Phindile Xaba

[intro]A century later, Plaatje’s book – Native Life in South Africa – continues to bring focus on the struggles of the African people who were relegated to landless and dispossessed squatters by the Native Land Act of 1913. The Journalist presents part two in the remarkable story of a true pioneer.[/intro]

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje lived an extraordinary life, wrote Professor Neil Parsons, author of the introduction in the fourth edition of the historical book – Native Life in South Africa, before and since the European War and the Boer Rebellion. He further describes him as a hindsight “renaissance man” as his cause of advocating for indigenous people’s rights and justice was visionary, and he followed it through to the last day of his life using the best ammunition he had, the might of a pen and paper.

To this day, Plaatje remains a renowned Tswana literary figure, gifted and influential writer and journalist whose socio-political commentary still reverberates in contemporary times and will do for generations to come. His contribution will remain indelible.

Impressive body of work

While alive, Plaatje produced an impressive body of work in Setswana as well as in English. His writings include a novel, Mhudi, An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (1930), The Mote and the Beam: An Epic on Sex-Relationship ‘Twixt White and Black in British South Africa (1921), and translations of Shakespeare plays – Comedy of Errors, Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar amongst others – into Setswana. Years after his passing, in 1972 his Mafeking diary, discovered in 1969 and edited by John L. Comaroff, was published under the title The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje: An African at Mafeking. However, it is Native Life in South Africa, that continues to inform debates about the present day land challenges faced by the majority of African people and the government. It is no surprise that Native Life in South Africa has been republished several times, with the latest containing Kader Asmal’s impeccable introduction, filled with praises for Plaatje as a protest journalist.
Sincere narrative of a melancholy situation

In reading Plaatje’s prologue to the book, his unwavering commitment resides on those pages, his sincerity is evident, in his own words he says:

“ 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.”

This book was the labour of Plaatje’s travels across South Africa in a bid to record devastating results of the Native Land Act of 1913 that dispossessed the indigenous owners of land. The segregating law by race, afforded whites an immediate upper hand, relegating African peasants to squatters on their ancestoral land. Plaatje took the fight to the then British government, first and foremost as the elected first Secretary General of South African Native National Congress (SANNC) – 1912 – and secondly as a social commentator as well as a protest journalist.

While for the most part he travelled as part of the SANNC delegation to fight the Act, with John Langalibalele Dube and the young lawyer Richard William Msimang, who formed part of the executive of SANNC, he also expresses his personal observations made in certain districts of the Transvaal, Orange “Free” State and the Province of the Cape of Good Hope. In one of the places in the Orange “Free” State, he observed:

“We spent the next night in some native huts on a farm in the district. The experiences of the sufferers would make monotonous reading if given individually, but there are instances here and there which give variety to the painful record, and these should yield the utmost satisfaction to the promoters of the Act, in proving to them the fell measure of their achievement. One example of these experiences was that of a white farmer who had induced a thrifty Native in another district to come and farm on his estate. The contract was duly executed about the end of May, 1913. It was agreed that the Native should move over to the new place after gathering his crops and sharing them with his old landlord, which he did in the third week in June. On his arrival, however, the new landlord’s attitude towards him aroused his suspicions; his suspicions were confirmed when, after some hesitation, the landlord told him that their contract was illegal. Having already left his old place the legal embargo was also against his return there, and so his only course was to leave that place and wander about with his stock and family. They went in the direction of Kroonstad, and they have not been heard of since.” (Native Life in South Africa 4th edition: 1916)

Unwavering commitment

It was these travels, which were partially sponsored by SANNC, and when it ran out of funds, Plaatje dug into his pocket and summoned the help of any willing supporter to continue the work, that earned him a place in the delegation that set sail in the mid-1914 to England, as an attempt to motivate the British Imperialist government to scrap the law. Although their appeals fell on deaf ears and Plaatje and entourage did not succeed to convince the British otherwise, the work he did gathering these stories formed material for the book that would be published in 1916.

He had started writing the book during the sailing trip to Britain, just like American Alan L Right wrote in 1998 in the foreword of the Native Life in South Africa fourth edition, that sometimes in defeat there are seeds of victory. Plaatje had the aptitude to recognize that, instead of returning to South Africa, he decided to stay in Britain until February 1917 to continue campaigning. It was during this period that he resumed writing the manuscript of Native Life in South Africa which he had started writing while sailing to Britain with the delegation. The book was published in 1916 by P. S. King in London.

He would also pursue his other interests in language and linguistics, collaborated with Professor Daniel Jones of the University of London and that very year he produced two more books “Sechuana Proverbs” (1916) – a listing of Tswana proverbs with their European equivalents and “A Sechuana Reader” that was co-authored with Jones. After the “Native Life in South Africa” was published, achieving global recognition, it provided Plaatje a platform, it was picked up by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) an African-American civil rights organization in the United States, formed in 1909 by Moorfield Storey, Mary White Ovington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Its newspaper “The Crisis” that was edited by Du Bois published it, just after its release. Plaatje would also share a podium with Marcus Garvey, the famous Jamaican ideologue who propagated the unification and empowerment of all Africans even those in the Diaspora,” (Jaffer and Tshabalala: The Jounalist 2014).

Using the might of the pen

Prior to Native Life in South Africa gaining much acclaim, Plaatje had already made a name for himself as a social commentator. He moved from being a war correspondent and pioneered black journalism, editing two independent newspapers. His concerns were clear – injustice against Africans was not to be tolerated. In 1902, he raised funds from Chief Silas Molema of Mafeking and founded the Tswana-English newspaper, ‘Koranta ea Bechuana’ (The newspaper of the Tswana) which he would edit until his move to Kimberley in 1910.

There he continued the paper and in 1912 was elected the first secretary-general of the SANNC, that later became the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Reverend John Dube. His paper was renamed ‘Tsala ea Batho’ (Friend of the People) in 1913, but closed shop in 1915 while he was still in Britain, investing his time in the Native Life in South Africa. According to Mkhabela in his book review of the recently published edition of Native Life of South Africa he writes: “ You will come across sobering stories of courage and hope but also of betrayal and cruelty. Plaatje details the state of the country after the law had been passed and ultimately leaves the reader with a feeling of hopefulness and empathy.” (Mkhabela: 2015)

The last resting place

These titles – author, journalist, linguist, teacher, court interpreter and clerk, and first Secretary-General of the SANNC – would describe the extraordinary life Plaatje lived. He was born on Boskop farm in the Boshof district, Orange Free State province in 1876. Plaatje was the fourteenth child to Kethanecwe Botsingwe of the Rolong of Seleka (a Tshipi clan) and her husband Kushumane Johannes Plaatje Mogodi, a Rolong of the Noto tribe.

Plaatje, who adopted his father’s nickname as his surname showed he was a bright star. Soon after he was born, his parents moved to Barkly West, where they stayed under Pniel Mission Station of the Lutheran Berlin Mission Society (BMS). This is where his life-long love affair with words came into being. After he finished his elementary education where he received an education in English, Dutch, Tswana, arithmetic, scripture, singing and handwork from around 1884 to 1890, he first worked as assistant teacher while furthering his studies through the help of the missionaries. When he was, 18, in 1894 he moved to Kimberley to work as a postman. During this time he would study privately, obtaining his Cape civil service certificate cum laude in seven months. Being fluent in eight languages, and with a working knowledge of several more, he then went on to work as a court interpreter and magistrate’s clerk in Mafeking. By the time he died in Pimville, Johannesburg on 19 June 1932, during a visit there, Solomon Thekisho Plaatje had entrenched himself as a worthy opinion maker and pivotal and unique voice to public debate.

Today more than ever, the book – Native Life in South Africa – could be a useful handbook to remind South Africa of the evils of colonial rule, apartheid and the plight of Africans on their land. It holds remarkable significance to the thorny land public discourse in South Africa. Plaatje’s life has left South Africa a treasure, a legacy and his voice still articulates the injustices against Africans from his grave in Kimberly, where his soul is resting.

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