South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Solomon (Sol) Plaatje

(October 9, 1876 - June 19, 1932)

Early life

Sol Plaatje was born on Boskop farm in the Boshof district, Orange Free State province on October 9, 1876. He was the fourteenth child of Kethanecwe Botsingwe of the Rolong of Seleka (a Tshipi clan) and her husband Kushumane Johannes Plaatje Mogodi, a Rolong of the Noto tribe. Plaatje adopted his father’s nickname as his surname, being of stocky build (Afrikaans ‘plat’ = flat). Around 1836 both parents became Christian, after having had contact with the Berlin missionaries in Philippolis. Sol was born as his parents made their way north to paternal ancestral lands, fled before the traumatic Mmanthatisi.

Plaatje was taught (English, Dutch, Tswana, arithmetic, scripture, singing and handwork) to primary level at the Berlin mission of Pniel, on the Vaal River from about 1884-1890. In 1894 he went to Kimbereley and worked as a postman, and studied privately, obtaining his Cape civil service certificate in 7 months. Being fluent in 8 languages, and with a working knowledge of several more, he then went on to work as a court interpreter and magistrate’s clerk. In 1898 he married Elizabeth M’belle, an Mfengu school teacher and they had 2 girls and 3 boys.

Political and literary work, other writings and travels

With his language facility, Plaatje interpreted for several high-ranking British officers over the siege of Mafeking in the South African War and afterwards. Plaatjie kept a diary during this period that can be seen symbolically as the beginnings of a black South African literature in the twentieth century. It is the writing of a man with a late nineteenth century British education, wrestling with the colonial power. During this period he served as war correspondent and later became a pioneer in black journalism, editing two independent newspapers, and encouraging numerous cultural activities. In 1902, after eliciting funding from Chief Silas Molema of Mafeking he founded the Tswana-English newspaper, ‘Koranta ea Bechuana’ (The newspaper of the Tswana) which he edited until his move to Kimberley in 1910. There he continued the paper and in 1912 became the first secretary-general of the African National Congress, recently initiated by the Rev. John Dube. His paper was renamed ‘Tsala ea Batho’ (Friend of the People) in 1913, struggled to stay open, and ceased publication in 1915.

A staunch opponent of the Botha government’s 1913 Native Land Act (which drastically curtailed black land ownership) Plaatje formed part of a protest deputation of 5 to Britain, hoping vainly to induce a veto from a British government preoccupied with imminent war. He remained in England for the duration of the First World War, producing several books. The first, ‘Native Life in South Africa: Before and since the European war and the Boer rebellion’ (1916), covered his reason for having traveled to England. Also that year he published two books on his home language: ‘Sechana proverbs with literal translations and their European equivalents/ Diane tsa Secoana le maele a sekgooa a a Dumalanang naco’ (1916) and with Daniel Jones of London University, ‘A Sechuana reader: an international orthography with English translations’.

1919 saw him back in Britain in a second deputation to challenge the same Act, this time at the Versailles Peace Conference. This too was unsuccessful. He then traveled to Canada and the United States of America where he wrote and published ‘The mote and the Beam: An epic of sex-relationship ‘twixt white and black in British South Africa’ (1921).

On his return c.1921 he founded the Brotherhood society, which concerned itself with the promotion of racial harmony. He was later to join Dr. A. Abdurahman’s African Peoples Organization and to represent the African National Congress at their 1927 Pretoria conference. Traveling to the Congo to see working conditions, he returned convinced that despite racial and rights oppression, South African black people were better off than Africans to the north. In appreciation for his role in the improvement of their lives, black people used a subscription system to buy a freehold site for Sol in Kimberley.

Besides editing and writing much for English, Afrikaans, Setswana, Xhosa and Sotho newspapers, he produced political works, and his first novel in English, ‘Mhudi: An epic of South African native life a hundred years ago’ (1930), which was written over 1919-1920 and published at Lovedale. Also, he addressed the social issues of alcohol prohibition and the oppression of black workers on the diamond fields. In his career from 1900 to 1930 can be detected a typically black response to changing social and political events.

Diposho-posho was published in 1930. He wrote ‘Mabolelo a ga Tsikinya-Chaka: The sayings of William Shakespeare’ in 1935, and made several translations of Shakespeare plays into Setswana: ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ published posthumously in 1937. His other two Shakespeare translations, and ‘Monkey Voodoo” were not published.

He died in Pimville, Johannesburg on 19 June 1932, during a visit there, and was buried in Kimberley. He was a quiet, cultured man whose kindness and thirst for racial and economic justice in his country drove much of his work.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH