Kliptown: a slice of South African history

Kliptown4 640Today, informal business people occupy the Walter Sisulu Square, selling trinkets to tourists.

Kliptown's Walter Sisulu Square and Freedom Charter Memorial capture unforgettable moments in South Africa's history as the troubled country moved towards liberation.

Kliptown4The Takolia house in which Nelson Mandela once hid away from police during the Congress of the People.A little girl holds onto the broken frame of an umbrella while watching the two snotty-nosed boys beside her pick up stones and hurl them towards the conical brick tower that is the Freedom Charter Memorial at the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. The stones never reach it.

Just a few metres from where the children play stands a dilapidated green and blue shell of a house. It has no roof, no windows and no doors. Most of the inside walls have been demolished. Once a home, it is now used by roadside food sellers as a place for cleaning and cooking chicken.

Few people know that this house played a vital role in the early years of the liberation struggle. It was the house in which Nelson Mandela hid when escaping from police during the mixed-race political summit, Congress of the People, in June 1955.

More than 3000 people attended the summit, which would later lead to the development of the Freedom Charter. At the time, Mandela had attended the event despite being banned from public gatherings. When apartheid security police surrounded the square in an attempt to break up the meeting, Mandela ran to the nearest house. It just happened to belong to the Takolias.

Kliptown2A roadside food seller prepares chicken between the walls of the Takolia house.Sam Takolia, 71, remembers Mandela jumping through an open window and his father hiding him away. Today, that very window frame remains intact.

Takolia was just 12 years old when the Congress of the People took place. He remembered people arriving by foot and donkey cart, hessian cloth used as a makeshift wall on the field and his family selling the sandwiches and tea his mother made.

The house continued to play a role during the struggle as a meeting point for anti-apartheid activists. Takolia said they would often hold political gatherings on the stoep and that he was usually their tea boy. His father was not politically active, but he allowed the activists to use the house as a meeting point. His father had a generator, and in a town with no electricity, their house was the only one with lighting.

The Takolias may no longer occupy the house but they still have a presence in Kliptown. The family owns Takolia Hyper Hardware - a business that has been in the family for four generations - not far from the square.

The history of Kliptown

Kliptown was established in 1903 and is the oldest suburb in Soweto, Johannesburg’s largest black township. It was one of the first townships, along with Sophiatown and Alexandra, in which blacks could own property.

Kliptown was the city's first multi-racial community, largely created from resettling Indian, black and coloured communities living in Newtown in the early 1900s, onto two farms, Klipspruit and Klipriviersoog. Being 25km from the city centre, the area developed an independent spirit.

Kliptown5The Freedom Charter Memorial serves as a reminder of where the beginning of the struggle took place and where the foundations of post-apartheid South Africa were laid.In the 1950s, the square, little more than a dusty field, was an informal meeting place where the community held football matches, public addresses and did their daily shopping. Bernstein described the square in the 1950s as ". . . a piece of wasteland, a few acres of red dust, scattered tufts of scrub grass, khaki-weed and 'blackjacks'. On it, boys had set out empty oil drums as goalposts for makeshift football games; pedestrians took short cuts across it, and stray mongrels foraged through the litter and used it as a latrine. It was bounded by the main rail line to Soweto on one side, and a dirt road on the other."

Takolia was born in Kliptown and describes his childhood as wonderful. He recalls 1950s Kliptown as a place where nobody looked at what you were wearing or what you were doing, where every house was an open house, and where there were no prejudices as people mixed freely with each other. "But when they started segregating the people, and then they started building Soweto, blacks were moved out there, coloureds were moved to Eldorado Park, Indians were moved to Lenasia. The ties were lost after that."

In the 1980s, residents' houses were expropriated by the West Rand Administration Board and they became tenants in their own homes. They subsequently made illegal additions to their houses, renting out these rooms. Others took over their back yards, erecting tin shanties, and the township became overcrowded and squalid.

Walter Sisulu Square

Kliptown1Local children play at Walter Sisulu Square, being overlooked by the Takolias’ former household.When the judges chose Pierre Swanepoel's design for the proposed square in 2002, they described it as bold, with an exemplary potential to change Soweto into a city. Nine years after the square was unveiled, that energy is still waiting to be generated.

The square is a tourist attraction, with two museums, a multi-purpose hall and the four-star Soweto Hotel. The hotel's dour concrete façade contradicts the flamboyance inside. The reception is subtly lit and its walls are adorned with photographs of Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie. Each room captures South Africa's particular aesthetic; rooms sport pillow cases that look like bags of maize, or a poster-sized photograph of Mandela above the bed.

The Freedom Charter Memorial stands alone in the square, to remind people where the foundations of post-apartheid South Africa were laid. Swanepoel once likened the tower to the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Standing just outside its entrance is a flautist, dressed in the colours of the national flag, who busks for money from tourists. Inside are ten large triangular concrete slabs placed together to create a circle. Etched into each slab are the words of the Charter.

Today, just a few hawkers occupy the space in the empty square, selling trinkets such as painted ashtrays of South Africa's Big Five and stained glass images of Mandela to tourists. Outside the square, Union Street is a litter-strewn strip lined by shops selling anything from cosmetics to hardware.

In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2013, Takolia said he was happy that the square was built but added that more should have been done to improve living conditions in Kliptown. "There is barely a Kliptown left, just a few shops and then squatter camps. Yes, they should have built the square but they should have uplifted the community."