Moroka Township

During World War II, thousands of Africans flocked to Johannesburg in search of work. Confronted with an extreme shortage of housing and low wages, many of them set up squatter camps on the fringes of the city, in the area known as South Western Township–later called Soweto.

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The Johannesburg City Council established Moroka in 1947 as an “emergency camp” in which to place 10,000 squatter families they had evicted from the surrounding land. The pressure placed on municipal services by African migrants and their families became a central issue in the 1948 election. The Afrikaner National Party’s platform pledged to prevent their permanent settlement in urban areas. The limitation of African urbanization became a major goal of Apartheid. Life magazine described the camp as a “filthy slum…where there is no policing, only the most primitive sanitation facilities, and no health services.”

Nevertheless, by 1955 Moroka contained nearly 60,000 people. Despite its temporary status the camp was not dismantled until 1960. Historian Philip Bonner notes that “Moroka soon became synonymous with South Africa’s worst slums,” plagued by gang violence, poor sanitation and housing, and extreme poverty. Communities like Moroka became the dumping ground for African residents forcibly removed by the government from vibrant neighborhoods closer to the city center, like Sophiatown.

In townships like Sophiatown, brewing illegal sorghum beer and liquor was an important economic activity for African women. “The hardest thing of all to get was a beerraid, but I was determined to get it, for the beerraid plays a big part in this whole system,” Bourke-White noted.

A township “beer raid” to confiscate homemade sorghum beer.

Brewing illegal sorghum beer and liquor was an important economic activity for African women living in urban areas like Sophiatown. By transferring this tradition from countryside to city, women had an independent source of income and provided an underground service in the townships. White municipal authorities maintained a monopoly on beer sales, and Africans were not allowed to drink hard liquor.

The sticks held by policemen were used to probe the ground where illegal brew was usually buried. Note the presence of Black policemen overseeing the disposal of the liquor as well.

Education parade banner in Sophiatown. The “thumbs up” gesture by the girl in the center of the photo was the African National Congress sign of unity.

Education parade banner in Sophiatown. The “thumbs up” gesture by the girl in the center of the photo was the African National Congress sign of unity.

The hardest thing of all to get was a beerraid, but I was determined to get it, for the beerraid plays a big part in this whole system.  –MBW

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