Celebrating Soweto’s heritage


Ray Maota

Members of the Mpanza family, with
Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of
immovable heritage in the province
at the unveiling of the plague showing
the house is a Provincial Heritage Site.

James “Sofasonke” Mpanza led
20 000 homeless people to occupy
vacant council land due to
overcrowding in Orlando. This led to
the formation of Soweto.
(Images: Ray Maota)

Tshenolo Mokgele
James Mpanza Legacy Foundation
+27 11 935 7483 / +27 84 715 3896

The home of one of Soweto’s founding fathers, James “Sofasonke” Mpanza, has been declared a formally protected provincial heritage site, entrenching his legacy as a man who changed history.

The declaration was made official on 24 September 2011, which is Heritage Day in South Africa.

The James Mpanza Legacy Foundation along with the City of Joburg worked in tandem to bring the house’s status to the level of those belonging to other famous Sowetans like Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, who lived on the famous Vilakazi Street in Orlando West.

Although Mpanza has passed away, his home at 957 Phiyela Street in Orlando East is still owned by his family. They received their title deed to the house in 2010.

The people of Orlando would gather at the home to bring their grievances to Mpanza, who was the leader of the Sofasonke Party – the first civic movement in the country.

Present at the declaration where Godfrey Gxowa, a shareholder at Moroka Swallows football club; Khabisi Mosunkutu, former MEC of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment in Gauteng; as well as Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of immovable heritage in the province.

Orlando East councillor Sechaba Khumalo said: “I’d like to thank these young revolutioneries of the Mpanza Foundation for making sure this day has finally materialised.

“Without the late Mr Mpanza, there would be no Soweto.”

According to Gxowa, Mpanza was responsible for setting up the longest standing derby in South African football between Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows.

“How fitting it is that we celebrate a great man on the day South Africans celebrate their heritage. Mpanza was an activist who laid the foundation for civic struggles,” said Mosunkutu.

Mosunkutu added that when Mpanza forcibly took council land to relieve overcrowding in Orlando, he set up the land redistribution debate, which still rages on today.

The father of Soweto

Mpanza was born in 1889 in Georgedale, in KwaZulu-Natal, and was schooled in Amanzimtoti.

He was imprisoned when he was in his 20’s for burning an Indian merchant inside his shop after allegations that the man was abusing black women.

Mpanza was sentenced to death and imprisoned at Pretoria Central Prison while awaiting execution.

During his time in prison he converted to Christianity and wrote a book called The Christian Pathways.

He was pardoned by the visiting Duke of Kent in 1927 after being imprisoned for nine years.

Mpanza was granted clemency after writing a letter to the British royal.

After his release Mpanza settled in Bertrams, in eastern Johannesburg, until he was moved to Orlando. At that time it was a farm in south-west Johannesburg and named after Orlando Leak, the first administrator of the township.

Moving to Orlando changes history

Due to the Urban Areas Act, which prevented black South Africans from owning houses or land in the city, Orlando quickly became over-crowded.

As a member of the Orlando Advisory Board, Mpanza appealed to the then minister of native affairs for adequate housing, but he was unsuccessful.

In 1944 he decided to actively address the situation on his own by leading a group of 20 000 homeless people to a vacant land next to the Klip River and set up a squatter camp there.

The new settlement was called Masakeng, after the sack material used to build the informal houses.

Mpanza separated the site into four blocks and administered them without assistance from the authorities.

Legislation was passed later in 1944 to remove the squatters, and this resulted in a violent confrontation and two deaths.

In 1945 Robert Oppenheimer loaned the city R6-million (now equivalent to US$758 000) to provide adequate housing to the squatters at a site in Jabavu. This marked the start of Soweto, now one of the most famous townships in the world.

Human rights campaigner

It was this fight for decent housing, sanitation and basic human rights that secured a place for Mpanza in South African history.

His Sofasonke Party addressed problems the people of Orlando had with authority and with each other.

Mpanza’s display of courage in defying authority led to Orlando residents nicknaming their local football team Orlando Pirates, “Ezimnyama nge nkane ezi ka Maghebula”.

“Ezimnyama nge nkane” refers to the team’s kit, while “ezi ka Maghebula” refers to Mpanza for forcibly taking council land.

Mpanza passed away in 1970.

“There are many activists in an epoch, but only nature makes activists who touch the lives of so many people and change history – and Mpanza was one of them,” Mosunkutu said.