James Sofasonke Mpanza

James Sofasonke Mpanza

May 15, 1889 – September 23, 1970.

Dear Visitor to Orlando East, 

In this narrative, I use artistic license, to allow you to receive the message directly from the Father of Soweto.

On May 15, 2005, we celebrated the birth date of Sofasonke, with the back-yard theatre production that follows, imagine you are sitting in a shebeen / backyard theatre, sitting among a group of locals, listening to  the spirit of Mpanza talking to the patron, his followers, his audience: 

Cedric de la Harpe.

Sofasonke – the Father of Soweto

James Sofasonke Mpanza
James Sofasonke Mpanza






Featuring the Spirit of Sofasonke: 

“I arrived in Orlando East, from my posh back-yard accommodation, in Bertrams, early in 1934. Not too many people were accommodated in Orlando East at this stage, the council had built nearly three thousand houses, only walls to roof height, they would only completed them when they had some-one who was prepared to rent the house. People were afraid to come and live out here. It was far away from everything. This area was like a jungle, many gum trees, planted for the mines requirements.”

“When they started building on Mooki Street, they would only chop down a few rows of trees. This jungle remained right on the edge of those houses that were built. It was only when they started to clear more of the jungle that people felt comfortable to come and live here. Only when you agreed to rent a house, did they complete the house. Even in those days the whites would not complete the house if it was not occupied, they believed that the Blacks would steal everything. Across at Skomplaas though, there were thousands of people who may have sourced building material from here, they were desperate, having been forced off their farms from 1913.”

“The one important part of my brief teaching career, was that one of my students soon became my wife, Julia, so well loved by all in Soweto. Today, I can admit that Julia, much younger than me, was in-fact the power behind this man. She was a true leader of the community.”

“When I came to Orlando, there were three types of houses. The two-room semi-detached houses, they were the cheapest, 9/6d, the two-room house, 1/5/6d, and the three-roomed house, 1/10/6d. I could only afford the cheapest one, two-room semi at 9/6d, but it did have a large property, house 957 Orlando East.

“I learnt most of my law, as a clerk, to a firm of attorneys in Natal. I was a popular young man, and the woman, loved me, the woman began to notice me in primary school, but it was not until I was in college that I started to appreciate them. I played soccer for Shooting Stars, and my fans, mostly girls, used to call me the ‘Coy Coy man’, and shout ‘Coy Coy’ when ever I had the ball.”

“I started as a legal clerk in January 1908; this new job gave me prestige. I felt like a chief, a Zulu chief, fearing neither man nor God.”

“Soon I was getting confident in my knowledge of the law. It was corrupting me. And my growing commitments made me less and less able to live within my income.”

“I suppose I must go back to where my problems with the law all started, 1909, I hope I am not going to bore you today, I was going to concentrate on the history of Soweto, but when these children say they do not know about their Father’s life, early life in Soweto, we need to spend a little time talking about it. Forgive me.”

“In 1909, I had a girlfriend, Martha Bhengu, the most beautiful girl I have ever known. I was just twenty, and much in love. Then she jilted me, for an African cop, in the district. Was I mad? Yes me; James Sofasonke Mpanza, a five pound a month, legal clerk, and so I fondly thought, I should be above the police, how could she?”

“I could not take the snub, and went after her, and assaulted her, and forced her to love me all over again.”

“Yes today I will accept I was wrong. Martha worked for the ‘clerk of the court’, and reported me; in due course I was summoned to appear in court. On the day I appeared, I strutted into the dock without briefing council. The magistrate jailed me for a month without the option of a fine.”

“I was furious, straightway lodged an appeal, and the Supreme Court reduced the sentence to a one-pound fine. I was very satisfied with myself. Dangerously; satisfied with myself.”

“This probably caused me to start embezzling money from Stevens. I was found out, but Mr. Stevens was a reasonable man and he let me off, hushed the matter up, and let me stay. At this stage I had many women, I was swanky and proud, my morals were corroded and I continued.”

“You young man,” pointing to a young white visitor of 40 odd, “you look surprised; bet you never believed, that a young black man, could have lived a lavish life-style in 1909.”

“I had already left the firm, having pocketed some money and believing that I would get away with it, when my other frauds were discovered by Mrs. Stevens in 1913.  Mrs. Stevens was not as kind as her dear old husband, she called the police, and I was duly charged.”

“I soon appeared before the then Native High Court, but because I was exempted under Law 28, 1865, which placed me under the Common Law of the then Colony of Natal, I successfully took exception to the jurisdiction of this court. My trial was transferred to the Supreme Court, and I got twelve months, with hard labour, thanks to me defending myself.”

“The next nine months changed my life. I met hardened criminals for the first time.”


“One of the problems you have, when you first go into jail, is that you realise that you have lost all you have, your job, your future, and your family. You meet these hardened criminals, I met an old friend of mine, Dick, from back home, as we say, ‘my home boy’, he was a hardened criminal. I was arrogant, had Dick’s support, and we together, with his intent, and my legal knowledge, we discussed and developed a master plan. It was sweetly simple, and utterly ghoulish. We would simply eliminate Indian shopkeepers, and take their money. With my small carefully gathered knowledge of the law, I improved on the plan, provided we destroyed all the evidence ….  with fire, we could never be convicted. We openly plotted at length, with other more seasoned prisoners.”

“With World War 1 breaking out in 1914, we were given a three month remission. When I came out Dick was waiting outside for me. Over a few nips of brandy we discussed our plan, in all its gory details. We were about to murder our first store-keeper, Adam, a store-keeper in Georgedale.”

The patrons fall silent in around you in shebeen, no more talking. They all sense what is about to take place. Mpanza moves his crate away from the patrons, no longer wishing to share the details with them. He now starts to talk away from the visitors, in a very quite voice. Is he getting to the end of the story?

“On the appointed day, Dick and I, again indulge in the brandy, lots of it to give us courage. It was Friday,  August 1, 11 days after my release. We struck in the evening.”

“Three days later the police raided our home, and arrested me on suspicion of murder and arson. My Mother’s shock; was great, and I never forgot the pain, that I put her through.”

“Most of the evidence against us was circumstantial. Some of it given by a passers-by, who had seen us in the neighbourhood. The most damaging evidence, was given by the former prison mates, that we were going to target Indian traders, and burn all the evidence, especially the fact that we had targeted one Indian Trader in particular. It was this evidence that influenced the verdict.”

“Guilty, sentenced to death, to be hung by the neck till you die.”

“I started to wait for the hangman to do his job.’

Sofasonke goes to the toilet, leaving us all in silence. I notice him buying a nip of bandy in the far corner, he has a few sips from the bottle, and returns after ten minutes.

He breaks into a broad smile, the drama around his arrest and sentence forgotten, he takes us back to his days in Soweto.

“During 1932 to 1934, three thousand five hundred houses were built in Orlando East .


“In 1935, there were fifteen thousand black people living in Orlando East”

“During 1935, the ‘system’ established an ‘Urban Bantu Advisory Council’, initially consisting of four elected Councillors; the name of this Council, over the years varied, but performed the same functions. I formed the ‘Sofasonke Party’, for you whites, ‘Sofasonke’ translated is ‘We will all die together’. This party was officially registered in 1943.”

The group of shebeen patrons start chanting ‘Sofasonke, Sofasonke’,

Mpanza indicates that they should quieten down so that he may continue, it only took one slight wave of the hand and order was restored.  

“My followers found great strength in this name, and I had no problem with getting the majority of the votes, even though our party only contested one of the seats.”

“The fact that I obtained the majority vote; permitted me to act as the ‘Mayor’, the leader of the Advisory Board.”

“The people, started calling me ‘Sofasonke’, after my party, few people even today, know that my dear mother gave me that name at birth. She must have known, that I would be a leader, and that I would need a name that inspired a following.”

“I neglected to put any other party members up for election to the Advisory Board, and remained a single representative of my party.”

“The Sofasonke Party concentrated on addressing the civic interests of its members, and community. Housing, service delivery, employment, schooling, sport, crime”.

“I was an important link between my community, and the Council. I love sport; I love music, and the arts. I ensure that these aspects were given attention in the schools.”

“You youngsters; will have met a number of old residents who tell you that ‘Sofasonke’ arranged their family house for them.”

“If you wanted a house, you go to the Sofasonke house no, 957, where I had an office, you tell me who you are, and that you need a house. When I have finished the paper work, I will get onto my horse and go see the township manager.”


“Then one day, I will come to fetch your father and mother, and take you to the house. I will be on my horse, riding slowly while the family followed. When we all reach the house, I will take the key, unlock the door, and present the family with their house.”

Sofasonke proudly goes through the motions of getting off his horse, walking up to the door, fitting the key, turning the key, opening the door and standing back to allow the family to enter.

“This is your house; you must never leave this house, because one-day, the Council will have to give you this house. I always stressed this important advice to my followers.”

“This advise that I gave all my followers, is the reason why I remained in house 957 Phiela Street, Orlando East, even after many moved to the new Orlando West in 1946.

“With the advent of the Second World War, 1939 for the South Africans, due to the conflict that the British had with the Germans in Africa, industry started to develop at a rapid pace. Recruitment agencies; travelled the length and breath of Southern Africa, and the local British Protectorates, and recruited black people of various genders, regions and ethnic groups, into Johannesburg. The number of houses in Orlando East; through the building of additional houses in Orlando East, prior to the war, had increased to 5800. Although the Council records only show fifty thousand people, in Orlando East in the 1940s, our party knew that it had increased to one hundred thousand by 1943.”

“Imagine what it was like in 1943, one hundred thousand people from all areas of Southern Africa, living on five thousand  properties  sharing five thousand bucket toilets, and limited water facilities?”

“In the 1940s, I was fighting a lone battle, to stop the City Council from making the backyard dwellings illegal, and to build more homes. The only place we had to live, was here, but they did not want the proliferation of shacks. We were a Township and the official accommodation for the Johannesburg Council, owned by the Council, this was the only legal place for all of us to stay.”

“In 1943, the Sofasonke party had decided it was time to act, and that we should attach municipal land, and build our shacks.  In the September of 1943 we started to build hessian shacks on the community hall property, we still waited patiently for another six months, and eventually, on the 20th March 1944, we moved.

Having declared myself their ‘Moses’, mounted on my horse ‘Brown Sugar’, I shouted, ‘I am leading you to the land of Canaan, the Promised Land’ and the four thousand families, that had slept in and outside my yard the previous nights, from my house to the communal hall, followed as we crossed the river onto vacant municipal land, and established the ‘Sofasonke Independent State’.”

“I collected 1/6d per month, from each family for the rental of the property and the Hessian sacking that I provided. In addition to this, I levied a tax on the coal, and bread delivered into my independent State; I issued trading licences in my state, an aspect that was much appreciated by my followers, due to the strict control that existed in the official township.”

“I also provided my own police force, civil and criminal courts, where I appeared as the Chief Prosecutor, Judge, Juror, and Executor. I maintained this control, till I was no longer physically able to punish the offenders. Those people that I punished will remember me, maybe not very fondly, but hopefully they will give me credit for what I did for our community.”

“I collected the money, and banked it in the name of the ‘Sofasonke Townships’.”


“Soon after we established this independent state, I was called by the manager of the Non-European Affairs Department to discuss the ‘Masekeng’, sacking-shack-development, and my committee and supporters followed on foot, by car, and all sorts of transport. When the Council faced this group, and saw their mood, they compromised, and authorised me to continue managing the ‘Masekeng’ shack development.”

“This victory was only temporary, and Orlando’s then superintendent, Colonel Armitage, arrived some eleven months later, with his police, and marched on the shacks, it was a very cold morning, armed with soup and bread, to encourage my followers to return to Orlando East.”

“I was not present, away on business at 80 Albert Street, but my wife Julia soon reacted. Julia and her good friend and associate, Albertina Sisulu, this was a year before she married Walter, went to confront the Colonel. Few of you people realise that this was probably the start of the woman’s display of power in our struggle. These were both very powerful woman. They walked up to the Colonel, surrounded by the local police, smug looks on their faces. Julia and Albertina, shouted at the Colonel that they did not want his food, they wanted houses.”

“My followers then describe, how the two women, pushed and kicked the pots of soup over, trampled the bread, in defiance. The followers went wild, for the first time the people of Orlando stood up to the system. The Police attacked, the people retaliated, rocks were thrown, chaos broke loose, two people died, one a coal merchant, Khoza, died in the clash.”

“A large number of people were arrested, some fifteen hundred, I had been in town that morning, and arrived home to find my wife Julia, who had recently had our baby, and my brother had been arrested. On arriving home and hearing the news, I knelt down and prayed; while I was praying, I was arrested, and we were all charged for trespassing, public violence and incitement.  My baby caught pneumonia that first night in the cells, and died. It took two months, and cost us seven hundred pounds, before we were acquitted.”

“Following this victory, my supporters grew boisterous, demanding action. The system responded, by serving me with a deportation order to leave for Ixopo, in Natal, within three days. My lawyers believed that the Council had the better of me this time, but I never give up. I studied the case records and found a case that proved that a ‘Native’ exempted under Law 28, of the Colony of Natal, was not a ‘Native’ at law. I believed that it would apply to me, and my lawyers responded with great enthusiasm. From the Magistrates court, through the Supreme Court, and then the Appellate Division, the case dragged on for a year.”

“During this period, the Sofasonke supporters held me in some sort of reverence, flooding me with presents, and money.”

“The clash with the police, the defiant kicking over of the soup, and trampling of the bread, however had the desired effect, the feelings of the people, the utterly primitive conditions, under which the people lived, the unsanitary conditions, the disease and squalor in the camp, could not escape the official eye, or nostril, any longer.”

“Yes; it needed the system to get close to us, to realise just what conditions we were like that we were staying in. Just how difficult our lives were. From their offices in Johannesburg, these problems were miles away.”

“This is what I wanted, the authorities had to sit up and take notice.  In 1945 the authorities built ‘shanty town’, consisting of four shelters, one thousand rooms per shelter, four thousand rooms,  built out of cinder blocks, loosely packed and covered with corrugated roofing. The production of the cinder blocks took place at the Orlando East power-station, before it was ever commissioned, and this also provided some employment, for our members, making the bricks and building the shelters.”

“I considered this development a major achievement; as much my followers may consider Orlando East, the ‘Cradle of the Township Development’, I personally believed that this victory, and the building of the ‘Shanty Town’, marked the birth of what would come.”

“I eventually succeeded in overturning my deportation order a year later in 1946, at a cost of one thousand four hundred pounds. The day before I received the news, I had already been forced on a train, headed for Ixopo, Natal. The news of our victory, spread throughout the township and shack areas, and on my way home the next day, I was met by the entire community, celebrating for me. My wife Julia wept for joy, four animals were slaughtered, and the women cooked all day. There were celebrations, feasting, drinking and dancing, in the Streets of Orlando; such celebration will not be seen for many years to come.

The Sofasonke followers in the shebeen stand and start dancing, while they sing Sofasonke Party songs. Before long the entire shebeen has joined in. 

Sofasonke sits down and a small wave brings order to the shebeen again.

“After my release from jail, I was involved with a woman who I did not marry, because she did not accept my religious principles. I had four sons with her, the first one, I named Savuosonke, ‘we will all be resurrected’.”

“In 1939 I married my wife Julia, and we had four daughters.”

“In 1946, the City Council decided to start building Orlando West, yes, on my piece of land, my independent state, the state that I owned in 1944.”

“The day will come when I will submit a land-claim for compensation.”

“When they first started making houses in Orlando West available, the City Council, introduced the fact that you needed to prove that you were a ‘shack dweller’, before you could qualify for a Council house.”

“The stipulation that they needed to prove that they were shack dwellers, to qualify for a house, stimulated me and my followers, to start to erect more shacks, we decided that we would force the Council to provide houses for the shack dwellers. Many, many, shack dwellers.”

“In 1946, Orlando West is built; the houses were slightly bigger than our Orlando East homes. A little bigger; and more expensive too.”

“Typical of the Colonial influence in this country, believe me this stupid colonial influence will always exist in this country, the Council stipulated that you needed to prove that you were a shack dweller, before you qualified for a house. You needed to prove that you were a shack dweller before you qualified to rent a house, the most expensive houses in Orlando, from the Council. Stupid; yes, very stupid, stupid whites, very Colonial whites.”

“Fortunately they had this Advisory Board that I headed, and we were able to find a solution to the problem. We arranged for those residents of Orlando East, who had stable employment, to take up residency in Orlando West, and those shack dwellers, who qualified for houses, were allocated the cheaper houses in Orlando East.”

Mpanza takes another toilet and brandy nip break, and then, collects a crate and moves into the far corner, away from all the shebeen patrons, talking with less authority, almost quiet, causing the patrons to move closer.

“I had overcome my conscience, I did not feel guilty, I suppressed my guilt, under the belief that I was legally not guilty. My defence was that they only had circumstantial evidence, I had not been seen at the crime scene,” Mpanza opens the scene, and the gathering feels the impact, of listening to a person, talking from the death-cell.


“Following an appeal, my appeal, appeal after appeal, till the ‘Queens Court’, granted the reprieves, Dick was the first to be reprieved, and then my sentence, was commuted to life.”

Mpanza walks as if trapped in a small cell, deep in thought, his eyes show fear, anger.

“When I was given the news of my reprieve, I went mad, shouting that I wished to be hung, right then and there.” Mpanza, jumps around the shebeen, shouting, shaking, crazy. 

Looking directly at the old Mother, for the first time for some time, he expresses his feelings;

“For the first time in my life I was afraid, afraid of the torture, the torture through eternal imprisonment. I never believed that I would be locked up. I was afraid. I wished to escape from this permanent hole. I wished to escape, through death.” Mpanza’s voice is raised, the shebeen audience feel with Mpanza, in his death cell, his now permanent cell.

Mpanza sits down on another seat, the gathering is quiet, Mpanza is on his own, once again in ‘solitary confinement’.

“During the next four years, I was moved from prison to prison. Durban Central, Point Jail, where I nearly killed a warder, who wished to discipline me for smoking; my first cigarette for a year, then Toitspan Prison, Kimberley, assaulted another supervisor, De Beers Prison, and then the Cinderella Prison, Boksburg, where I had my vision.”

Mpanza moves to the edge of the stage, and lies down on what resembles a prison blanket, turns to face the audience, and quietly continues, in the husk voice, of an ill man, a man with a sore throat.

“One night I had an attack of flu, as I lay in my cell, I saw a vision on the wall.”

Mpanza stares and points towards the wall / side entrance to the stage. He remains quite for awhile, staring, and the audience start focussing on where he is pointing. Suddenly a person dressed like a priest, ghostly white chalked face appears.

Mpanza continues quietly, almost in fear, “It was Chaplin Baker; he told me I should be re-baptised in remorse, and cleanse myself of my sins. The very next day, I started feeling better, I started reading my bible every day, all day, praying, begging God for forgiveness of my sins.”

Mpanza now stands proud; he is now the preacher that he had become in a very short period.

“I began preaching to the other prisoners, encouraging them to repent. They responded; and in their cells they took turns to pray for thirty minutes, every night.  They started from the lights out bell, and then every thirty minutes, when the warders called ‘all is well’, they woke the next prisoner, and he would continue, praying, through the night, till sunrise.”

One by one the cell mates on the stage; take turns to chant quietly in pray, as Mpanza relates his experiences.  

“It was three years after my vision, that Chaplin Baker baptised me, at this time I became convinced, that infant baptism, was against the scriptures. During my prison period, I wrote a book on my religious beliefs.”

Long silent moments as Mpanza quietly reflects on his past 

“My faith was strong now; I committed never to tempt God again. I started baptising many of the prisoners that I had converted, using Baker’s bath.”

“This could not last, and very soon a priest complained, and I was moved to Pretoria Central.”

“During the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1925, prison sentences were reduced, and my sentence was reduced, I was due to be released on parole, in 1927.”

“My conscience was starting to torture me; no longer was I able to suppress it; it was as if someone alive was talking to me, reminding me continually: ‘James Sofasonke Mpanza, you are a murderer’.”

“I was afraid to leave jail, while my conscience was still torturing me. I fasted secretly, asking God, to send me a sign, that I was forgiven.”

“On the seventh day of fasting, the prison cook knocked on my cell window, and told me that a boiler attendant Sam, was insisting on seeing me.”

An big elderly man enters from the side dressed in a boiler suit.

“I left my cell to meet him, and found this big man, dressed in a boiler suit, crying, tears flowing, he seemed afraid. I had never seen this man, before.’

Mpanza turns towards the tearful man that has joined him on the stage.

The elderly Sam, tears flowing, held out a hand, visibly shaking, to Mpanza, they held hands for long silent moments, staring into each others eyes. 

“Are you James Mpanza?” asks Sam.

Mpanza continued staring into Sam’s eyes, transfixed, by this strange man that he had never met before.

He tried to answer, but no words would come out of his mouth. After long silent moments, he manages a slight nod of his head, in answer. 

“James Mpanza, God commands me; to tell you that all your sins have been forgiven.”

Mpanza is afraid, he continues to hold Sam’s hand, turns his face away from him, and looks up towards the sky in panic; the sky is clear, blue, and peaceful. 

Mpanza looks back into Sam’s eyes, and then they both kneel down, to pray together.

A long minute passes, while both Mpanza and Sam pray to God, praising God and thanking God. 

After an hour’s prayer, Mpanza says Amen loudly; and starts to rise; still holding Sam’s hand. 

Mpanza feels that Sam is not responding to him rising and looks back at Sam.

Sam turns his face towards Mpanza, gazes into his eyes, then; he looks up into the sky, smiles, and slowly, quietly, collapses, and dies, falling slowly into a pile, at Mpanza’s feet.

Mpanza is quite, there is not a sound in the back-yard, as the audience and the players, come to terms with Mpanza’s experience.

Mpanza sits down; all the jail participants sit silently, with bowed heads, to afraid to interrupt the quietness. The dear mother stares ahead, not looking at anything, I watch her, not too sure just how she is receiving this message that Mpanza had received. 

“I wept for the first time in my life.”

Having completed his presentation with these words, Mpanza is heard leaving the shebeen, the clip clop of the horses hooves, slowly disappearing.

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