A vital part of the city’s history, dance venues – both formal and informal – have been a part of Joburg’s urban fabric since 1955

Words by Sean O'Toole | 04 Nov, 2019

In 1956, Lewis Nkosi, a 20-year-old journalist who had just quit his job at the Durban-based Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga lase Natal (The Natal Sun), arrived in Johannesburg to begin work at Drum, a new Anglophone African current affairs magazine. Nkosi, whose name still looms large in South African arts and letters, even after his death in 2010, immediately became part of the city’s jazz-infused high life. He made friends and socialised with the cosmopolitan intellectuals that staffed Drum, amongst them Ezekiel “Es’kia” Mphahlele, Todd Matshikiza, Bessie Head and Can Themba. It was Themba, a gifted short story writer who Nkosi later remembered for his “detachment”, “wit” and “romanticism”, who introduced the transplanted Durban writer to author Nadine Gordimer. In a 1986 interview Gordimer recalled Themba arriving at her home one day with “a rather snooty-looking young man”. Nkosi. He cultivated an indifferent air in Gordimer’s home. “Any music in this place?” he asked Gordimer.. “Yes,” she said, gesturing to some vinyl records. “This is not music,” responded Nkosi. “It’s all classical!”

Nkosi was a man apart. At the time of his visit, he lived in Themba’s one-roomed house—dubbed the “house of Truth”—in Sophiatown. Invoking Sophiatown in a 1972 essay, Nkosi described the mixed-race residential neighbourhood north-west of the central city demolished by the apartheid government in the late 1950s as a “folk institution”. It was, Nkosi elaborated, a place composed of “extravagant folk heroes and heroines, shebeens (unlicenced watering holes) and shebeen queens, singers, nice-time girls”. Nkosi though only bunked with Themba for three months. A developing friendship with a white woman saw him move into her home in the white suburb of Parkview. “He didn’t care a damn and would simply come out of that house in the morning always looking extremely well-dressed,” wrote Gordimer. “And nothing happened to him. He had a way of staring at people … if whites started any nonsense, it just fell away.”

Nkosi arrived in Johannesburg during a remarkable flaring of black urban culture, a time of the “the new African cut adrift from the tribal reserve—urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash,” as he would later write. Music and dance—and in its own way, alcohol too—was central to the character of this cultural renaissance. Sophiatown, with its “swarming, cacophonous, strutting, brawling, vibrating life,” as Themba described it, was the epicentre of this scene. “There weren’t really any clubs,” remembers Jürgen Schadeberg, a Berlin-born photographer who extensively photographed Sophiatown during its heyday. The dance venues, he says, were very makeshift—informality and precarity persist as features of Johannesburg’s dance halls and drinking establishments. “There was this place, which was originally an old corner shop. The windows were covered with cardboard. They made a little stage with old pieces of wood. This is where people went and danced.”

One night in 1955 Schadeberg walked into this Sophiatown dancehall with his Rolleiflex camera. He was 24 and had a head full of jazz. Amidst the melee of bodies moving around the room that night, he spotted one particular couple dancing. The photograph he took offers a valuable clue about the character of dance and revelry during the formative years of high apartheid (1948-90). She wears a beret and twinset, he a flat-cap and beige boiler suit. Their manner distantly echoes the smartly dressed couple dancing barefoot in one of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s many photos of Bamako’s post-independence joie de vivre. But in Schadeberg’s photo, taken a decade earlier than Sidibe’s photo, the couple’s expressions are less joyous, more concentrated. The two dancers’ eyes are pinched shut. I read it not singularly as a gesture of rapture but refusal: they are rejecting the political savagery disassembling their neighbourhood, a brutality happening more or less in tandem with the experimental modernism unfolding elsewhere on the continent.

Photography is essential to this essay, which attempts to write a history of the many dance venues—both formal and informal—that have been a part of Johannesburg’s urban fabric since 1955, the start of mass evictions from Sophiatown. Photography offers an important means to visualise, as much as imagine, the topsy-turvy world Nkosi arrived upon in 1956. On the one hand, the late 1950s was a period of intense civic agitation. News photos from the period show men and women of all races gathered in huddles conversing, often amiably. The locus of struggle was typically the formal city, in particular, its courtrooms, more often than not the grand staircases and public areas that typify these places of the law. The 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the jailing of the country’s anti-apartheid political leadership four years later, both well-known events, marked a shift towards a more physically Balkanised and repressive society. But, and this is important to recognise, for all the repression and violence that marked the apartheid years, there was also music, dance and pleasure - an ideology that embraces refusal. Joburg was, as it still is, a city infected by music, dance and alcohol. These three phenomena—music, dance and drink—have been central pillars of Johannesburg’s social and economic culture since its hasty formation in 1886 following the discovery of gold.

While South African writers across a range of disciplines are actively digging in the muck of history to write new stories about the country’s racially divisive past, there is no definitive history of Johannesburg’s nightclubs and dance venues, nor for that matter a defining study of the habits of this city’s contradictory moods after dark. This essay is a contribution towards this still nascent area of study. Embedded in the narrative is a secondary focus, my research drawing attention to those few spaces, some only loosely identified as dance venues, that challenged an increasingly hard-line white racism after 1948. Often without explicit political agenda, these spaces—many of them short-lived and forgotten, some more musically experimental than others—offer a way to read Johannesburg’s history at its most convivial and joyous, as well as its most embittered and unstable. Much of what is chronicled happened at night or at least gained its form and meaning when Johannesburg was at leisure, relaxing, dancing after dark. The night is a time of diversionary pleasures, of respite, pause—but not release—from the city’s acquisitive and mercantile logic. Behind the filigree of joy offered by music, dance and alcohol remain the sobriety of a city characterised by exploitation, oppression, alienation, violence and enforced strangeness.

An amalgam of vanquished Boer republics and English colonial outposts that unified under a single flag in 1910, South Africa’s modern history—political, economic, social, musical, right down to the basics of finding pleasure after dark in clubs and dance halls— is defined by an overarching narrative of racial antagonism. This narrative was decisively shaped by the 1948 election victory of DF Malan’s majority Afrikaans-speaking National Party. The outcome of this whites-only poll, which gave the National Party (operating in an alliance with NC Havenga’s Afrikaner Party) a slender parliamentary majority, initiated a new chapter in an already sullied history of white colonial conquest and racial subjugation. Very quickly, the National Party instituted a technocratic programme of racial discrimination and forced separation, summarised by the term apartheid. Amongst the varied aims of this pernicious ideology and system of social engineering was the extradition of the black body from the white city, to peripheral ghetto locations and ethnic Bantustan republics propped by the apartheid state.

A city founded on and sustained by a faith in quick wealth, Johannesburg is an unromantic setting for bohemian excess

However, despite increasing state oppression and social engineering, notably through mechanisms like the Immorality Act of 1957, which criminalised sex (or even the verbal suggestion thereof) between white and black people, there was significant socialising across the social and physical divides that marked where and how Johannesburg’s residents socialised. Gordimer, for instance, accompanied Drum magazine’s proprietor Jim Bailey to various mixed-race venues in Doornfontein, an important inner-city neighbourhood for socialising in the post-war narrative of clubs and dancing in Johannesburg, as well as in Sophiatown.

“It was a time of tremendous, memorable parties I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” said Gordimer. “We danced kwela solidly. There was a great crowd of musicians, and that’s how I met Todd Matshikiza.” In addition to his journalism, Matshikiza was also a composer and jazz pianist. “If there was a piano, Todd would play like a dervish all night. Todd was the first black man I ever danced with. He had the distinction of being even smaller than I am. We were quite a midget couple.” Gordimer’s anecdote is revealing. This hedonism and mutuality, which endures, was less an expression of political resistance than of shared interests and shared values. Music and dance drew people together, as it still does, however fleetingly. In Johannesburg, this togetherness has long served as a means to escape the city’s mercenary and often arid mercantile culture.

A city founded on and sustained by a faith in quick wealth, Johannesburg is an unromantic setting for bohemian excess. For Nkosi, Johannesburg was a desert, a far-flung metropolis cut off from the western cultures it desperately aped. Underlying the habits and routines of post-war Johannesburg’s inhabitants, Nkosi intuited “an appalling loneliness and desolation”. Writing in his 1965 essay Home and Exile, he added that these very reasons “made it so desperately important and frightfully necessary for its citizens to move fast, to live very intensely, to live harshly and vividly, for this was the sole reason for their being there: to make money, to spend it and make more”. His insight chimes with an earlier statement by one of the city’s original get-rich rabble. “We are none of us here for the benefit of our health,” wrote a miner in a letter to a Johannesburg newspaper in 1893. “Money making and money-grabbing is the alpha and omega of those residents on these fields.”

These boisterous descriptions are fundamental to understanding Johannesburg, a city of fraught natural environments and baroque thunderstorms, of tremulous first arrivals and wistful exits, of trade, plunder, theft and sudden death, of love, heartbreak, friendship and brittle mutuality. The grim years of high apartheid, which spatially reinforced existing segregation and saw the rollout of an institutionalised Protestantism, added a further layer of complexity to the character of Johannesburg. Escape from the city and its complexities took one of two forms: literally leaving the city, which meant defeat or freedom, or, as most inhabitants did and continue to do, retreat—to the shebeens and nightclubs, haunts and hangouts.

Sometimes referred to as “Little Harlem,” Sophiatown occupies a critical symbolic place in the club history of Johannesburg. Described as a “bastion of nontribal urbanity” by music historian Gwen Ansell, and an “exciting cultural Bohemia” by Nkosi, its terraced Edwardian homesteads recall an earlier urban formation of the city. Founded in 1904 as rental-only living space for black residents forcibly evicted from the mixed-race neighbourhood of Brickfields following a reported outbreak of the plague, by the 1950s, when its dance scene was in full swing, Sophiatown was a congested mixed-race suburb pressing up against its white working-class neighbours. While its energy radiated outwards, Sophiatown was also a centripetal force, the centre of an experimental and syncretic form of modernity.

In the late 1950s, dancers in Johannesburg’s numerous temporal and imaginary republics were actively shunning the manners and graces of Imperial England in favour of the optimism and jauntiness of the United States. For people like Nkosi and his cohorts, Sophiatown—with its jazz-infused tsaba-tsaba dance scene and two big cinema complexes, Balansky’s and Odin—functioned as a kind of ground zero for this new urban sensibility. Notwithstanding its slum-like qualities and thriving criminal underclass, Sophiatown offered residents community and infrastructure, the latter generally lacking in the new black settlements formalised by city officials on the southwestern periphery of the city.

“We listened to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Stardust, Frank Sinatra, and lots of others,” said singer Dolly Rathebe in 1997. Rathebe, along with Dorothy Masuka and Miriam Makeba, forged her reputation in Sophiatown’s dance halls, including the white-owned Odin. “Sophiatown was like the sunny side of the street.” Rathebe’s music checklist is useful in highlighting a new orientation amongst black Johannesburgers, who were less inspired by the confident polyphony emitted by newly independent black African states than by the United States and its cool modernist sounds. “America had a huge influence on black South Africa, mainly through the movies and music, which had developed into a kind of subculture,” remarked jazz writer Don Albert in 2007. As a young man, Albert frequented the jazz scene. “I was fascinated by these hip black people dressed in their peg-bottom trousers, snap-brimmed hats and American-style raincoats, jitterbugging or dancing almost in slow motion, at half tempo that was almost suggestive.”

Sophiatown and its particular brand of high-life represented the culmination of four decades of musical innovation, one in which American ragtime and swing merged with indigenous sounds to create an authentic local idiom—jazz for short. This sound would deeply figure and influence the dance scenes that followed, the culture it spawned still a vital reference point for contemporary musicians, fashion designers and photographers. It is important to recognise, though, that the adoption of American attitudes and sounds was never a wholesale process: it was “never a one-way traffic,” as music historian Gwen Ansell wrote in 2012. Still, the love affair with America was, in a sense, monogamous.

Another historical anecdote underscores this point. Shortly after the launch of Drum magazine in 1951, editor Anthony Sampson met a man at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, the influential social club in central Johannesburg. “Tribal music!” spat the man in a floppy American suit. “Tribal history! Chiefs! We don’t care about chiefs!” He was responding to the patronising scope of the first few issues of Drum. “Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo and hot dames! Yes, brother, anything American. You can cut out this junk about kraals and folk-tales and Basutos in blankets—forget it. You’re just trying to keep us backward, that’s what.” No doubt embellished for the purposes of Sampson’s 1983 biography, this story does, however, vest a broader insight: urban Johannesburg was literate and impertinent, and also interested and knowledgeable about the world—especially America, that faraway place with a sound and image that resonated in Sophiatown.

The material impoverishment of Johannesburg’s townships nonetheless contributed to distinctive forms of night-time entertainment, the provisional and ephemeral character of which cultivated “specific orientations toward, knowledge of, and practices for, dealing with urban life - AbdouMaliq Simone

But, concurrent with this new optimism, and compelled by its own internal energy, was the apartheid juggernaut. In 1955, a battalion of armed policemen entered Sophiatown and forcefully expelled residents defying eviction orders issued under the Group Areas Act of 1950, a key apartheid law. Indian residents were despatched to the new suburb of Lenasia, mixed-race Coloured people to Eldorado Park, Chinese inhabitants to central Johannesburg, and the majority black population to Meadowlands, a new settlement forming part of a jigsaw puzzle of exclusionist urbanism established in 1904 at the former Klipspruit sewage dump. In 1963, three years after Sophiatown was entirely demolished and its 65,000 inhabitants relocated, this new urban formation on the south-west edge of the city was collectively renamed Soweto. Johannesburg was entering a new phase of its history.

In 1964, eight senior African National Congress (ANC) leaders were found guilty of treason and sentenced to life in prison. The increasingly oppressive political regime of Hendrik Verwoerd, the hard-line nationalist elected prime minister in 1958, also prompted a mass exodus of artistic talent from the country. Nkosi, who would graduate to chief reporter at Drum’s Sunday newspaper, the Golden City Post, accepted a fellowship to study journalism at Harvard University in 1961; Bessie Head moved to Botswana; and Themba moved to Swaziland, where he died a drunk in 1968. By the mid-1960s, many jazz musicians had left the country. Those who opted to stay found it difficult to improvise in the new government‐planned townships, essentially labour compounds serviced by the bare minimum of civic necessities.

The material impoverishment of Johannesburg’s townships nonetheless contributed to distinctive forms of night-time entertainment, the provisional and ephemeral character of which cultivated “specific orientations toward, knowledge of, and practices for, dealing with urban life,” to repurpose a quote by urban theorist AbdouMaliq Simone. In other words, people found new ways of negotiating privation. As has so often been the case in Johannesburg’s history, music and dance played a crucial role in negotiating the new, the strange, the unknown. An example of this improvisational practice that emerged in mid-twentieth township culture was the “concert-and-dance” phenomenon. Drawing on the institution of tea meetings, polite community events devoted to song, township residents repurposed schools and church halls for all-night entertainment. Starting at 8pm and continuing until the early hours, concert-and-dance events began with a seated vaudeville concert before the hall was transformed into a dance area.

Concert-and-dance employed large ensembles, modelled on American swing bands, whose sound, unlike marabi, was big enough to fill the communal halls newly built in the townships,” writes Gwen Ansell in her pungent story of urban black music, Soweto Blues (2005). Predating the demolition of Sophiatown, similar events were also staged in more upmarket versions in city venues like the Bantu Men’s Social Centre (BMSC) and Inchcape Hall, both in the CBD. Notwithstanding the forced removal of black citizens to its margins, Johannesburg relied on black labour to function. Although largely fashioned to serve as a white urban centre, Johannesburg’s CBD nonetheless included after-hours entertainment venues catering to the city’s black working men, many employed in clerical and physical labour jobs.

Where trade unionist Naboth Mokgatle danced at Inchcape Hall, BMSC was equally convivial. Founded in 1924 by Reverend Ray E. Phillips and a group of white liberals and black professionals, BMSC’s members included Mandela and Sisulu. It included a library and recreation (billiards, chess) facilities, its main hall was used as a meeting venue for political organisers and dance venue by night owls. Walter and Albertina Sisulu held their wedding reception at BMSC in 1944; Mandela was best man and the Merry Blackbirds, Johannesburg’s “most polished” black jazz ensemble, provided music. Todd Matshikiza and his wife Esme were also regulars. “In a way, the BMSC was quite formal then, although you did have the jitterbug and music from America post-1945,” stated Esme in a 2006 interview. “We had very formal dances with the Merry Blackbirds band with their bow ties. Solomon ‘Zuluboy’ Cele’s Jazz Maniacs were less formal, more like people’s music—and then came the cheeky college boys of the Harlem Swingsters.”

In 1958 playwright Athol Fugard staged his first full-length play, No-Good Friday, at BMSC. It was not an isolated instance. In Johannesburg, politics, theatre and musical performance have long co-existed, often in the same space. An excellent example of this overlapping occurred next door to BMSC, at Dorkay House, a new training venue and administrative centre established in 1958 for Union Artists, an all-black drama group. Dorkay House staged talent contests and small shows. One aim was to develop large touring concerts. Todd Matshikiza’s 1959 jazz musical, King Kong, which launched the international singing career of Miriam Makeba, was its most celebrated creation. King Kong initially played in the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Being a private institution, the university was able to circumvent the race laws of the time and offer the show to multi-racial audiences. This tactical victory over apartheid saw this liberal English-speaking university emerge as a key venue for musical experimentation and cross-cultural contact in the decades to come.

In 1961, The Jazz Epistles, a short-lived bebop band that included Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim), Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela, won first prize at the Cold Castle Jazz Festival, held in the Johannesburg City Hall. Phillip Tabane, an extraordinary guitar virtuoso and in later years accomplished musical experimenter, was awarded a prize in the solo category. Founded in 1958, the itinerant jazz festival was the next year staged in Soweto’s Moroka-Jabavu Stadium. By then Masekela, Gwangwa and Brand were already in exile. But a new vanguard was emerging. Chris McGregor and his Septet—a precursor group to the influential Blue Notes—performed to 4,000 Soweto jazz fans, including “tight-panted girls twisting on the football pitch”. Jazz in Soweto was not merely an important modernist musical form; it was also enraptured dance music. The 1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival confirmed the popularity of jazz in Soweto when 40,000 punters packed into the Orlando Stadium, a football ground. The Malombo Jazzmen (which included Tabane) shared the first prize with the Early Mabuza Quartet. The festival’s success was, however, marred by violence. Six men were killed outside the festival gates as rival gangs fought, prompting the withdrawal of the title sponsor. It would be the last of these influential, era-defining jazz concerts.

North from Soweto, over the sulphurous yellow mine dumps that still separate the former township from the CBD, jazz culture was also taking hold, particularly in the residential neighbourhood of Hillbrow. Built on a northern ridge overlooking the city, Hillbrow was by the 1960s being likened to the Latin Quarter in Paris and New York’s West Village. Its vibrant jazz underground was ambiguously greeted by mainstream culture. “Hillbrow and Berea, which were once fashionable residential suburbs, have now become a favourite field of activity for bebop addicts, brazen jazz hounds and bar-smashing youths,” wrote psychiatrist Louis Franklin Freed in his book Crime in South Africa (1963).

Jazz photographer Basil Breakey, who offered members of the mixed-race Blue Notes jazz sextet a floor to crash on in his Hillbrow flat after gigs, recalled the neighbourhood’s jazz years very differently.

The Verwoerd government, which was spearheading a policy of separate development, was actively policing pass violations. For the Blue Notes, this complicated the practicalities of their 1963 residency at the Downbeat, a jazz venue near the Chelsea Hotel in Catherine Street. “We had to be secretive because they [black jazzmen] were not allowed to be in the white area, as they didn’t have a pass to work,” said Breakey in 1993. “They were meant to be in the location.” Despite the mythology that has grown up around the Blue Notes, who transformed into a free jazz outfit in Europe after they went into exile in 1964, their stay in Hillbrow was unremarkable. Downbeat drew a predominantly white audience, although black patrons were not unheard of. “It was never really full, and was struggling to survive, with the guys playing there about three times a week,” wrote Breakey. “Downbeat never really made money. The music was very avant-garde … It was not just entertaining stuff, it was very expressive, very expressionistic, reflected the society at the time.” The venue lasted six months.

As the 1960s progressed, Hillbrow’s bebop addicts and Johannesburg’s white rockers, who in a 1959 Schadeberg photo are shown lethargically dancing at the Rand Easter Show during the city’s first brush with rock ‘n roll, were being updated by a new generation of nightcrawlers. This new generation looked to England, not America, for inspiration. In his autobiography Boy From Bethulie (1993), well-known actor Patrick Mynhardt describes visiting a club called Marrakech at the then upmarket Summit Club in Hillbrow, where he found himself “mesmerised by a go-go girl in a mini-skirt dancing in front of a mirror”. Her name was Zaza Zimmerman; there was also a Felicity Fouché, and the DJ was named Neville Peacock. “There were psychedelic and ultra-violet lights, and if you stood under the latter, all your klein goed [small things] shone like a beacon for all to see,” remembered photographer Anne Lapedus Brest, a former patron. Flashing lights, like smoke machines, lasers and video projections, is a hallmark “upmarket” entertainment, and in Johannesburg keys into a history of formalised dance venues with liquor licences. For much of the city’s history, these formalised economies catered to principally white patrons.

Sean O'Toole is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town