James Mpanza

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James Mpanza
Born 15 May 1889
Died 23 September 1970
Residence James Mpanza House
Nationality South African
Known for "father of Soweto" and founding a party

James Mpanza (1889–1970) was convicted of both murder and fraud but he became a squatter leader in Johannesburg, South Africa from the mid-1940s until the late 1960s. In 1944 he led the land invasion that resulted in the founding of modern Soweto.[1] Mpanza was at one time known as 'the father of Soweto'.[2]


Mpanza was born on 15 May 1889 in Georgedale, today part of Cato Ridge. His father Ventile Mbihlana Mpanza, an ox cart driver, and his wife Evelyn had four children but their eldest son died before manhood. Mpanze studied until year 6 at Georgedale Primary School before qualifying with a third class teaching certificate at Indaleni in Natal. He was a clerk and interpreter at a solicitors office when he was eighteen, he was convicted of fraud in 1912. He came to notice when he was convicted for murder in 1915 of an Indian shopkeeper called Adam. He appealed his own case arguing that he was somewhere else at the time.[3] He was reprieved but he still had a life sentence.[4] He served thirteen years in jail moving from place to place as he misbehaved and attacked warders. At Cinderella prison in Boksburg at the end of World War One he became a Christian and wrote a short book[5] on his ideas and began preaching to his fellow prisoners.[6]

In 1927 he was released and he made his living by teaching in Pretoria before he moved to Johannesburg. Here he would ride a horse thorough Orlando giving rise to an air of eccentricity.[6]

He held public meeting at his home in Orlando[7] and in April 1944, despite being seen as controversial, he persuaded 8,000 people to follow him from Orlando to create a new township[2] called Sofasonke Township with himself as unofficial mayor. By 1946 there were 20,000 people squatting there and Mpanza charged a fee to join the camp and to claim a site and then there was a fee of two shillings and sixpence every week. In return the squatters had their own police force. Mpanza operated informal courts at his Orlando home where family disputes could be settled. Conditions however were poor and there was no health service. The death of Mpanza's son, Dumisani, was put down to poor medical care.[3] The squatters had left the slums of Orlando but their plight will still not certain and Mpanza got the nickname of "Sofasonke" ("we shall all die") as he added his opinion of their outlook if they had no help. It was this rhetoric that got him the nickname but it also encouraged the funding necessary to convert this shantytown into the town of SOuth WEstern TOwnships" or Soweto. It was not just rhetoric however as he used his loyal following to create supportive candidates for the Orlando Advisory Board.[6]

Mpanza successfully appealed against a government deportation order that would have exiled him in Natal.[8] This allowed him to continue to influence the Orlando Advisory Board. He later helped to set up the Soweto Urban Banto Council in the 1960s which reduced his importance.[3]

Mpanza was interested in horse racing and owned his own racehorses in the Orange Free State and in the Transvaal, but because of the laws at the time he had to hire white jockeys to race them.[3]


Mpanza died in 1970 at his home in Orlando East and he was given a large civic funeral and buried in Doornkop cemetery. Mpanza's Sofasonke Party still thrived and in 1971 it supplied the majority of the council.[6] Twenty years later it was still a force in South African politics. The "traditional courts" or makgotla that operated informally in Soweto are thought to have come from the "parents courts" that Mpanza operated at his own house.[3]

The James Mpanza House where his family lived after his death was given a blue plaque to mark his contribution to the history of South Africa.[7]


  1. ^ James Mpanza, SA History Online
  2. ^ a b An Overview of Soweto, accessed Hune 2013
  3. ^ a b c d e Mandela, ed. by: E.J. Verwey ; forew. by: Nelson (1995). New dictionary of South African biography (1st ed.). Pretoria: HSRC Publishers. p. 187. ISBN 0796916489. 
  4. ^ "Community leader James Sofasonke Mpanza is born". South Africa History Online. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Izimpi zendlela yonkresku (The Battles of the Christian's Pathway).
  6. ^ a b c d "James Mpanza". South Africa History Online. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  7. ^ a b "James Mpanza House". blueplaques.co.za. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  8. ^ compiled, with photo's by Bob Gosani ... [et al.] ;; Schadeberg, edited by Jurgen (1987). The Fifties people of South Africa (1st ed.). [Lanseria, South Africa]: J.R.A. Bailey. p. 113. ISBN 0620105291. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bonner, P. 'The Politics of Black Squatter Movements on the Rand, 1944–1952, Radical History Review, 1990
  • Gerhart G.M and Karis T. (ed). From Protest to challenge: A documentary History of African Politics in South Africa: 1882–1964, Vol.4 Political Profiles 1882 – 1964. Hoover Institution Press: Stanford University, 1977
  • Stadler, A. 'Birds in the Cornfield: Squatter movements in Johannesburg, 1944–1947', Journal of South African Studies, 1979