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Experiencing Sophiatown: UJ research project captured in book

​The past, present and the future of Sphiatown (also previously known as Triomf), in Johannesburg, has been captured in the publication of a book following a large scale research project by the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).​​​

The five-year research project, which commenced in 2009, is aimed at developing and applying new ways of engaging the past to aid the development of South African’s capacity to participate in the country’s continuing transition toward a more democratic society.​


On Saturday, 22 February the book entitled: Experiencing Sophiatown: Conversations among Residents about the Past, Present and Future of a Community was presented at the Sophiatown Heritage and Cultural Centre, with a panel discussion by residents and academics about their five years of collaboration.​


Says Prof Natasha Erlank, Head of the Department of Historical Studies at UJ’s Faculty of Humanities: “In the process of doing research, we had realised that people in Sophiatown were very keen on working with their own, and their suburb’s history. The project team was also interested in doing history in a different way; the fusion of ideas of history with civic engagement or public participation. They wanted to challenge the gaps that usually exist between academic practice and the everyday lives of regular people.”​​


The research project took the form of community engagement using varied techniques for gathering information, whereby academics and residents worked together to collect data. One of these techniques is called “photovoice”. Participants brought diverse life experiences to their discussions as well as a number of photographs, many taken by residents themselves, to show and talk to their neighbours about what it is like to live in the community, what matters to them, recalling legacies from the past and imagining the future.​​


Many of these photographs as well as residents conversations are documented in Experiencing Sophiatown: Conversations among Residents about the Past, Present and Future of a Community. “The book in which residents discuss the challenges of getting to know their neighbours – toward whom they often felt isolated and sometimes suspicious – and of making a community that could respond to their needs and concerns, is a story about Sophiatown, but also about many other spaces in South Africa,” says Prof Erlank.​


In talking about daily concerns like resisting crime, earning a living and raising children, residents reflect on the everyday challenges of making a new South Africa one neighbour at a time, one block at a time and one day at a time. Because Sophiatown’s concerns are shared so widely, the book aims for residents of other South African communities to recognise the challenges Sophiatown residents define and hopefully start their own dialogues.​


Councillor Cathy Seefort, Chairperson of the Sophiatown Residents Association said she is very grateful to the University and the researchers involved for the intellectual capital they have brought to the community and how they fully immersed themselves in community activities. “We did not have academics come in and take what they need to write about Sophiatown, but rather people starting meaningful conversations which helped to foster greater community involvement in our community, allowing the people of Sophiatown to express themselves, to find common interests and goals and discuss their memories and hopes for the future. We had forced removals and people coming back here. The story of this book is about people’s memories, the history of this place but also how people are experiencing it now,” says Ms Seefort​


Seefort said that they have seen a marked increase in residents’ involvement with community initiatives and events. “Things like the cook club and the cook book that followed from it, public events such as a movie showing in the park and other civic association initiatives have been well supported and I believe it is to a large degree because of the community engagement the University has helped to facilitate in Sophiatown. Our crime statistics are low because we are working together as a community.”​​


Says Prof. Erlank: “We are proud to say that this project in Sophiatown can and is enriching people’s lives and we hope that the research model we used and its outcomes, including the book will help to start conversations among more communities. Experiencing Sophiatown, published by Jacana is for everyone who is interested in issue around community engagement, civic activism and the new South Africa.”​

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