus of waving hands. Sound was predominant. It had a core that was
somewhere to left of the entrance. But it was an all-encompassing sound, it was participating
sound. Once inside the BMSC, Henry was inside the music, trapped in the big tin box.
There were Jugs of maize beer. Small bottles of spirits appeared from pockets for fast gulps.
Henry was being jostled on each side by men and women who couldn't stand still, but nobody
paid any attention to him.
"Thoko Thomo said Can, "the Shukuma girl. And the Lo Six," he added. He pushed Henry up
front near the stage, and Henry was looking up at the swaying, sweating girl at the microphone.
Can was talking to Henry, but his eyes were big on Thoko. She was eyeing him back, and the
crowd were cheering them on.
Thoko and the Lo Six were fresh back in Johannesburg after a successful tour of the Orange
Free State. The regulars at the BMSC were glad to have them back in the Golden City. But they
were waiting for the night's big attraction; Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers.
To Henry there seemed to be a great deal of confusion at the end of Thoko's number. There
were shouts from offstage and the Lo Six got into a repeat of the previous number.
Then Miriam Makeba walked onstage, straight into "Andiboni" and the crowd went wild- She
had a command of the audience that Henry recognized as truly professional, an arrogance, that
she had earned. She sang in Xhosa and emphasized the glottal clicks and stops, the crowd
catching its collective breath each time with her.
She smiled straight down at Can and Henry when she finished, and for a moment Henry thought
she was speaking to them. But it was her intro into a slow version of one of her own songs,
Henry's earlier brandies, as well as a mug of maize beer, the smoke, and the music, amplified to
the point of distortion, had wafted him into a world of unearthly delight, so that the screams and
sounds of breaking glass floated into his consciousness as though they were part of the act. But
the disturbance was close at hand. Henry was sent reeling into the crowd, and realised that those
around him were fighting wildly, short thick sticks and knives flailing. Can was nowhere to be
seen. Nelson and Winnie were crouched under a table. Henry searched anxiously for an exit.
Above the shouting and screaming the music started again; the volume wailed up to ear-splitting
decibels. A chair crashed down on a head in front of Henry, and a rolling ball of people knocked
him off his feet. He crawled across the bare floor on his hands and knees and out into the hot
night, where police sirens were racing to join the din at the BMSC. Everyone was running
towards the BMSC except Henry Clarke.
They sent the blue Cadillac for Henry. Just a little morning party round the pool, champagne
cocktails, and smoked oysters on Huntley & Palmer water biscuits. Casual wear and pearls.
"Used to bicycle round Jo'burg giving Hebrew lessons."
"What?" Henry wasn't tuned in yet. It was a bit early in the day for him. Mornings were
becoming synonymous with hangovers.
"Where'd he get you from, then?"
'Tm a writer/' he said.
"Writer. He could do with that. Only thing he can write is cheques."
Henry thought he'd better make an effort at being there. He'd stumbled through a shower, a
black coffee and into the waiting vehicle with his eyes still only half open. He hadn't paid much
attention to the drive out from his hotel. Just aware of the large houses set back from the streets
and the unusual sight of the well-kept leafy gardens of Dunkeld. The sunshine side of
Johannesburg. His employer's African chauffeur, complete with uniform and peaked cap, had not
spoken a word. The woman who had welcomed him into the recently built, pseudo-Dutch-colonial
mansion was just one of the stock company of early-middle-aged, heavily-made-up, clipped
speeched, casual-wear figures he had seen getting into and out of expensive cars and
restaurants since he'd arrived in Johannesburg.
He'd taken his drink to the poolside. Nobody was swimming. Now it was a different woman
standing in front of him, but she was barely distinguishable from the others — was her face a
little harder/ maybe? She held a glass that was a cross between a brandy balloon and a flat
champagne glass, with a slightly pink stem and a floral pattern frosted into the bowl. It was full of
a bluish green liquid with a swizzle stick in the shape of a naked woman. The woman's sunglasses
swept up at the edges and were the same colour as the glass that held her drink. Her earrings
dangled small golden Eiffel Towers.
"Who are we talking about?" he asked.
"Well, you're not talking about anything/ eh. What you say your name was, dear?"
Later he saw the woman being helped out of the swimming pool; she had either fallen or been
jokingly thrown in- The top of her dress had slipped down to her waist and her loose breasts were
being discreetly scooped back into her dress by a man with his silk shirt open to the waist and
wearing a gold medallion. "Quite a party, eh?" he said to Henry.
"Yeah, Great music." Henry nodded towards the record player. "Ella Fitzgerald."
The man gave a knowing/ diagonal nod of his head. "Yeah- Sings good for a coon, eh?"
Henry was standing under a jacaranda tree, holding onto his glass of Oldemeister and dry ginger
in stunned disbelief when he felt a slight earth tremor and heard a whoop of delight that heralded
the arrival of Bernadette.
"Henry Clarke They told me you were in Johannesburg and here you are! Great! Great!" She
was a little shorter than him and had long, black hair, dark eyes and smooth olive skin. Her
dress was smooth too and he liked the look of her very much.
"Well, well, well. If it isn't Miss Mandrake of 1956. What the hell are you doing in Jo'burg?"
"Oh get him already — Jo'burg!"
They had big silly smiles for each other. Their relationship in London had not been intimate, but
Bernadette had always welcomed him warmly when he wandered down into the Mandrake Club
in Meard Street where she worked as the receptionist. He liked to listen to the jazz there and
sometimes Bernadette would sing a couple of numbers with the band.
Bernadette remembered Henry Clarke as one of the few
customers who had always been nice to her and, apart from
a bit of verbal flirtation, had never come on with the heavy
sexual intimidation bit.
As they stood wrapped in overlapping memories, a large
man ducked his head under the overhanging purple
flowers. "So you know each other, is it?"
"Manny! Hey, you look just great!"
Henry stood with raised glass and eyebrows as Miss
Mandrake embraced Emmanuel Litvinoff. Emmanuel
Litvinoff owned the mansion and the blue — and a black
— Cadillac, and more or less owned Henry Clarke.
"So, Henry," Litvinoff turned, his arm still around Miss
Mandrake's shoulders, "we kept Bernadette as a little
surprise for you. Good, eh?"
"Well, yes. How did you know? I didn't mention her."
Bernadette broke in. "Oh, Henry, you haven't changed.
When Manny told me you were working for him I said,
let's make it a surprise. And you're surprised! So there!"
"I let you alone," said the host to both of them. He had
a slow, large smile that folded up soft lines of flesh across
his tired face. He moved with slow grace, a large man who
was light on his feet.
Henry waved his glass at the man's silk-covered back.
"How do you know the Boss?"
"The Boss?" Bernadette giggled and pressed Henry's
arm. "Family," she said, and giggled again. "Here, I'll get
you a fresh drink. Henry. What is it. Champagne punch?
Ugh. Ill get the good stuff. I know where it's hidden."
The morning poolside party got noisier, but Henry was
tunnel-visioned on Bernadette, and she danced rings
around him with laughter and drinks and snacks and
memories and little jokes and nudges that he didn't really
understand but liked very much. For the first time since
his arrival in Jo'burg he felt that he was being appreciated.
"Not Jo'burg, Henry," she told him. "Jewburg!" And she
was falling about with laughter and happiness and Henry
reached out to stroke her hair.
They arranged to meet next afternoon in the lounge
of Lutje's Langham Hotel. Henry had quickly made the
Langham his regular late afternoon hangout. It was the
best lounge in the Golden City and he felt it befitted his
status. The head drinks waiter smiled a conspiratorial
greeting each evening when Henry arrived and then
walked him to his favourite seat near the piano. "Thank
you, Georges," Henry would say, and Ivor Dennis would
look up from the keyboard and incline his silver head
toward Henry and find a way of seguing "The Nearness
of You" into whatever he happened to be playing at the
time. (Henry and Ivor had struck up an early friendship,
over a Van der Hum and Gordon's and tonic. It was so
nice to find somebody in the lounge who understood music,
Ivor had said. "Have to please the White Horse Inn crowd,
of course," he confided to Henry, "and the odd bit of
Ketelby. But some Johnny Green or even a touch of the
Duke." He had sighed his appreciation and patted Henry
on the knee.)
So next afternoon Henry was sitting well back in a
comfortable chair and Ivor was tickling the ivories and
Georges was keeping an expert eye out for the expected
Henry's contract with Empire Films had been something
of a public relations job for the company: top English
writer-director signed for big-budget government docu-
mentary. Henry was nearer the bottom than the top of
the ladder, and the documentary's budget was neither big
nor guaranteed by the government. But it suited them both
to add a little embroidery to the plain truth. They flew
him out from London and installed him at the New
Berkeley Hotel — not star-rating, but convenient to the
company's city headquarters. It was used mainly by
travelling salesmen and visiting Afrikaans provincial
government officials. There was a dull brown mustiness
about the New Berkeley, but when Henry had wisecracked
"If this is the New Berkeley, what was the old one like?"
nobody had laughed. The rooms were just large enough
for sleeping and standing up to dress. The lounge was four
faded armchairs and a locked writing desk. Henry had tried
talking to the Indian drink waiter and the African doorman,
but conversation hadn't developed much further than "Yes,
boss", "No, boss" and a few assorted grunts. He had tried
the hotel bar but soon discovered that an Englishman was
"We not racists, you understand." This was from the
thickly-built Afrikaaner already leaning on the bar, holding
onto his glass of Commando. "I don't believe in that stuff,
man. None of that segregation stuff. As far as I am
concerned, man, English and Afrikaans equal. Just I rather
drink with my own kind, eh?"
So Henry had gone up the road, discovered Lutje's
Langham Hotel and claimed a regular table for himself.
The customers were of many nationalities, and it pleased
Henry to overhear snatches of conversation in German,
Portuguese and Hebrew.
"Now, I like this place! Class!" Bernadette sat down, a
little breathless, her cheeks flushed. She was smiling her
thanks up to Georges as he eased her chair into place, took
her jacket and draped it carefully over the arm of an empty
"They know me here," said Henry. "Van der Hum?"
"Drinking Dutch already?" she said. "If you're that flush
I’ll have a Pimms!"
Henry looked across at Ivor and they exchanged
knowing smiles. Then Ivor nodded slightly in Bemadette's
direction and raised a quizzical eyebrow at Henry.
"Anything special you'd like him to play? They know
me here. Bit different to the French Pub, eh?"
They fell silent for a moment as their separate memories
of the old pub in Dean Street surfaced. They listened to
Ivor and his bracket of old favourites, and then pulled out
a chair for him as he came over to join them.
"May I?" asked Ivor, and sat down at their table, drink
in hand. "Time for my break. And a drop of the Gay
Gordons. Just heard you mention the French Pub. Ah
memories, memories." From his top pocket Ivor produced
a little silver swizzle stick with which he agitated his drink.
"Can't bear those plastic things," he said "Bottoms up!"
They talked of London, and Johannesburg, and music.
Then Ivor went back to play a medley of Cole Porter
numbers especially for Bernadette.
When it was time to leave Henry said, "I’ll get a taxi
and see you home."
"Oh that's okay. Henry," said Bernadette. "He’ll have the
Caddy waiting for me outside."
When she saw Henry's puzzled looks she added, "Manny.
He said he'd send the car for me. Okay?"
Well, it wasn't okay, but Henry pretended it was and
saw her out to the kerb where the taciturn chauffeur
opened the door for her and nodded at Henry, his dark
eyes stopping for a moment, fixed on Henry's. Then the
Cadillac was gone.
"Shit!" Henry said to himself. "Shit! Shit!"
"Goodnight, sir," said Georges.
Bernadette phoned Henry at the studios the next day and
asked him to come round for dinner.
"Sure. Anything wrong with that?"
"At Emmanuel Litvinoff's?"
"What's wrong with you. Henry? Don't you want to
have fun and meet people?"
"Oh Henry! That's a saying, a joke! I mean, don't you
want to come and have dinner with me?"
"I don't understand exactly how you're staying there,
and why I'm getting asked round, and so on."
"Dummy! I told you. I'm family. And you're getting
invited because I want you here. What's so difficult about
all that?" Then she drew in a sudden breath and said, in
a softer voice, "Hey, you would like to have dinner with
me, wouldn't you. Henry? I mean, I don't want to pressure
you or anything."
"I'd love to."
"Great!" Her voice was back to normal. Then there was
a suppressed giggle. "I'll send the black Cadillac!"
Bernadette was at the open door when he arrived.
Emmanuel Litvinoff was in the reception area, wearing
smooth pastel trousers, matching shirt and a wide smile
on his rubbery face. "Henry," he said.
"Nice of you to ask me to dinner."
"I didn't ask you. Henry. She asked you."
Emmanuel Litvinoff's smile had a way of getting even
wider, no matter how wide it started out. He had a sad
clown's face. He spread his hands in front of him. "She
wants you to come for dinner? You come for dinner." And
he had a laugh that lifted his chest and stomach up and
down but made no noise, other than that of a little air
being pumped out through his big nostrils.
Bernadette tugged at Henry's arm. "Oh, come on! What's
with all this polite conversation? I'm starving, and I've got
some real French wine on ice for you!"
Henry was pulled away into the lounge room overlook-
ing a pool surrounded by palms and flowering shrubs
discreetly floodlit. Bernadette more or less pushed him
backwards onto a couch and brought over two glasses of
Van der Hum she had already poured. "Starters. Ci'ao,
"Why is Litvinoff being so nice to me?"
"Because I told him to be."
"Why does he do what you tell him to do?"
"Because we're family."
"What sort of family?"
"Sort of cousins. Distant cousins."
"You seem to have a lot of influence for a distant cousin/'
"Henry, we're Jewish. Haven't you been around with
us Yids before?" She didn't wait for an answer but plumped
down beside him on the couch and gave his arm a big
squeeze so that he nearly spilt his little glass of liqueur.
Before he could speak she was on her feet again and across
the room, saying over her shoulder, "What shall I play?
Some Ella? Oscar Peterson?"
"Ella," said Henry. "She sings good for a coon."
That stopped Bernadette. "That's a weird thing to say,
"It's what somebody said to me here, the morning of
She put on the first record of the Verve Cole Porter Song
Book and came and sat next to Henry again.
"Manny has some pretty awful people here. He has to,
you know. Part of the business. He has to keep in with
"I mean, does Manny have Africans round for drinks
"Henry, you've changed. You seem more kind of ...
prickly . . . than I remember you in London?"
"I guess Africa changes us all."
Henry Clarke had been in Africa all of two months.
First chapter of The Truth of Everything
Sophiatown, Can Themba, Johannesburg,township jazz, shebeens, miriam makeba,mandela