40 Years Later: Culture in the 1970s
As we commemorate 40 years the 1976 Soweto Uprising, we have decided to build a small capsule that looks back in time.
It’s always painful looking back into our history because it is marred with stretches of time where most of the population was under subjugation. However, we have decided to look back to those moments of exhale and humanity. Moments that, while the country was unlivable, created small pockets of comfort.
Next up, we look at culture
District Six and Sophiatown were gone from the map when 1970 dawned. Both vibrant cultural hubs were wiped away by the apartheid regime and their residents were displaced. These two towns played such a significant role in shaping black South Africa’s cultural perspective through music, literature, fashion and other cultural production. Their destruction was a calculated move to crush the cultural spirit that thrived in these communities.
Sophiatown (where removals took place as early as 1954) and District Six (which was declared a “white only area” in 1966 and removals began in 1968) both took the spirit each community had cultivated to the new places they were forced to call home. In Meadowlands, the new community – comprising of those removed from Sophiatown, NewClare and Alexandra –art and culture, jazz, marabi and community theatre thrived. And a new generation was coming of age away their beloved Sophiatown.
On June 21, 1976, The Market Theatre opened its doors for the first time. The theatre was not just a place where actors and other cultural practitioners could interact and collaborate unsegregated, it also took an active resistance to the apartheid regime by staging political plays such as Woza Albert, a satire that puts Jesus in the middle of apartheid South Africa.
There was a shift after the police’s violent response to the student protests of 1976. But young people of the day were finally woke. Many of them went into exile and joined the armed struggle in their numbers.
An important cultural marker of this period was black consciousness inspired by the movement of the same name founded by Steve Biko. This consciousness sparked an interest in Pan-African thinking as well as an intellectual shift in that young people were now reading and studying more black philosophers and thinkers – even if they were American.
In a 2004 Guardian.com obituary for the South African culture legend Gibson Kente, the writer recalls how he “wrote and performed plays which reflected township life, and trained and inspired hundreds of black actors and singers at a time when black creativity was viewed as a threat and suppressed by the apartheid state.”
The theatre, the new communities that were being built in the Cape Flats and Meadowlands and Pan-African black philosophy all influenced the culture of 1976 and beyond. A culture steeped in defiance.