Sol T. Plaatje

Sol T. Plaatje


Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje was one of the most gifted and versatile black South Africans of his generation. He was in the forefront of the public affairs of the African people for the greater part of his adult life as politician, writer and journalist. He devoted his many talents to one overriding cause: the struggle of African people against injustice and dispossession during the second half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century, that saw the country of his birth transformed from a colonial backwater into an industrial state.

He is best known today as the author of several pioneering books. Native Life in South Africa, a scathing indictment of the Natives Land Act of 1913, one of the most far reaching pieces of legislation in South African history, is one of South Africa’s greatest political books and represents the political views of a past generation of African political activists. Mhudi was the first novel in English to be written by a black South African. The choice of language and an historical setting indicated a political agenda in writing the book: to refute the common fallacy of black people being “uncivilized” and at the same time to present a serious indictment of segregation in general and land distribution in particular. He was also the first known black person to keep a diary during a protracted war. While working as a court interpreter in the office of the Civil Commissioner and Magistrate during the siege of Mafikeng, he wrote his Boer War Diary, that was only discovered many years after his death. His diary of the events is a valuable historical document, unique in its presentation of an African perspective.

Plaatje was an accomplished linguist fluent in at least seven languages, but apart from writing in English he was very much preoccupied with the preservation of the Setswana language. He compiled the first Setswana phonetic reader titled A Sechuana Reader, a bilingual collection of Tswana folklore in collaboration with a well-known linguist, Daniel Jones, during his first trip to England. He also collected Setswana proverbs producing Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations during the same period. His preoccupation with the writings of Shakespeare led to the translation of several of his plays into Setswana of which only Diphosho-Phosho (Comedy of Errors) and Dikhontsho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara (Julius Caesar) survived.

Plaatje belonged to a small group of mission-educated African intelligentsia that in 1912 founded the South African Native National Congress, the organisation renamed in 1926 as the African National Congress. His political campaigning against the Land Act and subsequent discriminatory legislation took him twice as part of a delegation to Britain where he met several prominent politicians, amongst them the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George. He also visited the United States on his own where he interacted with prominent black leaders such as Marcus Garvey, president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and W E P Du Bois, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of the Coloured People.

Although he was an African Nationalist, he was not averse to effectively negotiating and collaborating with the authorities of the time to get his way on several occasions.

During his stay in Mafikeng he would begin his career as journalist, when he became the part-owner and editor of Koranta ea Becoana (Bechuana Gazette). He went on to become one of the outstanding pioneers in the field of African journalism in South Africa. Plaatje would own and edit two more newspapers in Kimberley where he went to live when Koranta foundered, Tsala ea Becoana (Bechuana Friend) and Tsala ea Batho (The Friend of the People).

Although he lost these too, they were important platforms on which he would campaign for the rights of his people. In the last years of his life he carried on with this kind of campaign by becoming a prolific letter writer; these letters were published in the major newspapers of the time.

He was a committed Christian, responsible for organising the interdenominational Christian Brotherhood devoted to the ideals of equality and fraternity in Kimberley. In later life Plaatje became increasingly despondent about the effect of social and economic changes were having upon the lives of his people. His involvement with the affairs of the Independent Order of True Templars stemmed from his belief that moral regeneration was essential to the advancement of his people.

The home where he lived for the last few years of his life in Kimberley, 32 Angel Street, was declared a National Monument in 1992; his grave in West End Cemetery in 1997. Today, 32 Angel Street houses the Sol Plaatje Museum and Library, which are funded by donors and run by the Sol Plaatje Educational Trust .

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