Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa was born in 1939 in Barberton, in Mpumalanga (Eastern Transvaal) province. He received his primary schooling in Barberton, Lydenburg and he matriculated at Pax College in Polokwane (previously Pietersburg). In 1960 he entered St Peter's Seminary where he was ordained as a Catholic priest in June 1965. He worked as a pastor in Witbank until 1970, when he was seconded to the church's general secretariat of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) in Pretoria.

In 1973 he enrolled at the University of Leuven in Belgium, where he completed an MA in philosophy and theology. On his return to South Africa, he continued his secretariat work for the SACBC.

Father Mkhatshwa was an important leader in the anti apartheid struggle. In 1976 after the students’ uprising he was detained for four months. This was followed by a five-year ban, which expired in July 1983. He was again detained after two months and charged with subversion, incitement to public violence and addressing an unlawful meeting. However, he was found not guilty and released the following year. Soon after his release he was nominated as the United Democratic Front patron.

Between 1994 and 2000 he held a number of prominent positions in government as well as in the ANC. In 1994 he was elected to the National Assembly and in 1996 became the Deputy Minister of Education, a post he held until 1999. He was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee in 1997. In 2000 he became the Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane (Pretoria)

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