James Mpanza relates early Soweto History

James Mpanza relates early Soweto History

On the 15th May 2005, we present a backyard theatre where James Mpanza relates early Soweto History educating both Taste of Africa  Soweto Tour visitors, my family and friends, Sofasonke’s family and the community.

SunValley;  Unfortunately Google Maps can’t give us more than this.

The Blue Building on the right is Musi High School, and to the left, the grey roof, now a shopping centre, was where the ,  ‘ematangeni’ concentration camp was originally located. The Rail siding can be seen on the ariel photo. The hillock can be seen on the ariel photo.

Sunvalleyt, Skomplaas.
Sunvalley, Skomplaas.

I use part of a backyard theatre production, presented on the 15th May 2005, both Sofasonke and my birthday, to give a little history into SunValley for my family, friends and Sowetans.

Resume main production;

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 3000 houses, only walls to roof height, and they 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 their building material from here, but they were desperate.

Heartland; Where was Skomplaas my Father?

Sofasonke;  Son, today Skomplaas, is only a memory, from 1906 our people were allowed to build their own homes; … brick, …. mud,    … tin,   …. on pieces of ground that were allocated,…  and rented to them by the Council.

Skomplaas, for those of you who do not understand the origins of the name, is Scum-farm, I remember from my dictionary that I used, ….. ‘Scum’, when referring to people, refers to worthless people.

I am also not sure quite what it was, but if your daughter ever brought a boy home who is from Skomplaas, no, this was not allowed. If the family stayed on Skomplaas, then they must be skom. In 1935 the Pimville Township was proclaimed, right where Skomplaas was, so then the girls used to tell their mothers that the boy was from Pimville, …. much more acceptable.

Skomplaas, consisting of about 1150 houses, was situated on the farm Klipspruit, and it extended from where Musi High School is today, down to the Soweto Golf Course, and across to Kliptown.’

In those days it was right at the end of the Railway line. Nancefield Station was the end of the line, and they built a spur off from Nancefield to Skomplaas.

In 1966, the occupants of Skomplaas; were forcibly removed to Klipspruit, on the other side of the Potchefstroom Road.

Given three days notice, to get rid of their livestock, and move. They did not know where they were going to; they had a house number, and the general direction. On the morning in question, the children went to school, the adults and friends carried their furniture to Klipspruit, the Council also in typical removal mode, used their big trucks for much of what was moved, wanted to make sure that everything was moved.

What a shock when they arrived in Klipspruit West, their houses were so small, they, could not fit their large furniture suites, into the house. They rushed back to Skomplaas, but by the time they got back, the bulldozers had already flattened their homes.

The white guys lined up with small pick-up trucks, and bought all their antique furniture for R50 per load.

The children struggled to find their parents after school. Many of them; had not travelled further than Skomplaas in their lives.

Vuyo; (a lawyer) But Father, how could the Council bulldoze the homes, that belonged to the people?

Sofasonke; In the late 1950’s the Council, when building new homes in their ‘Site and Service’ scheme, did exactly that. They allocated you a serviced piece of ground, you build your own accommodation, and then, a few years later, when the building project got to your site, once they had built a house, they confiscated all your material. Their reason given was that they are giving you an alternate house.

They refused to take into consideration that you were only given a house to rent. So you were really getting nothing. To make us happy, they used the corrugated sheeting, while they were developing the Orlando Soccer stadium.

General shebeen reaction;

“Eish,” the general reaction from all the locals, actors, and audience, as they recall, just how often this has taken place during their lives.

Sofasonke; The people from Skomplaas, lived in the location, from as early as 1906, they built their own houses, on pieces of ground that was allocated, and rented to them, by the Council.

The Johannesburg Council bought the farm Klipspruit from the British in December 1903, my research in 1932, indicates that they had a ‘Concentration Camp’ on this farm during the 1899 to 1902, Anglo-Boer War.

This farm was purchased for the purposes of establishing a ‘sewerage waste disposal farm’, it was suitably located for the waste to flow from Johannesburg white suburbs, to this plant. The plant is across, behind the Bara hospital.

It appears that this ‘Concentration Camp’, was used to accommodate black ‘prisoners’. The British removed those black families that lived and worked on the Boers farms, and interned them. Although the British claim that they needed to do this, in order provide for those black families, who were left on the farms, when the Boer families were removed, during the ‘scorched earth’ policy.

I believe they probably feared the possibility that the blacks would assist their white employers. I have heard that as many as 20 000 blacks may have died while incarcerated.

The British also used large numbers of blacks as soldiers; I have seen photographs of armed blacks, while at the same time reading articles, claiming that they were all non-combatant soldiers.

The Potchefstroom Road; it used to link Johannesburg with the town of Potchefstroom, in the west.

Lungie; When did they build the Power Station, and for what reason?

Sofasonke; The ‘Orlando Power Station, was built, starting 1941 and commissioned in 1948, it took time due to the Second World War.

The plant was coal generated, the main reason why this plant was located here, I believe, is that the excess water generated by the ‘waste disposal farm’, was sufficient to provide all the cooling needs for this plant, those two magic towers that dominates Orlando East today.

Added to this, there was a rail-link to Nancefield and Skomplaas, just behind this plant, so the coal could be brought in without too much additional capital cost.

The plant was decommissioned in 1988.

Heartland; Did the plant provide power to Soweto?

Sofasonke; Hou boy, how old are you and do you not talk to your parents?

No, this plant was linked to the Johannesburg Council grid that initially only provided the white areas. Electricity was only fed into Soweto in the 1960’s. Many people believe that ‘this plant supplied the whites, and the blacks were supplied from another plant’.

I think that initially they had no intention to provide Soweto with electricity, and that is why this was linked into the ‘white’ system, and then when the provision of electricity into Soweto took place, first into Rockville, it came from the nearest supply link, and only appeared to come from another plant.

Pimville, as a Township, was established in 1934 and named after the Councillor Howard Pim.

Although certain historians refer to the fact that the farm Klipspruit, was renamed Pimville, others refer to the location being renamed Pimville, I know that both of these are inaccurate.

The township that was legally proclaimed on this farm in 1934 was named after Howard Pim. There is absolutely no evidence that the Council wished to name the ‘Skomplaas’ informal settlement, the location on the farm, after Howard Pim.

Howard Pim’s Quaker archives indicate that he was responsible for the establishment of a ‘model village’, not a township, or a location, that was named after him.”

The Pimville shopping centre on the left just past the Musi High School; is where the ‘ematangeni’ concentration camp was originally located.

You youngsters will know that the system celebrated the Soweto centenary in October 2004, this was based on those occupants from the ‘Coolie Location’ that were moved onto the farm Klipspruit when they condemned the location during the bubonic plague that they were experiencing in Johannesburg during 1904.

Vuyo; But Baba, did the Indians arrive in Soweto before us blacks?

Sofasonke;  I believe it is possible that the occupants of the ‘Coolie location’, according to my understanding, were the Chinese, Indian, Whites and Coloureds and they were moved here in 1904, mainly because the Council had purchased this farm, and had the convenient accommodation available. I am not sure just how long these people remained here, I believe not very long because of the lack of transport to the business and employment areas.

The Coolie Location was burned to the ground, and I assume that many of these occupants returned there for convenient access to their employment opportunities.

The accommodation in this ‘Concentration Camp’ was made from large corrugated grain silo’s, cut vertically down the centre, them laid on the ground, horizontally, two doors on either end, and divided into four rooms.

The local black people used to refer to this development as ‘ematangeni’.

Just on the right of the ‘ematangeni’ the Klipspruit / Pimville Station was established.

The earliest that I can find a record of this line, supposedly extended off the Nancefield line was around 1908. I am however of the opinion that what we refer to today as the Nancefield line, was not extended but rather, the British would have built it originally to end here at the Concentration Camp, for their purposes.  I say the British built it; I am of the opinion that those who were incarcerated here possibly built the line. The Nancefield line was possible the end of the line that served the mine property, and they extended it to this camp.

Kliptown was established in 1903, but they needed to walk to ematangeni to get transport, so there was never any intention to provide rail service for the people so early in our history.

Lungile; But Baba, when did we Blacks first come to Soweto?

Sofasonke; Today Soweto, or shall I say the ‘Greater Soweto’ has extended beyond what ‘we’, our generation of blacks were part of.

We could possibly claim that Soweto started in 1899 when the first Black prisoners were interned in ematangeni, but was that the start of Soweto?

In 1906, a group of blacks in the Ferreriasdorp area were offered accommodation on the farm, Klipspruit. They were first accommodated in ‘ematangeni’ to start with, and then, when no more space was available in the tanks, basic corrugated ‘A’ frame houses were knocked up. Apparently they were of a terrible quality.”

Once the ‘ematangeni’ accommodation was full, the council started to offer stands on a rental basis, on which black people could erect their own homes.

A large number of tenants of ‘ematangeni’ were municipal employees, and by 1945, when they were relocated to Sun Valley, I believe they were all municipal employees, hospital workers or teachers.

There is confusion around where the Nancefield Location was, and where the ‘Ama-washa’, were located. The ‘Ama-washa’ some say were a group of mainly Basuto men, thus the name Thaba Bosiu for a hillock in nearby Skomplaas, other sources refer to them as a guild of Zulu washers. The Ama-washas initially did the laundry in the Johannesburg area, around where the Ellis Park rugby stadium is today, then in the early 1900’s they were moved onto Klipspruit.  It is possible that they were located in the Nancefield location, the wash-troughs, used by the ‘Amawasha’, was located where the soccer field on Potchefstroom Road is today.

Sofasonke is now standing and paging through a bunch of tatty looking pieces of paper that he has pulled out of his inside jacket pocket. He keeps one free and stuffs the rest back into his pocket.

I am not too sure just how long the Amawasha survived there. This letter I have from the Department of Native Affairs, Transvaal, 11 November 1909, addresses a complaint from them as follows;-

The Klipspruit wash-boys have some very real grievances.

1At times, I am informed, they have not been able to obtain a proper supply of water and have had to pay-tank rent for tanks they could not use.

2Their expenses, thanks to all the various charges imposed, are very high.

3The atmospheres in which they live is polluted by sewage. Mr Cherrington has been ill for some days, with a sore throats, etc. after each of his visits to Nancefield for the purpose of holding a branch Pass Office there. These conditions can not be good either for the health of the wash-boys and their families and other inhabitants of the location, or for the Europeans whose clothes are washed in polluted water and dried in polluted air.

I do not know whether a ‘white Labour Policy is causing the Council deliberately to make conditions impossible for Native wash-boys, but is it is true that various charges are to be still further increased it must certainly appear as if there were some such motive in the background.

Signed; Edward Wilson,

Actg. Chief Pass Officer.

Yes, the Ama-washa did not survive the ‘white Labour Policy’ in 1909.

Heartland; But father, I though the white Labour Policies only came into existence in 1948?

Sofasonke;  No son, in the 1800’s we already were targeted. But, following the 1902 Anglo-Boer was settlement, the Afrikaners were brought into the fold, and their influence could be felt as early as 1902.

Black people were allocated pieces of land, to rent, adjacent to the concentration camp, I suppose I can call them stands, and they were allowed to build on the land.

Sofasonke exchanges the piece of paper in his hands for a photograph from his pocket, and holds it out for the guests and shebeen patrons to see.

This 1961 aerial photograph of the area shows the entire Pimville covered with rows of houses, the Sun Valley development clearly shown; the two schools and the small ‘Thaba Boshiu’ hillock the only undeveloped area. At this stage, according to records, the City Council owned 151 houses on the Pimville area and ‘other owners’, 1095. The houses owned by ‘others’ formed the area ‘Skomplaas’.  Sun Valley probably consisted of 111 houses and the other 40 were probably those confiscated from owners for failing to pay the rent for the property.

Sofasonke exchanges the photograph in his hands for another piece of paper from his pocket, studies it quietly, a small smile on his face indicates that he is going to enjoy the next exchange.

Most of the archive material I accessed, relates to police action in controlling the locals. Having made the brewing of cultural beer illegal, you can imagine just how much control was needed. In about 1917, while discussing the need to establish a Police Station in Kliptown, they comment that,

‘There is practically no crime in Kliptown with the exception of ‘Illicit Liquor Dealing’.

During 1909, 715 people were charged for criminal activities. The main charges were something like;-

Liquor Law101

Drunkenness 242

Pass Laws 238

Drunk on railway premises.   61

Total:642 out of 715.”

In 1909 the British, having declared the brewing of the local’s traditional beer illegal, charged those who in their opinion were drunk. They charged those people who were brewing their traditional and cultural beer. An aspect that was even more disturbing; is that thirty percent of those charged are for ‘Pass-Law’ violations.

The official separation of facilities; dates back to the early 1900’s, and the property rights were removed from us blacks in 1913.

Even when I was very young I was aware that the facilities were reserved for ‘Europeans and Non-Europeans’. Only now that I have focussed on this aspect, do I remember that my father, when I was very young, told me that the door that we should use was the door marked ‘non-European’. He never explained to me what a European was.

Let’s forget British history for a minute and focus on Sun Valley.

‘Sun Valley’, there were 111 houses built here between 1943 and 1945. The ‘red brick’ houses built by the Council and the white ones built for contractors, possibly tendering to the council. Those occupants that moved into ‘Sun Valley’ they all linked to the Council and all originate in ‘ematangeni’. They were all moved into Sun Valley in 1945 and they all proudly tell you that the Council referred to these houses as ‘show houses.

Vuyo, I seem to have lost you, you do not even know ‘Sun Valley’

Vuyo sheepishly shakes his head in acknowledgement, and looks around the shebeen hoping to get support from other patrons, but they ignore him and focus their intention on Sofasonke.

Most of the houses built in Sun Valley are larger than any other houses built in Soweto for us black people.

The primary school was built in 1945 and the Pimville Musi High School was built in 1948, it was only at this stage, that the Council decided that they were catering for permanent residents. These Sun Valley houses and the schools are the earliest history that is left in Pimville.

Heartland; Father, what happened to the rest of Skomplaas then?

Sofasonke; I believe that these ‘show houses’ were built, as an exercise on the viability and suitability of low cost housing for veterans, returning from the Second World War.

Lungile; Did the black veterans receive houses then Baba?

Sofasonke; No, the white veterans, the black veterans were only given a bicycle and a tin of biscuits for their efforts.

This treatment still causes resentment to the English, in our communities.

Having experienced the conflict between the council and the people in Orlando East, 1940 to 1945, I was very aware that the ‘Sun Valley’ development was planned for white people. Just look at the size of some of those houses, in comparison to the two roomed houses that were built in Orlando East, and even those built in 1946 in Orlando West. The lack of extensions to the Sun Valley houses, compared to other areas in Soweto, indicates that these houses were of a size that could accommodate a family.

The green grass you see around those houses, if you do not want grass you need to dig it out. The Council had excess water from the sewerage plant and irrigated pastures, where they ran herds of dairy cows. You do not need to water or fertilize, you must cut every second day, if you want to keep it neat. If you do not want grass in any specific area, you need to dig it out.

Then one-day I got confirmation of my belief that that Pimville was originally proclaimed for purposes of a white township. Bra Peter, my brother and Muslim friend in house 34 comes to visit me in Orlando East in 1958.

Bra Peter of SunValley
Bra Peter of SunValley

Bra Peter was standing watering his front garden, with the hose-pipe in his hand. He looked up the road, and there these three long black limousines come driving towards him. They stopped just outside his gate and everyone gets out.

Bra Peter looks with amazement; it is the Minister of Bantu Affairs and Development, Dr. de Wet Nel, the BAD minister. He walked up to Bra Peter, short, fat, round face, white curly short hair, he wore glasses, black suit, thin grey tie, black shoes.

He walked up to Bra Peter and says, ‘Waar is die Baas’, Where is the boss, he does not even say hello.”

The Minister, like this guy, (again pointing at Cedric) was a boer, they stole everything from us. So he was talking Afrikaans. They only spoke Afrikaans, but for you, I will tell the rest of the story in English. Also because this boer, will not understand,” (and he breaks out in a smile again).

He looks at Bra Peter, Peter looks at him, and pointing a finger to his chest, Peter responds, ‘I am the boss’.

The minister looked at him; he could not believe his ears.

‘No man, I am not talking about you, I am looking for the White Boss’, came the angry reply.

‘There is no white boss here’. Peter replied.

‘Where is he then?’ the minister snapped back.

‘There is no white boss here’ Peter replied, enjoying the direction that things were going.

‘Whose house is this then?’ he enquired abruptly.

‘This is my house,’ Peter said proudly.

‘Minister de wet Nel was shocked, he looked at Peter, then he looked at his followers and said, ‘Hier is groot vout, hoe kan a swart man in so ‘n huis bly?’

In English, ‘Here is a big mistake, how can a black man live in a house like this?’’

Then while Peter stood listening to this group of white men, standing around uncomfortably, afraid of the Minister’s anger, the Minister continued:

‘The section on the right-hand side of the Potchefstroom road is a ‘black-spot’. The section on the left-hand side of the Potchefstroom road is a ‘white-spot’. This should be white.’


They looked at each other, not a word was being said.

Then one of the younger white guys started to get involved in the discussion, telling the Minister that the Baragwanath Hospital, was on the left-hand side of the Potchefstroom  Road, and that Chaiwelo, not yet built, but due to be built in the 1960’s was also on the left-hand side of the Potchefstroom Road.

After more consideration, the Minister proudly announced, ‘Then we will have to move the Road’, and soon the Golden-Highway was built.

And then the Potchefstroom Road became the Old Potch Road, one of my favourite anecdotes.

Mpanza leaves his position in the shebeen, ignores the other participants and the Skomplaas history, and goes into a lecture mode for the guests. The smile on his face clearly lets the audience know, that he is going to enjoy this little lecture.

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