Johannesburg in 1961
Our city and its 'ducktails'
by Marc Latilla Posted: 2017/01/03
The year is 1961. The National Party have been in power for 13 years and South Africa is soon to leave the Commonwealth. The Sharpeville Massacre is still fresh and Sophiatown’s forced removals are well underway. Electric trams have just been discontinued - the only remnants are the iron tracks in the street and the overhead electric wires strung between poles and street lights. The construction of the M1 and M2 highways are about to start. The building boom that started in the early 1950s that created large parts of Hillbrow’s flatland is slowing down.
The first TV broadcast is still 15 years away. In some suburbs like Jeppe, Malvern, Turffontein and Germiston, juvenile delinquency and unemployment have created a breeding ground for white gangs and criminality.
The gang members, influenced in part by American films like ‘Rebel without a cause’and rock n roll culture, are known as ‘ducktails’. Several local films are produced tapping into this ducktail culture for entertainment. In true conservative style of the time, the gangs and their ungodly culture cannot be seen to negatively influence the general population while in pursuit of entertainment.
One such film was ‘Basie’. It features a blundering ducktail gang and its leader involved in a jewelry store robbery (not actually seen) and a stolen getaway car with a female passenger. It ends with a chase through Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and finally police capture. It was the scenery of 1961 Johannesburg and trying to identify the various streets, suburbs and landmarks that provided the distraction from the non-story.
The action starts in Birnam, moves across to Rosebank, Zoo Lake, Braamfontein and then finishes up around the streets of Joubert Park and the Lutheran Church on Twist Street (where the movie actually started - at a wedding).
Coreltt Drive looking in the direction of the Wanderers. The shops are all relatively new, as is the suburb.
This intersection is where 160 Jan Smuts (Fashion district), a Standard Bank building and the Mail & Guardian offices are today.
Oxford Corner was where Tyrwhitt Avenue met Oxford roughly where the Zone is today.
Top of Jan Smuts Avenue looking looking back
Top of Jan Smuts Avenue looking toward Braamfontein
Wolmarans Street next to Joubert Park looking west toward Johannesburg Station
View from the Art Gallery at the bottom of Joubert Park looking over the railway tracks at St. George’s church where the old Cinerama/Thunderdome building now stands
Tram tracks in Twist Street next to the Lutheran Church
View of Hillbrow from Joubert Park showing various flats under construction.
One of sets included an underground rock 'n roll club with music by a lone piano player. Painted on one wall was 'I love Elvis'. On another was 'Boone is 'n square' presumably referring to the more wholesome and clearly uncool Pat Boone from the same era.
Much of the slang we use today harks back to the ducktail days. Words like ‘china’, ‘jol’, ‘sweet’ and ‘toppie’ are part of our everyday vocabulary. In Basie they opted for the watered-down and never-used-today ‘square’, ‘waai’ (go or leave) and ‘jammie’ (car).
Real ducktails must have laughed their arses off watching the film. By the early 1970s, the ducktails were all but gone – swallowed up by compulsory national service, guaranteed local government employment and housing grants and for some, jail.
If you're thirsty for more of Jozi's history, head here to read more from Marc Latilla.