Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje was born 140 years ago in what is today South Africa’s Free State province. When he was 40 years old, he published Native Life in South Africa, his great expose of the ruinous effects of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act. This legislation almost completely stripped black South Africans of the right to own land.
Plaatje, known as Sol, came from a family that had been associated with Christian missions for three generations. He was also a proud member of the Barolong clan and treasured his African identity and culture. He lived through times of tumultuous change in South Africa, including the Anglo Boer War and the creation of the Union of South Africa.
He transcended his own tribal and religious identities to embrace a vision of a common South Africa. He stood up against the forces of white supremacy and segregation and advocated for a united, inclusive nation based on justice, equality and the rule of law. All of this during the darkest of days and at great personal cost.
In honour of Native Life’s centenary, it’s worth revisiting Plaatje’s legacy as one of his country’s greatest public intellectuals. It’s also a good opportunity to reflect on how a man with only four years of formal schooling became a brilliant public educator who promoted a common and inclusive South Africanness.
Plaatje is best known as a leader of the South African Native National Congress, which later became the now-governing African National Congress (ANC). He was also a novelist and journalist. But many may not know that teaching was his first job – and enduring vocation.
He was just 14 or 15 when he was appointed as “pupil-teacher” at the Pniel mission station where he’d completed only three grades of school. He later finished another school year in the city of Kimberley.
Despite his limited formal schooling, Plaatje received what historian Tim Couzens described as “the very best education”. His mother, grandmother and aunts steeped him in Setswana culture and oral tradition. They sparked his fascination with African history, folklore and proverbs, which he later evocatively captured in his 1929 novel Mhudi. It was the first English language novel published by a black South African.
A prodigious polyglot, Plaatje used the limited opportunities at Pniel to increase his repertoire. One day he overheard the missionary’s wife, Elizebeth Westphal, speaking English to a lady in the kitchen. He said to her “I want to be able to speak English and Dutch and German as you do”. She gave him extra lessons and introduced him to English literature and classical music. He mastered other South African languages as he encountered them.
During his brief time at school in Kimberley, Plaatje was exposed to a very diverse spectrum of children from the mining town.
The resident priest at the All Saints mission school described the pupils as being
Cape Dutch [that is, “Coloured”], Bechuana, Zulus, Fingoes, Malays, Indians; and classified in order of creed …. Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Wesleyan, Independent, Roman Catholic; and in addition to Christians, Mahommedans, and Brahmin…‘
This thriving polyglot, racially integrated, ecumenical and interfaith school community perhaps gave Plaatje an early taste - not realised in his lifetime - of what an integrated South Africa might mean and how South Africans might learn from each other.
Lifelong and life-wide learning
Plaatje was an indefatigable self-directed learner throughout his life. He practised lifelong learning long before it became a policy buzzword. In his various professions - post office messenger, court interpreter, journalist, politician, author, translator - he found and learnt from mentors, books and life experiences. He made the knowledge his own to share with others. Almost instinctively, he combined the role of public educator with everything else that he did.
In his first adult job in Kimberley as post office messenger, one of the few positions available to educated Africans in the Cape Colony, Plaatje learnt the importance of bearing the message from sender to receiver. From this he perhaps gained insight into the power and importance of the word in connecting people.
He continued this “in-between” role when appointed court interpreter in Mafeking in 1898. The job was about more than just translating. It involved mediating the world of the English and Dutch magistrates and prosecutors to African plaintiffs and vice versa. He made possible, through his voice and person and the virtue of listening, a dialogue between these worlds.
Plaatje was also a pioneer of African independent journalism. He launched and edited a number of newspapers such as Koranta ea Becoana (1901-1906). These newspapers published articles in English and Setswana, targeting the country’s small minority of mission-educated Africans. His titles gave this group a public voice and educated them about current affairs.
Plaatje’s newspapers also attacked unjust laws and racial discrimination in the Cape Colony and later the Union of South Africa. He also wrote very widely in English medium newspapers like the Diamond Fields Advertiser and The Star, educating their white readerships about black experiences and perspectives.
Plaatje’s journalism gave him a national profile and he was elected as Secretary General of the newly formed South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912. A response to the white-dominated Union of 1910, the SANNC united Africans across tribal, regional and language divisions. Later to become the ANC, it gave them a national political voice and identity.
Plaatje travelled to England as part of the congress’s delegation to protest against the Land Act. He joined a second delegation in 1919, where he visited North America as well. On these visits, he addressed hundreds of gatherings to present the “native case”.
His publication in 1916 of Native Life in South Africa was part of this campaign. This and his travels took his role as public educator to an international audience. Although these delegations were ultimately unsuccessful, they laid roots for the later anti-apartheid movement.
Plaatje returned from his travels disappointed by the failure of the delegations to effect change and heavily in debt. He resumed his journalism and travelled the country showing films – a novel technology – to black African audiences. These showed the progress that black Americans had made in politics and education.
Again, this was an effort to educate and connect people. But, in a rapidly urbanising and industrialising South Africa, Plaatje’s messages of educational self-help and moral improvement did not resonate as they once had.
In his final years he increasingly turned to literary concerns: a book about Setswana proverbs and folktales, and a translation of Shakespeare into Setswana. These works bear testimony to his profound and visionary engagement in a dialogue between the oral and the written, Setswana and English, the past and the present.
A fitting tribute
Plaatje died of pneumonia in 1932. His riches lay not in material wealth but in the range and depth of his contribution to society.
As his daughter Violet recited as his funeral:
For here was one devoid of wealth/But buried like a lord.
Perhaps the greatest testament to these gifts, for a man who valued education and learning so deeply, is the living memorial just around the corner from his Kimberley house at 32 Angel Street: the brand new Sol Plaatje University.