History of Soweto

Soweto housing (about 2009)

Soweto is a township of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality in Gauteng, South Africa, bordering the city’s mining belt in the south. Its name is an English syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships. Formerly a separate municipality, it is now incorporated in the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality, Suburbs of Johannesburg.

George Harrison and George Walker are today credited as the men who discovered an outcrop of the Main Reef of gold on the farm Langlaagte in February 1886. The fledgling town of Johannesburg was laid out on a triangular wedge of “uitvalgrond” (area excluded when the farms were surveyed) named Randjeslaagte, situated between the farms Doornfontein to the east, Braamfontein to the west and Turffontein to the south.

Within a decade of the discovery of gold in Johannesburg, 100,000 people flocked to this part of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek in search of riches. They were of many races and nationalities. In October 1887, the government of the South African Republic (ZAR) bought the south-eastern portion of the farm Braamfontein. There were large quantities of clay, suitable for brickmaking, along the stream. The government decided that more money was to be made from issuing brick maker’s licences at five shillings per month.

The result was that many landless Dutch-speaking burghers (citizens) of the ZAR settled on the property and started making bricks. They also erected their shacks there. Soon, the area was known either Brickfields or Veldschoendorp. Soon other working poor, Coloureds, Indians and Africans also settled there. The government, who sought to differentiate the white working class from the black, laid out new suburbs for the Burghers (Whites), Coolies (Indians), Malays (Coloureds) and Black Africans (Africans), but the whole area simply stayed multiracial.

Soweto was created in the 1930s when the White government started separating Blacks from Whites, creating black “townships”. Blacks were moved away from Johannesburg, to an area separated from White suburbs by a so-called cordon sanitaire (or sanitary corridor) which was usually a river, railway track, industrial area or highway. This was carried out using the infamous Urban Areas Act of 1923.

William Carr, chair of non-European affairs, initiated the naming of Soweto in 1959. He called for a competition to give a collective name to townships dotted around the South-west of Johannesburg. People responded to this competition with great enthusiasm. Among the names suggested to the City Council was KwaMpanza, meaning Mpanza’s place, invoking the name of Mpanza and his role in bringing the plight of Orlando sub tenants to the attention of the City Council. The City Council settled for the acronym SOWETO (South West Townships). The name Soweto was first used in 1963 and within a short period of time, following the 1976 uprising of students in the township, the name became internationally known.

Soweto became the largest Black city in South Africa, but until 1976, its population could have status only as temporary residents, serving as a workforce for Johannesburg. It experienced civil unrest during the Apartheid regime. There were serious riots in 1976, sparked by a ruling that Afrikaans be used in African schools there; the riots were violently suppressed, with 176 striking students killed and more than 1,000 injured. Reforms followed, but riots flared up again in 1985 and continued until the first non-racial elections were held in April 1994. In 2010, South Africa’s oldest township hosted the FIFA World Cup Final and the attention of more than a billion soccer spectators from all over the world was focused on Soweto.

Kliptown and Pimville

In April 1904, there was a bubonic plague scare in the shanty town area of Brickfields. The town council decided to condemn the area and burn it down. Beforehand, most of the Africans living there were moved far out of town to the farm Klipspruit (later called Pimville), south-west of Johannesburg, where the council had erected iron barracks and a few triangular hutments. The rest of them had to build their own shacks. The fire brigade then set the 1600 shacks and shops in Brickfields alight. Thereafter, the area was redeveloped as Newtown. Pimville was next to Kliptown, the oldest Black residential district of Johannesburg and first laid out in 1891, on land which formed part of Klipspruit farm. The future Soweto was to be laid out on Klipspruit and the adjoining farm called Diepkloof.

In the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and the subsequent Transvaal Colony, it was lawful for people of colour to own fixed property. Consequently, the township of Sophiatown was laid out in 1903 and Blacks were encouraged to buy property there. For the same reasons, Alexandra, Gauteng was planned for Black ownership in 1912. The subsequent Natives Land Act of 1913 did not change the situation because it did not apply to land situated within municipal boundaries.

Orlando, Moroka and Jabav

In 1923, the Parliament of the Union of South Africa passed the Natives (Urban Areas) Act (Act No. 21 of 1923). The purpose of the Act was to provide for improved conditions of residence for natives in urban areas, to control their ingress into such areas and to restrict their access to intoxicating liquor. The Act required local authorities to provide accommodation for Natives (then the polite term for Africans or Blacks) lawfully employed and resident within the area of their jurisdiction. Pursuant to this Act, the Johannesburg town council formed a Municipal Native Affairs Department in 1927.

It bought 1 300 morgen of land on the farm Klipspruit No. 8 and the first houses in what was to become Orlando Location were built there in the latter half of 1930. The township was named after the chairman of the Native Affairs committee, Mr. Edwin Orlando Leake. In the end, some 10,311 houses were built there by the municipality. In addition, it built 4,045 temporary single-room shelters.

In about 1934, James Sofasonke Mpanza moved to 957 Pheele Street, Orlando, and lived there for the rest of his life. A year after his arrival in Orlando, he formed his own political party, the Sofasonke Party. He also became very active in the affairs of the Advisory Board for Orlando. Towards the end of World War II, there was an acute shortage of housing for Blacks in Johannesburg. By the end of 1943, the Sofasonke Party advised its members to put up their own squatters’ shacks on municipal property. On Saturday 25 March 1944, the squat began. Hundreds of homeless people from Orlando and elsewhere joined Mpanza in marching to a vacant lot in Orlando West and starting a squatters camp.

The City Council’s resistance crumbled. After feverish consultations with the relevant government department, it was agreed that an emergency camp, which could house 991 families, be erected. It was to be called Central Western Jabavu. The next wave of land invasions took place in September 1946. Some 30,000 squatters congregated west of Orlando. Early the next year, the City Council proclaimed a new emergency camp. It was called Moroka. 10,000 sites were made available immediately. Moroka became Johannesburg’s worst slum area. Residents erected their shanties on plots measuring six metres by six metres. There were only communal bucket-system toilets and very few taps. The camps were meant to be used for a maximum of five years, but when they were eventually demolished in 1955, Moroka and Jabavu housed 89,000 people.


The National Party won the general election of 1948 and formed a new government. The party’s policy was called apartheid, the Afrikaans word meaning separateness. They thought they could separate the various racial groups in South Africa. In those days, the Johannesburg City Council did not support the National Party. The City Council and the central government competed to control the Black townships of Johannesburg.

Following the election of the new government, some 7,000 new houses were built in the first two or three years, but very little was done thereafter. In 1952, there was a breakthrough. Firstly, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research came up with a standard design for low-cost, four-roomed, forty-square-metre houses. In 1951, the Parliament passed the Building Workers Act, which permitted Blacks to be trained as artisans in the building trade. In 1952, it passed the Bantu Services Levy Act, which imposed a levy on employers of African workers and the levy was used to finance basic services in Black townships. In 1954, the City Council built 5,100 houses in Jabavu and 1,450 in Mofolo.

The City Council’s pride and joy was its economic scheme known as Dube Village. It was intended “primarily for the thoroughly urbanised and economically advanced Native”. Stands, varying in size from fifty by hundred feet to forty by 70 feet, were made available on a thirty-year leasehold tenure. Tenants could erect their own dwellings in conformity with approved plans.

In June 1955, Kliptown was the home of an unprecedented Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter.

According to wiredspace, the name Soweto was officially endorsed by the municipalities’ authorities only in 1963 after a special committee had considered various names. Apartheid governments’ intention was for Soweto to house the accommodate black people that were working for Johannesburg. “Incidentally, the name Soweto was officially endorsed by the municipal authorities only in 1963 after a special committee had sat for a long time, considering various names, including apartheid Townships and Verwoerdstad” (Gorodnov 1998:58). From the onset, the Apartheid government purposed Soweto to house the bulk of the labour force which was needed by Johannesburg (1998:58). Africans used to live in areas surrounding the city, so the authorities felt it would be more expedient to concentrate black workers in one district that could be easily controlled (1998:58).

The new sub-economic townships took off in 1956, when Tladi, Zondi, Dhlamini, Chiawelo and Senoane were laid out providing 28,888 people with accommodation. Jabulani, Phiri and Naledi followed the next year. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer arranged a loan of £3 million from the mining industry, which allowed an additional 14,000 houses to be built. It was decided to divide Soweto into various language groups. Naledi, Mapetla, Tladi, Moletsane and Phiri were for Sotho- and Tswana-speaking people. Chiawelo for Tsonga and Venda. Dlamini Senaoane, Zola, Zondi, Jabulani, Emdeni and White City were for Zulus and Xhosas.

The central government was busy with its own agenda. The presence of Blacks with freehold title to land among Johannesburg’s White suburbs irked them. In 1954, Parliament passed the Native Resettlement Act, which permitted the government to remove Blacks from suburbs like Sophiatown, Martindale, Newclare and Western Native Township. Between 1956 and 1960, they built 23,695 houses in Meadowlands and Diepkloof to accommodate the evicted persons. By 1960, the removals were more-or-less complete.

In 1959, the City Council launched a competition to find a collective name for all the townships south-west of the city’s centre. It was only in 1963 that the City Council decided to adopt the name Soweto as the collective name.

In 1971, Parliament passed the Black Affairs Administration Act, No. 45 of 1971. In terms of this Act, the central government appointed the West Rand Administration Board to take over the powers and obligations of the Johannesburg City Council in respect of Soweto. As chairman of the board it appointed Manie Mulder, a political appointment of a person who had no experience of the administration of native affairs.

Manie Mulder’s most famous quote was given to the Rand Daily Mail in May 1976: “The broad masses of Soweto are perfectly content, perfectly happy. Black-White relationships at present are as healthy as can be. There is no danger whatever of a blow-up in Soweto.

Soweto came to the world’s attention on 16 June 1976 with the Soweto uprising, when mass protests erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than their native language. Police opened fire in Orlando West on 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium. The rioting continued and 23 people died on the first day in Soweto, 21 of whom were black, including the minor Hector Pieterson, as well as two white people, including Dr Melville Edelstein, a lifelong humanitarian.

The impact of the Soweto protests reverberated through the country and across the world. In their aftermath, economic and cultural sanctions were introduced from abroad. Political activists left the country to train for guerrilla resistance. Soweto and other townships became the stage for violent state repression. Since 1991, this date and the schoolchildren have been commemorated by the International Day of the African Child.

In response, the apartheid state started providing electricity to more Soweto homes, yet phased out financial support for building additional housing.

Soweto became an independent municipality with elected black councilors in 1983, in line with the Black Local Authorities Act. Previously, the townships were governed by the Johannesburg council, but from the 1970s, the state took control.

Black African councilors were not provided by the apartheid state with the finances to address housing and infrastructural problems. Township residents opposed the black councilors as puppet collaborators who personally benefited financially from an oppressive regime. Resistance was spurred by the exclusion of blacks from the newly formed tricameral Parliament (which did include Whites, Indians and Coloreds). Municipal elections in black, coloured, and Indian areas were subsequently widely boycotted, returning extremely low voting figures for years. Popular resistance to state structures dates back to the Advisory Boards (1950) that co-opted black residents to advise whites who managed the townships.

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