The Sol Plaatje bicycle sculpture by Egon Tania and Guy du Toit, seen here at the Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein. Picture: Sean O’Toole/Sunday Times
The Sol Plaatje bicycle sculpture by Egon Tania and Guy du Toit, seen here at the Oliewenhuis Museum in Bloemfontein. Picture: Sean O’Toole/Sunday Times

In July 1913 — 105 years ago to the month — tens of thousands of black tenant farmers, their families and their stock took to the roads of the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Thanks to the infamous Natives Land Act of 1913 they were unable to live on farms as sharecroppers, as they once had. In haste and desperation, they sought land elsewhere.

The act proscribed the terms of their tenancy, under which they offered their labour in return for a share of the crop. They could, however, be servants, with their stock surrendered to the farmer whose land they occupied. Rather than submit to this deeper form of servitude, they walked away. To where, they often did not know.

It was SA’s first great act of civil disobedience.

By law, their animals could neither graze nor be watered on the lands through which they trampled, so their journeys were not only dominated by the vaguest sense of destination; they were death-haunted. Here was tragedy on an epic scale.

The travails of this landless peasantry were documented by Sol Plaatje in Native Life in South Africa, a book published with great difficulty in 1916. In it, he undertook what he called a "tour of observation", visiting where the wanderers crossed the Vaal River or disappeared into the interior, clouds of their animals’ dust in their wake.

Plaatje called July 1913 "Black July", a reference to the hardness of the season and the harshness of a countryside already crippled by a long summer drought. "Pray that your flight be not in winter," he writes in the opening to chapter four.

Under the act, even sympathetic white farmers were constrained. Should you, as a farmer, fail to comply with the new law, you could either be fined £100 or imprisoned. Times were hard. Folk had neither the sense of charity nor the stomach for such threats. Most averted their eyes.

There were exceptions. In chapter seven, "Our Indebtedness to White Women", he writes of a redoubtable farmer’s wife who ingeniously puts the fears of the farm’s tenants to rest. "Some farmers (unfortunately too few) who had at first intended to change the status of their native tenants," writes Plaatje, "had been obliged to abandon the idea owing to the determined opposition of their wives."

Born on October 9 1876 on a farm in the Boshof district of the then Orange Free State, Plaatje came from a proud Christian family. He was originally educated at a mission station at Bethanie, but the Plaatjes soon moved to Pniel, close to Kimberley, where he fell under the spell of Ernst Westphal, a missionary from the Berlin Missionary Society. According to Brian Willan, Plaatje’s biographer, Westphal and his wife, Elizabeth, considered Plaatje the most gifted student they had taught in 11 years at the school.

They acknowledged, however, that their little school could only take him so far. They encouraged him to look further afield so, as a 17-year-old, he became a messenger for the Kimberley Post Office.

Plaatje’s four or more years in Kimberley were mind-expanding. The town’s social and intellectual life was a decided improvement upon that of Pniel.

He joined the South Africans Improvement Society, a group that cultivated a love of the English language. He read Shakespeare.

Within years he had met and married his wife — somewhat controversially, according to the dictates of the time, as she was from a different tribe.

Later he applied for — and was awarded — the position of court interpreter in Mafikeng, more than 300km to the north. It was here that he wrote his famous book, Mafikeng Diary, about the siege of Mafikeng during the Anglo Boer War.

Memory and memorialisation

Plaatje was that rarest of birds. His voice was cool and constant; his plumage sober rather than bright. His greatest attributes were constancy and curiosity, traits that took him far and wide, putting him in the upper branches of African society.

He was many things: an interpreter, a translator, a novelist and a newspaperman. He was also a letter writer, with apparently bottomless reserves of indignation. His Selected Writings (edited by Willan) is full of letters to the press.

They complain about the iniquity of third-class rail fares and the inferior service provided by the so-called "Kaffir Mail". They point out colonial inconsistencies; offer examples of rudeness and racism. He writes about segregation, the pass books, the Cape franchise. That he was irrepressibly polite shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he was still a thorn in the authorities’ side.

One of the most famous photographs of Plaatje shows him on his bicycle, in tweed trousers and a waistcoat, a boater perched solemnly on his head. The bike is at a standstill and with his free hand (the other is on the handlebars) he brandishes what looks like a pass book. The image is of no great aesthetic merit, but it still leaves us with enough unanswered questions that we want to know more.

Where had he come from? Where was he going? What was on the sandwiches secreted away in the bag slung across his chest at a jaunty diagonal? What was he reading? The Bible or a compendium — unlikely as this sounds — of racy romantic verse?

The photograph is important because it shows the kind of bright human detail that the two contemporary Plaatje orthodoxies — the academic and the political-cum-historical — don’t always get. Yes, there is an element of heroism in those academics, such as Willan and the late Tim Couzens, who rescued Plaatje from the casual amnesia of the recent past.

Then again, much of the writing about Plaatje is dry, a fact one hopes is rectified in Willan’s new, updated biography (published by Jacana).

As for the other form of appropriation, there’s a shamelessness about it. One of the advantages of being the ruling party is that you can both control the past to some degree (Plaatje and his bicycle feature among the statues of Tshwane’s National Heritage Monument) and behave abominably in the present.

One imagines that, as one of the founding fathers of what became the ANC, Plaatje, with his stiff Victorianism, would sniff at the rabble the party has become.

Between these two orthodoxies of remembrance is the human, the contradictory, the everyday.

Plaatje’s life was full of domestic pain. Couzens writes of Plaatje’s daughter, Olive (named after Olive Schreiner), catching the train home to Kimberley from Natal, where she was a trainee nurse.

He tells us that her connection stopped at Bloemfontein, where she suddenly took ill after having been exposed to Spanish flu. She was refused entry into the waiting room, then wasn’t allowed to sit down on a "whites only" bench. Aged 17, she died on the station platform.

Plaatje was in Detroit at the time, drumming up support for the African cause. Such experiences might have deformed other men with rage. Plaatje either couldn’t be angry or he wasn’t prepared to allow himself the luxury of being so.

Such a decision gives his writing its great hidden pathos. A brook of quiet pain bubbles behind much of what he does.

Aside from the pathos — a pathos that reminds one of David Goldblatt and some of his photographs of the outcast poor — is the fact that the importance of Plaatje’s life and canon have not always been well-served by words. Native Life in South Africa suggests itself not only as a book but as a movie. Yes, it is a sociological and journalistic treatise, as the historians have described.

But it is also a book of scenes and moving images detailing a landscape of dispossession — cinema, in other words.

It doesn’t take great imagination to recreate such scenes by reading the book’s pages: the parched veld after little rain the previous summer; black tenant families schlepping to God knows where; the clouds of dust; the crying babies, creases of bother on the pater’s brow.

Put the dispossession of the native tenants in a dramatic structure and all the material for an epic SA film is here.

Fewer cheesy sculptures; less dull academic writing. Plaatje’s Native Life deserves a film.