the social centre where mandela met black america
July 25, 2019
Today, 1 Eloff Street in Johannesburg is a stretch of colorful apartments. The building is part of what is called “Joziburg Lane,” a community of artists, artisans, and creatives centered in the heart of the CBD (the city’s Central Business District). The rooftop of Joziburg Lane is a frequent party venue for Joburg’s over-25 crowd; events like Mamashaka’s Feel Good Series happen up there once a month, with young Joburgers drinking Black Label and looking out onto the skyline that shapes the industrial city centre. In some ways, the dynamic of this building has changed drastically since the first brick was laid in the early 1910s. In other ways, it has stayed true to its original roots.
In the 1920s, Apartheid South Africa was in formation. 28 years before the social policy was officially signed into legislation, Black South Africans were actively working to dismantle a racist government in production mode. J.T Gumede’s African National Congress (ANC) was bogged down by financial restraints and competition from the South African Communist Party. The Urban Areas Act of 1923 had been signed, effectively stripping Black South Africans of the right to permanently reside in cities. At the same time, South Africa was in the midst of a kind of cultural revolution alongside the rest of the world — feeling the aftermaths of the gold rush, enjoying the rise of jazz and swing age, while taking steps towards whatever the African future would be. It’s in this crucible of rapid development, social change and political struggle that Johannesburg as we know it began to take shape.
Reverend Ray Phillips founded the Bantu Men’s Social Centre at 1 Eloff in 1921. He was an African-American missionary who opened the centre to bring morality to the recreational activities of the city’s Black men. The centre was nestled at Eloff Street’s southern end, the city’s main shopping district. It was a two-story structure that featured a multi-functional hall used for meetings, theatre performances and dances. But as the century went on, its purpose as a hub of Black South African ideas and as a social meeting space gave it even more importance.
BMSC was well-funded, boasting a considerable library containing a wealth of African-American literature by the likes of W.E.B du Bois and (later) James Baldwin. Over the years, some of Black South Africa’s most famous faces were frequenting this space, including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. The BMSC was an important medium through which Black South African intellectuals (mostly men) found their political and literary inspiration. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe’s book, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, states that the members of the centre saw in Black America an edifice of self-identity which linked modern ideas with breaking down racialized oppression. Nuttall and Mbembe express that Black America played a pivotal part in giving the Black citizens of Johannesburg faith that modernity and racial liberation could be linked organically, that the African-Americans story gave the city’s Black struggle the tools that it needed to attack racial inequality.
The relevance of the Centre lay not only in what it meant historically or culturally as a space for like-minded individuals to convene, but how it politically set the tone for a revolution of thought. Through the Centre’s library, its members engaged with content that they might not otherwise have had access to, and created a platform to share these ideas gathered from African-American writing. They thereby found a way forward for Black intellectual and political thought throughout the city.
People flock to wherever there is opportunity for something even a little bit better. After slavery ended, Black Americans found themselves held down once more by the white state. Jim Crow segregation saw Black Americans subjected to racial abuse, discrimination and a reinvented form of structural disenfranchisement. Reconstruction era laws that protected “freed men” were abolished and a racial caste system, much like Apartheid, ensued. The terror of Southern living and lack of opportunity while Black, was too much to bear for many. Between 1916-1970, approximately six million Black folks joined the Great Migration Northward, looking for peace and economic opportunity. Cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago became hubs of Blackness and Black culture outside of the South. In these spaces, the groundwork for what being “urban” looks like to both America and the rest of the world was formed, defined and created by its new Black population. A similar pattern developed in South Africa during this period.
The Native Land Act of 1913 limited Black ownership of South Africa to 8% of the land, while colonial settler society possessed 92%. This piece of legislation would have enormous economic and social repercussions for Black South Africans. The Land Act led to the creation of South African “homelands” or “Bantustans,” similar in character to Native American reservations. The homelands were rife with poverty, received almost zero federal assistance and, despite the Apartheid governments claims, were not being governed by Black South Africans. In the same way that America is built on the back of Black labour, Apartheid cannot function without Black South Africans. The Apartheid economy operated on a continuous demand for exploitative Black labour. In this period, thousands of Black men and women left the homelands in search of economic opportunity in Johannesburg. Black men became the primary source of labor in Joburg’s mining industry, living in men’s-only mining hostels and earning laughable paychecks. Black women become the primary source of domestic labor for white families, leaving their own families at home to care for white children. This pattern of migration is not only responsible for the disintegration of traditional African family patterns, it’s responsible for the growth of urban Johannesburg. The huge influx of Black workers into the city saw the rapid growth of townships like Soweto, where Black South Africans built a community they were not allowed to move out of.
When he was 22 years old, Nelson Mandela was nearly forced into an arranged marriage, but because of his education, he had already discovered modernist and individualist ideas surrounding the institution and fought against such arrangements, It is important to note that Mandela was not an uncritical traditionalist but had great metropolitan ambitions. The glamour of Johannesburg was alluring and Mandela was reveling in the 1940s culture of swing and dance.
The change in Mandela’s political beliefs is connected to both a cultural and personal empathy with this metropolitanism, a style associated with Americanization that he adopted. Black Joburg’s historic association with Black America is a double-sided coin. What stands out is its love of swing culture and hip-hop. The groups that Mandela showed personal interest in built their images from American favorites, including jazz men such as Glen Miller and Duke Ellington. What fashionable Black youths and Mandela aspired to own, they learned from Hollywood movies. America became a promise of individual freedom through consumerist self-styling.
The Bantu Men’s Social Centre served as a site for Mandela to grow and develop his own political position. The creation of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League on the club’s premises in 1944 allowed Mandela to challenge himself to break outside of what was becoming the established, traditionalist ANC guard. The Youth League called for a more militant form of African nationalism, urging a new generation of leaders to pick up the pace of the revolution. History shows that regardless of global distance, Black politics are always in conversation with one another. Struggle and resistance do not happen in a vacuum. As political anti-Apartheid sentiments grew, so did the American Civil Rights Movement. Conversations and similarities between these two can be found in every era. Garvey-ism and Pan Africanism. Steve Biko and Malcolm X. The South African Native National Congress and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Trade Union and workers movements. The 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria’s Union Building and the long tradition of Black feminist activity in the United States. Mandela, for a long stretch of his time as a freedom fighter and his legacy, finds his politics in conversation with that of Dr. Martin Luther King.
King and Mandela are both now so revered, they’re almost placed outside of their Blackness. They are viewed as non-threatening heroes who are part of world history, figures that white society and white people at large are comfortable with. Mention of King’s name evokes the image of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Mandela is etched into the public imagination as a smiling old man in a colorful shirt. However, both their politics were far more revolutionary than they have been afforded, at the intersection of Christianity, Black modernity, class and labour politics, and tensions between militancy and non-violence. Though the height of both men’s careers was attached to ideas of racial harmony and Gandhi-style non-violence, their political journeys were far more complicated. The current iteration of the ANC operates within a strongly capitalist framework, but Mandela at one point was a member of the South African Communist Party. He would be inspired by non-violence as a political movement, but co-founded umKhonto we Sizwe (the ANC’s military wing). Before 1994, he was widely known to the white world as a terrorist, and now he is the Father of the Nation. King too, made his name with a politic of nonviolence and reconciliation. But towards the end of his career, he was involved in the Black labour politics that dominated urban America in the 1960s. His involvement in the Chicago Housing Movement and The Poor People’s Campaign saw him take on a political energy far more akin to someone like Malcom X or Stokely Carmichael.
The conversations that connected Black politics around the world were the kind of thing that dominated the tables and couches of the Bantu Men’s Social Club. It became the setting for someone like Mandela to formulate ideas and inspire (and be inspired by) brothers in the United States. Today, Joburg’s Black youth are still deeply in touch with Black American culture. From the skateboarders of the CBD and Soweto, to the club scene of the northern suburbs, the city’s Black kids continuously source inspiration from what’s happening across the Atlantic. The Bantu Men’s Social Centre no longer stands, but in many ways, the connection that it built between Black America and Black Joburg has stretched long past its doors, through the Apartheid Era and into the politics and aesthetics of the Born Free generation. In many ways, the youth in Johannesburg today undertake the same journey that Mandela did at 1 Eloff all those years ago.
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