Words and letters: ANC founder Sol Plaatje was a politician, author, translator and newspaper editor. His diary about the siege of Mafeking is one of the most affecting documents about any war. Picture: UNKNOWN
Words and letters: ANC founder Sol Plaatje was a politician, author, translator and newspaper editor. His diary about the siege of Mafeking is one of the most affecting documents about any war. Picture: UNKNOWN

SOL PLAATJE: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932
Brian Willan
Jacana Media

Told to nominate a handful of books to help strangers understand SA, my list would start with Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Hermann Giliomee’s The Afrikaners. I would add Dan Sleigh’s novel Islands about apartheid arising at the Cape.

Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa might have to be on the list because it deals with that seminal event, the Native Land Act of 1913. The book’s weakness is that half of it consists of boring politics of the day — but now there is a solution to that problem: a biography of Sol Plaatje by Scottish historian Brian Willan.

It’s as thick as Long Walk to Freedom, but is easier to read and as lovingly published by Jacana. Packed with descriptions of the decades before and after union, when the foundations of SA’s shaky state were laid, Willan has established himself as the leading expert on Plaatje, and as an authoritative observer of the story of the nation.

The first secretary-general of the ANC’s forerunner, the South African Native National Congress, Plaatje was the most well-known black man in SA in his day. Only Paul Kruger and Cecil John Rhodes were more famous. When his many overseas friends wrote to him, Willan said at the book’s launch at the University of Johannesburg, they simply put on the envelope: Sol Plaatje, South Africa.

He was a man of many parts; politician, author of the pioneering novel Mhudi, first translator of Shakespeare in Africa, newspaper editor and one of the first cinema owners in the country. He would fit comfortably into modern times as the quintessential cosmopolitan, carrier of many identities.

He was proud of his name, which was given to his father by Dutch farmers to describe his flat hair style — their surname was actually Mothiba. He was known for his flawless spoken English and Dutch, and the new Afrikaans language he could speak after working for years as a court interpreter, his first job.

In one of those ironies of history, Plaatje was a native of Barkly West, the constituency of Rhodes. Both men became icons of Kimberley, and in Willan’s book and talk, the front line of progress in SA that was the Diamond City in the late 19th century is well described. The fact that Johannesburg gained higher status over the years was a source of some disappointment for Plaatje as he grew older.

In Plaatje’s youth, he could assert his limited voting rights in the Cape Colony parliament, and he always voted against Rhodes. The account of how black people gradually lost the little citizenship they had in the country of their birth until they were driven into a separate administration in 1927 is more poignant than the stories of ordinary people he recorded in Native Life.

Though Plaatje’s name is now synonymous with opposition to the 1913 Land Act, he only abandoned his eternal optimism in 1930, when he declared there was no salvation for black people in SA. In his opinion, the creation of the Department of Native Administration in 1927 was a much greater danger to the survival of black citizenship rights than the Land Act.

The book is packed with anecdotes, such as the one on his contribution as a 23-year-old to efforts to attempt to get the colonial Cape government to provide ammunition to Mafeking’s black people so they could defend themselves against the Boers in the siege of 1899.

The empire’s representative nearly had Plaatje disciplined for “disloyalty” when he contradicted his belief that the British would only need 50,000 troops and a few months to beat the Boers in a war he said would soon be forgotten. Plaatje insisted on at least 150,000 troops and said the war would last at least a year.

His diary about the siege of Mafeking remains one of the most affecting sets of documents about any war and was at the heart of the reappreciation in the 1980s and 1990s of the role of black people in the South African War and the brutal betrayal by the British of certain tribal chiefs.

An aspect that receives great attention from Willan is Plaatje’s attitude to native languages. One of his biggest objections to what he saw as the forced unification of blacks in opposition to their growing disempowerment was that they were all being driven into the same cage. In today’s language one could say that he decried the creation of the cadre, the one-dimensional conformist for whom state funding is an entitlement.

Plaatje devoted himself to indigenous languages, especially Setswana. He compiled dictionaries, collected idioms and proverbs, and published newspapers in languages other than English. “He devoted himself to exploring the creative potential that lay in his country’s multitude of cultural traditions,” Willan writes.

Because he had so many white friends, he had a deep belief in dialogue to stop the tide of measures being instituted for racial segregation, and when he finally realised he was wrong, he focused on the development of Setswana and the preservation of its culture until his death.

Plaatje developed a lung condition after falling victim to the Great Flu of 1918. He died of pneumonia in June 1932 at the age of 55.

In today’s discourse on decolonisation, there is no doubt Plaatje would pronounce himself in favour of globalisation and offer the promotion of indigenous languages, including Afrikaans and Cape, as a bulwark against any neocolonialism brought by globalisation.