Centenary of Sol Plaatje’s Native life in South Africa

A record of the cruel colonial land grabs of 1913

One of South Africa’s newest universities, the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, will this year celebrate Native Life in South Africa, the hundred-year classic that records the colonial land grabs of 1913.

The university will host public lectures on 19 June 2016 marking the day Plaatje died in 1932 and 9 October 9, his birthday. At the University of the Free State, preparations are also underway to celebrate the classic with the launch of an annual Sol Plaatje lecture in July. The Journalist will keep readers informed of all upcoming celebrations.

This year the world will join South Africa in marking the centenary of Sol Plaatje’s book Native Life in South Africa. It was published for the first time by PS King & Son in London, England in 1916. It is not every day that our country celebrates a book that lives on after 100 years. For a century most South Africans were cut off from knowing one of its greatest journalists, Sol Tshekisho Plaatje.

This book was written as a response to the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. In it Plaatje writes about the origins of what he termed a “strange law” and goes on to chronicle its effects on black South Africans.


In the introduction to the 2005 Picador edition of Native Life in South Africa, acclaimed Plaatje scholar Dr Brian Willan writes that the book goes beyond recording effects of the legislation. “It explores at the same time the wider political and historical context that produced policies of the kind embodied in the (Natives’) Land Act, and documents meticulously the steps taken by South Africa’s rulers ‘in the early part of the twentieth century to exclude black South Africans from the exercise of political power’.”

In Peaceable Warrior: The Life and Times of Sol Plaatje, Maureen Rall tells how Plaatje set out to write the book. “The Natives’ Land Act … was intended to provide poorly paid farm labour by the simple expedient of transforming pastoralists into labourers. Plaatje’s belief in the gradual advancement of his people and his illusion of influence in Government circles shattered, he travelled around the countryside on a bicycle to observe for himself the effect of the new law on his people, many of whom were evicted with the few possessions they were able to carry with them.”

Little did Plaatje know the impact his book was going to have when he set out to write it. “I am compiling this little book on the Natives’ Land Act and its operation, which I hope to get through the press immediately after landing in England,” he wrote when he started working on the book on board the ship that carried him and other South African Native National Congress delegates to London, England in 1914. He was with Dr Walter Rubusana, Saul Msane, Thomas Maphikela and the Reverend John Dube.


He spells out clearly in the prologue what his intentions were:

“Mine is but a sincere narrative of a melancholy situation, in which, with all its shortcomings, I have endeavoured to describe the difficulties of the South African natives under a very strange law, so as most readily to be understood by the sympathetic reader.”

A humble man he was, he even went further to describe himself as a “South African working native man, who has never received any secondary training.”

The opening paragraph in the book is very striking, no wonder almost all Plaatje biographers have chosen to quote it: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Plaatje said he hoped that the book would be “readily be understood” and to some extent he has succeeded in that he wrote it in a very accessible language likely to have contributed to its wider reach. But it is the subject that makes the book relevant even a century later. What Plaatje has added to the cold facts is the human face; he travelled around, mainly on a bicycle, compiling stories of the people who were suddenly landless from June 20 1913. Those were human stories.

While this book was initially written to help in a campaign against the Natives’ Land Act and was, under the circumstances and in all fairness not expected to be an objective document, Plaatje assures the reader, in the prologue, that he took care that the story he presents is as balanced as he could make it. “Finally, I would say as Professor (WEB) Du Bois says in his book The Souls of Black Folk, on the relations between the sons of master and man, ‘I have not glossed over matters for policy’s sake, for I fear we have already gone too far in that sort of thing. On the other hand I have sincerely sought to let no unfair exaggerations creep in. I do not doubt that in some communities conditions are better than those I have indicated; while I am no less certain that in other communities they are far worse.’”

Commenting on the quality of the work that Native Life is and where it places its author among black thinkers in history, professors Karen Haire and Sekepe Matjila write in Bringing Plaatje Back Home: “The quality, the depth and breadth of his vision, thinking and erudition put him on a par with the most progressive minds: black intellectuals like W.E.B Du Bois, his contemporary; and after him, Kwame Nkrumah, philosopher, politician and pioneer of pan-Africanism, as well as Frantz Fanon, who probed to the core the colonial condition and the wounded and scarred black psyche, and Steve Biko, spokesman for ‘Black Consciousness’ with the renewed self-respect and pride it entailed. Each of these thinkers, in different ways, contributed to debunking the white myth of black as incapable of thinking for him or herself.”

Recently Africa and the world celebrated when Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ngugi waThiong’o’s Weep Not, Child turned half a century. In another world and another time it would not matter that a book is turning 50 or 100. But circumstances are different. Africa has a history of the suppression of thought, particularly the written word.


That makes a case for this country to give itself a pat on the back for having preserved a book such as Native Life for 100 years. Adding to that is the fact that the book’s subject is an uneasy one even a century later. The debate on landlessness and landownership is as emotive now as it was when Plaatjie wrote this book. How much has changed? On whose hands in the land today? How does the landless person survive? Where does he sleep? Can he keep livestock? Can he build a house brick by brick? What does the desperation of being landless drives him to do? Are the authorities succeeding in reversing the effects of the Natives’ Land Act? These questions still beg for answers.

It is short of a miracle that this book has actually survived; while it earned its author a degree of fame at home and abroad, it also earned him some notoriety too. It was discussed several times in the South African parliament at the time, with the then Minister of Lands describing it as a “scurrilous attack upon the Boers” and further accusing Plaatje of creating an impression that the white South Africans were oppressing black South Africans.

Writing in the foreword of the same 2005 Picador edition, the late Professor Kader Asmal said: “Sol Plaatje cannot give us all the answers, but his life and work teach us two indispensable lessons. First, to be a humanitarian it is not necessary to efface and extinguish one’s own cultural identity and heritage. Second, in honouring one’s own language and history it is entirely unnecessary to dishonour the language and history of anyone else.”

That Plaatje was a great man and an accomplished scholar has been said by many. Following his departure from this world before turning 56 in 1932, HE Dlomo wrote in the paper Umteteliwa Bantu on June 25 1932 that Plaatje was a “great, intelligent leader; a forceful public speaker, sharp-witted, quick of thought, critical; a leading Bantu writer, versatile, rich and prolific, a man who by force of character and sharpness of intellect rose to the front rank of leadership notwithstanding the fact that he never entered a secondary school.”

In Peaceable Warrior, Rall quotes the Reverend ZR Mahabane’s remarks at Plaatje funeral as saying he was a “great patriot who devoted his great talents to the service of his people and his country”.