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The father of Soweto: The story of James Sofasonke Mpanza

Most people in Soweto remember James “Sofasonke” Mpanza. Streets are named after him. A highway is named after him. People call him the “Father of Soweto”. Now read the story of James “Sofasonke” Mpanza.

James “Sofasonke” Mpanza was born on the 15th May 1889 in Georgedale, Natal. Mpanza had two sisters. His father died when he was only five years old. Mpanza’s mother was a domestic worker. She worked hard. She needed money to feed the children. And she needed money for school fees.

Mpanza played with white children near his school in Pietermaritzburg. He learnt to speak English well. Later Mpanza went to Adams College near Amanzimtoti. Mpanza played for the school soccer team. They called the team the “Shooting Stars”.

The soccer fans liked Mpanza. They called him “Man 0′ Men”. But women loved Mpanza most of all. They called him the “Coy Coy Man”. They screamed “Coy Coy” when he got the ball .

In 1907 Mpanza left school. His mother did not have enough money for school fees. Mpanza got a job in a lawyer’s office.

Mpanza soon got into trouble. He stole some money from his employer. The employer caught him. Mpanza was his own lawyer in court. He lost the case. The magistrate sent him to jail for a year.

In jail, Mpanza met an old friend. They had an evil idea. They decided to steal money from Indian shopkeepers after they left jail. They decided to kill the shopkeepers and burn the shops. If they did this, they thought the police would not catch them.

But they were wrong. The police did catch them. The police caught them after they killed the first shopkeeper. The court sentenced them both to death.

Mpanza was worried. He wrote to the King of England. He said he was not guilty. Mpanza waited for six months for an answer. The answer came. The King said Mpanza and his friend must live. But they must both stay in jail for life.

Mpanza was lucky. In 1925 the Prince of Wales visited South Africa. Many prisoners were let free. Other prisoners were let free soon afterwards. In 1927 Mpanza was a free man.

Mpanza knew the Indian people were angry with him. He was scared. He left Natal and went to live in Pretoria. He lived in Pretoria for a while. In 1930 he moved to Bertrams, Johannesburg. He was a teacher at the African Gaza School. At the school he met a woman called Julia. He married her nine years later.

Mpanza did not live in Bertrams for long. In 1931 the Johannesburg City Council started to build Orlando. Orlando was the first township in Soweto. In 1934 the Council moved people from Bertrams and Doornfontein. The Council moved the people to Orlando. Mpanza was one of these people.

The City Council moved many people to Orlando. But they did not build enough houses for all the people. Mpanza was angry. He decided to fight for more houses. He became a member of the Orlando Advisory Board. He also started the Sofasonke Party to fight for houses.

In 1938 the City Council moved more people. They moved the people from Prospect Township in Johannesburg. The housing problem got worse.

The Second World War started the next year. Many people came to find jobs in Egoli. Jobs were easy to find. But now the City Council stopped building houses altogether.

The City Council used all their money and cement for the war. Mpanza did his best to get houses for the people. He wrote letters to the City Council. He wrote letters to the government. And he wrote letters to the newspapers. But nobody listened to him.

Mpanza decided to do something. He called a big meeting one night. Five hundred families met outside his house.



The next morning, Mpanza got onto his big, white horse. He led the people into the veld.

The people built a big squatter camp. They made houses out of sacks and wood. They called the camp “Masekeng” (the place of sacks). Some people called the camp Sofasonke Village or Shanty Town.

The people built their houses close together for safety. Guards looked after the camp when people went to work. Mpanza had a small room called “The Office”. If people had problems, they went to “The Office” for help.

The people bought food and coal together. It was cheaper this way. The people shared everything and worked together. They sang a song “Mzulu, Mxhosa, Msuthu hlanganani” (Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho must all stand together).

Soon 20 000 people lived in Masekeng. The people loved Mpanza. But the City Council did not like him. The Council asked the government to send Mpanza to Natal.

Mpanza outside his Orlando East home in the early 1960's

Mpanza outside his Orlando East home in the early 1960’s

Mpanza fought many court cases to stay in Orlando. Then he won a big court case in Bloemfontein. The court let him stay in Orlando. The people gave Mpanza a big party. They sang “Siliwinile icala eBloemfontein” (we have won the case in Bloemfontein).

The people stayed in Masakeng. Later the Council built shelters for the people. The people lived in the shelters while they waited for houses. Some people waited for 15 years until they got a house.

Mpanza was a member of the Orlando Advisory Board for a long time. But in the 1950’s, the Advisory Board got weaker. The City Council made the rents higher. And the Advisory Board couId not keep the rents down. People stopped believing in the Advisory Board.

In 1961 the government decided to start Urban Bantu Councils (UBC) for the townships. Mpanza wanted a UBC for Soweto. Many people were angry with him. They said a UBC was no better than an Advisory Board. And they thought the Advisory Boards were useless.

The UBC in Soweto started in 1968. Mpanza wanted to be Soweto’s first mayor. But the UBC did not choose him. Mpanza was unhappy.

The funeral of James "Sofasonke" Mpanza

The funeral of James “Sofasonke” Mpanza

In 1970 Mpanza got sick. He died the same year. The people gave him the biggest funeral In the history of Soweto. The funeral march passed through many townships on the way from Orlando to Doornkop Cemetery. Thousands of people went to say goodbye to the “Father of Soweto”.


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