Sol T. Plaatje is a fairly familiar name in South Africa. Born Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje on 9 October 1876, he is often remembered as one of the founding members, and first general secretary, of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 which became the African National Congress in 1923.
In recognition of his admirable service and talents as a pioneering politician, intellectual, journalist, linguist, writer and translator, Plaatje has been memorialised by, among other honours, having a museum, university and a municipality named after him.
This year marks the centenary of the publication of Plaatje’s seminal book, “Native Life” in South Africa. Native Life, together with his novel “Mhudi” which was published in 1930, and reputed to be the first novel written in English published by a black South African, constitutes the cornerstones of Plaatje’s remarkable oeuvre.
A new edited volume, “Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present” – edited by Janet Remmington, Brian Willan and Bhekizizwe Peterson and published by Wits University Press –- reflects the significance of Native Life and its continuing resonances.
At the time of its publication Native Life was widely read and even discussed in the South African House of Assembly. It disappeared out of the public eye only to reappear from the 1960s as historians started to chart the history of black South Africans.
A little book
In 1913 the Natives Land Act of 1913 was passed. The South African History Online described the act as the “most catastrophic provision for Africans” being “the prohibition from buying or hiring land in 93% of South Africa”.
The passing of the Act was a key catalyst that sparked Plaatje to write Native Life. At the time, Plaatje quaintly described it as “a little book”. It was conceived as part of his arsenal to petition the British government and public to protect the rights of black South Africans following the Act of Union of 1910. The unification of four former British colonies – Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony and Orange River Colony – led to the formation of the Union of South Africa.
This new South African state legislated a wide range of discriminatory policies that turned the country into a white oligarchy that was structured in racial dominance and exploitation. The book that resulted far exceeded its author’s modest aims. Instead it raised a range of complex issues that continue to bedevil South African society.
Revisiting Native Life a 100 years later one is struck by the daunting task of how to position and engage with foundational texts and figures. One has to ensure that they retain their complexities and even contradictions. Those are qualities that can be productive in thinking-through both past and present experiences and challenges.
There are two possible forms of reception. There is the celebration of “heritage” and “human treasures” that, paradoxically, often flatten out the very attributes that made the person or text noteworthy. Alternatively, there is the tendency to dismiss members of the early black intelligentsia as black Victorians. They supposedly assimilated Western culture in the hope of achieving social “respectability”.
Take Paper and Ink!
The profound social changes that were brought about by conquest compelled black intellectuals to respond in numerous and creative ways to the ordeals that they faced. Instead of trying to draw a distinct line between tradition and modernity, orality and writing, Plaatje and his colleagues realised that such categories and practices were not mutually exclusive. These categories and practices needed to be recalibrated and used simultaneously in response to the new circumstances.
Plaatje’s literary endeavours were in line with IWW Citashe’s incendiary call in his poem, “Zimkile! Mfo wohlanga / Gone are your cattle, countryman!” to:
Take Paper and Ink/ That’s your armour.
As he acknowledged in the preface to Mhudi, since the writing of history is partisan Plaatje felt it incumbent that black writers should offer their own interpretations.
Native Life is, in the first instance, such an account. Yet it also extends way beyond the imperative to bear witness to the dislocation and alienation unleashed by the Land Act. In order to get readers to fully grasp the turmoil Plaatje elaborates the beliefs, cultures and social lives of Africans before the Act. In the process he also provides an extensive and compelling archive of African ways of being and knowledge systems. A similar compulsion is behind his collection and publication in 1916 of “Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and Their European Equivalents”.
Bear Ye One Another’s Burden
The recuperation of the distinctiveness of African life and culture was complicated by Plaatje’s equally insistent affirmation of the ties and needs that bind humanity. He draws attention to what he regards as common human desires – such as food, clothing, shelter and love - that all people share irrespective of race, class or gender.
Plaatje evokes what he calls “mutual suffering” and advises that “bear ye one another’s burden”. Remarkably, before the two world wars and genocides that shook the 20th century, Plaatje argued that we bear an ethical responsibility to ensure the well-being of all people. We are also called upon to intervene and stop injustice and atrocities wherever they manifest themselves across the world.
This challenge is directed at all the citizens of the British Empire but it is also aimed at black and white South Africans. Plaatje’s compassion is particularly attentive to the hardships that are encountered by vulnerable groups. He is left distraught after witnessing a displaced family, the Kgobadis, burying their infant in an unmarked grave.
At the funeral of his own son, he contrasts its pomp and ceremony with the fugitive nature that marked the Kgobadi burial. He is appalled by the incarceration in the Orange Free State of black women who staged one of the earliest marches against the pass laws in July 1913.
Two chapters in Native Life eulogise the social roles performed by women and they indicate his support of the rights of women and especially the need for them to participate in public life. All these responses are consistent with Plaatje’s believe in equality irrespective of “race or colour… one’s sex” or class.
The Art of the Human Condition
The links and empathies between people across race, class, gender and experience that Plaatje proposes is also apparent in his equally receptive attitude and appropriation of art from all over the world. Native Life makes extensive use of quotations from major global texts ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare. The citations are not simply a sign of Plaatje’s erudition, they are pointedly used to strengthen Plaatje’s own argument.
The human bonds that Plaatje evokes are, of course, fundamental to “the human condition” that art is preoccupied with. If great art is informed by but also transcends the time and locality of its emergence, this then requires a more sophisticated appreciation of the value of even canonical works.
For instance, in addition to the need to centre African and other marginalised thinkers, knowledge systems and art across the educational and cultural landscapes, should the project of decolonisation in South Africa erase the Western canon or counter the ways in which it has been used in support of the colonial project? Are African works not susceptible to similar conservative and exclusionary uses? Such as when they are deployed in ways that validate traditional authority, patriarchy, ethnicity, class privileges, homophobia and xenophobia?
Plaatje also encouraged independent thought. He felt that a critical disposition coupled with empirical evidence and public accountability was indispensable, not only in relation to contesting colonial ideology but also with regards to views and actions in the black community as well.
After learning that his mentor, the journalist and educator John T Jabavu, was in support of the Land Act, Plaatje describes, in chapter 13, his unsuccessful mission to convince Jabavu to alter his position. After his failure, Plaatje cautioned against the dangers of being held ransom by the powerful and wealthy in society. He declared that:
God forbid that we should ever find that our mind had become the property of someone other than ourselves.
Plaatje’s high estimation of intellectual work, critical thinking and access to information is in stark contrast to the current disparagement of “clever blacks”, transparency, access to information and the media.
It is as a result of the deep appreciation of the complexities and entanglements that underpin social change and the imperatives to create a more just and humane world that Plaatje, and his contemporaries, preferred to pursue a multi-pronged, nuanced and compassionate understanding and representation of life.