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Plaatje, Solomon Tshekisholocked

(1876–1932)
  • Brian Willan

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876–1932)

by Lizzie Caswall-Smith, 1916

Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand

Plaatje, Solomon Tshekisho (1876–1932), writer and political leader in South Africa, was born on 9 October 1876 at Podisetlhogo Farm, Doornfontein, near Boshof, Orange Free State, South Africa. He was the sixth of eight children of Johannes Kushumane Plaatje (1835–1896), a cattle farmer and deacon of the Lutheran Berlin Missionary Society, and his wife, Martha, née Lokgosi (1836–1925). Plaatje was of BaRolong (seTswana-speaking) origin, the family name of Plaatje (meaning 'flat' in Dutch) given to his grandfather by Dutch-speaking Griqua farmers with whom the family were at one time associated. He grew up on the society's mission at Pniel, near Barkly West, Cape Colony, where he attended the mission school, later assisting the missionaries as a pupil teacher. From an early age he displayed a particular talent for music and languages, becoming fluent in English, Dutch, and German as well as at least five African languages. He was to remain both a committed Christian and a loyal member of the Lutheran church.

In 1894, at the age of seventeen, Plaatje left Pniel to take up a job as a letter-carrier with the post office in Kimberley. On 25 January 1898 he married Elizabeth Lilith M'belle (1877–1942), a teacher and social worker, and later that year moved to Mafeking to take up a job as clerk and court interpreter to the local magistrate—an experience which left him with a deep respect for the legal system of Cape Colony and a keen appreciation of the role of the law in protecting African rights. He was in Mafeking when the South African War broke out on 11 October 1899. Throughout the ensuing siege he rendered valuable service to the British military authorities, writing intelligence reports taken from African spies and dispatch runners. The siege also inspired Plaatje's first extended literary venture—a private diary, written in English, and published only in 1973—a lively, detailed, and very personal account of the siege, demonstrating a remarkable facility with the English language.

Plaatje left the Cape civil service in 1902 to become the editor of a new seTswana–English newspaper, Koranta ea Becoana (Bechuana Gazette). Over the next decade he emerged not only as one of the leading African newspaper editors of his day, but also as one of the most eloquent spokesmen for his people, arguing passionately for the recognition of African rights in the new political structures being created in the aftermath of the South African War. Shortly after the union of South Africa in 1910 Plaatje moved to Kimberley to edit another newspaper, Tsala ea Becoana (Friend of the Tswana). He was one of the founders of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress) in 1912, and was elected its first general secretary. Plaatje then took a leading role in mobilizing African opinion against the Natives' Land Act of 1913 which severely restricted African rights to occupy and purchase land. The following year he travelled to England as a member of a five-man Congress deputation to the British imperial government to protest about the act, and to call for its repeal.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914 Plaatje, alone of the delegates, stayed on in Britain to complete his book Native Life in South Africa—a devastating attack on the Land Act and the first book-length statement of African claims to have been written by a black South African. He also took advantage of his time in England to write and publish Sechuana Proverbs and their European Equivalents and A Sechuana Reader, the latter written in conjunction with Daniel Jones, an eminent academic phoneticist. Both books sprang from a lifelong concern to ensure the preservation and survival of his native seTswana language and its literature. Following his return to South Africa in 1917 he was offered the presidency of the South African Native National Congress—which he declined on account of the financial hardships he and his family (he now had five children) were facing. Two years later he returned to Britain as leader of a second Congress deputation. On this occasion he and his colleagues secured an interview with David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, who, impressed by the case they made, communicated with General Smuts, the South African prime minister, to see what could be done to address their concerns, but to no avail. After travelling on to Canada and the United States, Plaatje finally returned home to South Africa in 1923, forced to accept that there was no longer any prospect of outside intervention in South Africa's affairs. He resumed his career as a journalist, earning his living from writing in both white and black newspapers. He was widely known as the pre-eminent voice of moderate African opinion, arguing forcefully against the steps being taken by the government to implement segregation, but in the changed political circumstances of South Africa in the 1920s he no longer enjoyed the influence he once had.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Plaatje devoted himself to literary concerns. He translated a number of Shakespeare's plays into seTswana, Diphosho-phosho ('Mistake upon mistake'), a translation of The Comedy of Errors, appearing in 1930; he compiled a substantial collection of seTswana folk-tales and praise poems and a second, enlarged edition of his Sechuana Proverbs, and also worked on a new seTswana–English dictionary. His novel Mhudi, largely completed in England in 1920, and set in the South African interior in the 1830s, was finally published in 1930—the first novel in English to have been written by an African.

Much of Plaatje's life was spent in circumstances of both personal and political adversity. Short in stature, a brilliant orator, at ease with black and white people alike, Plaatje exploited to the full his personal qualities and powers of persuasion in pursuit of the many causes he espoused. He never lost the habit of unremitting hard work, nor a deep sense of responsibility for the leadership of his people. On no issue did he feel more strongly than that of drink: a strict teetotaller, he worked tirelessly to counteract its effects, believing strongly in the power of personal example and behaviour. Plaatje died of double pneumonia on 19 June 1932, while on a visit to Pimville, Johannesburg, and was buried in the West End cemetery, Kimberley, on 23 June. In 1935 a memorial tombstone was erected on his grave. It carried the following inscription: 'I Khutse Morolong: Modiredi wa Afrika' ('rest in peace Morolong, you servant of Africa').

Neglected for many years thereafter, recognition of Plaatje's achievements and significance gained fresh impetus with the transformation of South Africa in the 1990s. Mhudi received growing attention, critics noting its pioneering integration of European and African literary forms, and its author's prophetic vision of a South Africa free from injustice. Plaatje's home and his grave in Kimberley were declared national monuments, and in England the house in which he lived in London in 1914–15 was commemorated with a blue plaque, erected in 1985.

Sources

  • B. P. Willan, Sol T. Plaatje: South African nationalist, 1876–1932 (1984)
  • S. T. Plaatje, Sol Plaatje: selected writings, ed. B. P. Willan (1995)
  • m. cert., Cape Archives, Cape Town, South Africa, Kimberley magistrates' records
  • d. cert.
  • private information (2004)

Archives

  • SOAS, MSS
  • University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Molema/Plaatje MSS
  • Bodl. RH, Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society archive
  • De Beers, Kimberley, South Africa, archives
  • National Archives of South Africa, Cape Town, Mafeking magistrates' records
  • Tuskegee University, Alabama, Moton MSS
  • University of South Africa, Pretoria, Molema MSS
  • University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South African Institute of Race Relations collection

Sound

  • Central Research Laboratories, Hayes, Middlesex, EMI Music Archives

Likenesses

  • portraits, 1898–1932, repro. in Willan, Sol Plaatje
  • portraits, 1898–1932, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Molema/Plaatje collection
  • L. Caswall-Smith, photograph, 1916, University of the Witwatersrand Library, Johannesburg, department of historical papers [see illus.]
  • statue, 2000, Kimberley, South Africa
  • G. M. M. Pemba, oils (after photograph, 1930), repro. in Willan, Plaatje