In 2015, residents of Orlando East, in Soweto, marched demanding improved service delivery and that Orlando Stadium be named after James Sofasonke Mpanza. Picture: Boxer Ngwenya
In 2015, residents of Orlando East, in Soweto, marched demanding improved service delivery and that Orlando Stadium be named after James Sofasonke Mpanza. Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

Meet Soweto’s first Struggle hero, James Sofasonke Mpanza

By Sipho Mabaso Time of article published Jun 9, 2019

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Johannesburg - James Sofasonke Mpanza, who in 1935 founded the Sofasonke Party and was honoured with the appellation “Father of Soweto”, features in a colloquium workshop at Wits University this weekend.

Mpanza (1889-1970) led a series of land-grabs in the then Orlando and other townships in the 1930s and 1940s to secure land for the destitute and homeless in Soweto.

The three-day workshop, Public History and Archiving Struggle from Below, started on Friday and ends today at the Humanities Graduate Seminar Room, East Campus, as part of the History Workshop programme (School of Social Sciences). It includes a discussion and exhibition of the life, times and achievements of Mpanza.

The workshop themes include: Archiving Struggle from Below, Public History and Museums and Art in the Production of Public History.

Professor Noor Nieftagodien, head of the History Workshop, which is funding this project says it is meant to obtain “histories from below to help communities produce their own histories to create living archives in communities so that individuals have their past affirmed about what constitutes their own particular past”.

James Sofasonke Mpanza was a founder leader in the mid-1940s of the Sofasonke Party of Orlando.

Similar figures to Mpanza from, among others, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Argentina, Italy and India are honoured with discussion about their contribution.

“These are archives of people. It is equally important to involve people outside the university to show that knowledge can be produced in collaboration. We want to get young people involved as future intellectuals of our country,” says Nieftagodien.

June is Youth Month in South Africa.

Vuka Tshabalala, chief executive of the 2008-founded yet 2010-registered James Sofasonke Mpanza Legacy Foundation Trust (Mpanza Legacy Foundation), says he wants to ensure history books do not forget Mpanza’s contribution as “the only man” in the struggle against apartheid to actually secure land for dispossessed African people for whom land is human dignity.

Tshabalala, to whom Mpanza was “like a father”, says Mpanza was an English and mathematics teacher who once mentored Chief Albert Luthuli, the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and ANC president between1952-1967, as well as a prolific soccer player.

Orlando Stadium, now renovated, was originally built in 1959 after Mpanza submitted a proposal to the town council of Johannesburg in 1958 for a stadium to be constructed.

Tsietsi Mashinini, the 1976 Soweto youth uprising student leader, while on the run from apartheid security operatives, “hid at the cottage house at Orlando Stadium in Hlekelo Mphahlele’s house, where Steve Biko and Jackie Selebi (late former national commissioner of police) visited him intermittently”, says Tshabalala.

Tshabalala says Mpanza, who nearly hanged for murder but was released in 1927, came to Orlando in 1934. In 1937 he founded the football wing of Orlando Boys’ Club which later in 1939 was renamed Orlando Pirates FC.

Tshabalala observed: “Most of the time when people talk about Soweto, they have a tendency of not mentioning James Mpanza. You cannot talk about Soweto without mentioning James Mpanza. Soweto is a result of a land grab. The land issue must be addressed. It can happen again. Land grabs are not a new thing.”

The governing ANC has, in 25 years of a democratic regime, largely ignored Mpanza’s high pedigree contribution to the struggle against apartheid, he says.

Tshabalala says the EFF is the only political party to acknowledge Mpanza’s contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle.

“The EFF has pushed for Mpanza to get the Freedom of the City of Joburg in October this year. This was adopted last August.”

He is aggrieved.

“It is always Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, but James Mpanza is not mentioned. On March 20, 1944, he led many destitute people in Soweto to occupy vacant land. He could have gone to the gallows.”

Mpanza died in 1970 of natural causes.

Tshabalala expresses little faith in the current government. “The government is useless.

“We don’t even bother to talk to them now. Ten years we’ve been talking to government to recognise James Mpanza with a proper museum in Soweto - nothing.”

He is nevertheless resolute about his mission to ensure that Mpanza is appropriately acknowledged.

The Sunday Independent

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