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​The history of Joburg’s main townships – Soweto and Alexandra – is told in a permanent exhibition at Museum Africa, Birds in a Cornfield.
THE life and times of James Sofasonke Mpanza – who is often referred to as the father of Soweto – is told in detail in an exhibition entitled Birds in a Cornfield at Museum Africa.

Drawings and paintings give a snippet of life in townshipsDrawings and paintings give a snippet of life in townshipsIt explores the early history of African housing and households in Johannesburg and features townships such as Alexandra and Thokoza in Ekurhuleni. This history is told through exhibits, drawings and pictures of life in informal settlements and townships.

Mpanza, who was born on 15 May 1889 in what was then known as Natal, proved his bravery and leadership abilities in 1944 when he lead scores of black people, most of whom were unskilled workers, in an occupation of municipal-owned land between Orlando West and East.

As the victim of forced removals from Bertrams – a place he had called home for three years – Mpanza established a small township of about 250 shacks made out of tree branches and corrugated iron. The place was named Masenkeng, which means tin town.

He became the overseer of the area. He divided the site into four blocks, and managed the settlement, in effect becoming its informal mayor. Some years before the land invasion, driven by a passion to help his fellow blacks oppressed by the apartheid government of the time, Mpanza had established the Sofasonke Party in 1935. Its slogan was “Housing and shelter for all”.

Through this movement, Mpanza brought the plight of black Africans to the attention of the authorities, a move which led to the construction of modern houses. The resultant townships are what are today collectively called Soweto.

In most cases, there is no electricity supply to informal settelementsIn most cases early township residents had to do without electricityThe exhibition includes written and photographic information about Alexandra, a township located in the north of Johannesburg. Alexandra dates back to 1912, when people moving into Johannesburg chose to settle in the township because of its relative safety from apartheid government persecution.

Alexandra attracted a large number of immigrants to the city, leading to over-crowding. In the mid-1960s more than half of the people living in Alex were moved to family houses in Meadowlands, Diepkloof and Tembisa. The move was prompted by a government programme to build hostels for single people.

Historically, the growth of Alexandra into a formal township followed the same pattern as that of Soweto. It was only after a protracted struggle that proper housing and sanitation were provided for residents.

Authorities introduced a community council in the township in 1977 as a way to pacify the community and involve black people in local government politics. However, the people of Alex were averse to this idea as they saw it as a rubber-stamping of apartheid laws.

In 1979, the law that would have made the township a place for single people was changed and families were once again allowed to settle in Alex. Since then, it has expanded to what it is today.

Backyard shack
Birds in a Cornfield also draws attention to a family living in Thokoza. The story of Ennie Nyambose’s family is depicted in a series of installations tracing their lives living in backyard shacks of formal houses from 1969 to 1988.

A visitor becomes engrossed in the exhibitionThe exhibition tells interesting tales of South Africa's townshipsThey moved from one backyard shack to another, never staying for long in one house, until the last move on 20 June 1988, when the family eventually moved to a formal four-roomed house in Extension 2 in Thokoza.

Immediately on entering the exhibition, one is confronted by several shacks made out of an assortment of materials, including old rusty corrugated iron and cardboard, giving a real picture of an informal settlement.

In one of the shacks, a life-size figure of a woman breast-feeding a young baby sits on a chair while on a single bed, three children sleep. The walls are covered with old newspapers, which act both as a form of decoration and insulation against the elements. A coal stove stands in one corner.

Many black Africans will be able to relate to the stories that are highlighted in the exhibition, and youngsters will be able to learn about the history of prominent townships in the city.

Birds in a Cornfield is one the museum’s permanent exhibitions. Museum Africa is in Newtown, on Bree Street. Entrance is free of charge.

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