Brian Willan, Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876–1932 (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2018)

MAGISTERIAL is an apt description of this massive biography – for its depth of research, breadth of context and precision of writing. ‘South Africa had (and has) an extraordinary capacity to distort its past,’ writes Brian Willan. He has done an enormous amount to put one very significant life into clear perspective.

Sol Plaatje was an important figure for a multitude of reasons. Three stand out in particular. First was his ability to thrive in overlapping but distinct South African worlds at the beginning of the twentieth century: as Morolong/Motswana in the society of his ancestors; as a leading member of African urban society shedding its tribal strictures; and moving among and exercising considerable influence with the white ruling class, Briton and Boer. This was the late Victorian ‘optimistic world of improvement and advancement’, hard for a black person to navigate but not without opportunity. Second, he did this with enormous confidence and finesse employing multilingual skills as speaker, interpreter and writer in pursuit of many causes. He rarely seems to have entertained any course of action that had just one aim; an accomplished multi-tasker. Above all, he was ‘reasoned, eloquent and distinctive’.

Third, and most important, he retained throughout his life an unshaken belief in the Cape franchise and equality for all (he was an early advocate of women’s rights) before the law. It was his tragedy that youthful hopes and expectations were to be systematically destroyed from 1910 onwards by legislation and custom that culminated in the 1936 Land Act although, perhaps thankfully, he did not live to see the final betrayal that abolished the qualified African vote in the Cape. Plaatje believed the law should apply to everyone in a colour blind judicial system that underpinned political rights.

A man of many parts, he was a linguist, translator, journalist, writer and novelist, and political activist and lobbyist. Plaatje was fluent in written and spoken Setswana, Sesotho, English and Dutch, could speak Xhosa and German well, and had a working knowledge of Zulu, Korana and Herero. Confidence and independence of mind were shown by recourse to the law to defend his interests at an early age. He was remembered for his warmth and humour, but was sensitive regarding his rights and abilities.

His stature was evident at his funeral and the unveiling of his memorial stone in 1935, multiracial events of note. His wife Elizabeth M’Belle was Mfengu, sister of the prominent Kimberley figure Isaiah Bud M’Belle, and they had to overcome family prejudice at this inter-tribal union in 1898. It was another example of Plaatje’s balanced view of society, for he remained keenly aware all his life of his own identity and fought assiduously in the interests of the Barolong and Batswana, especially the integrity of the chiefdom, in both South Africa and the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

Plaatje’s antecedents were prosperous pastoralists and he was brought up at the Berlin Mission Society’s Pniel station. The cultural synthesis he imbibed included the importance of inner strength and character. These were evident in Plaatje even in his first job in Kimberley as a post office worker. In the 1890s Kimberley was possibly the most integrated town in South Africa in terms of public functions and facilities and Plaatje mixed with Xhosa migrants in the debates and musical events of the Improvement Society. From there he moved on, helped by the patronage of Chief Silas Molema, to a post in Mafeking as court interpreter, where he formed a very successful working relationship with Magistrate Charles Bell, who regarded him (in a world short on superlatives) as steady and diligent. The power and responsibility of interpreter was considerable: on one occasion he dealt with a legal case involving German and Korana.

During the 217-day siege of Mafeking, Plaatje kept a diary that came to light only in the 1970s. This and the surviving hundred reports showed that he was a despatcher and debriefer of spies and at the centre of an intelligence network, further evidence that this was far from just a white man’s war although the black contribution was soon discounted. He also assisted a number of journalists during the siege; and afterwards worked as interpreter with compensation claims and at a number of treason trials.

In all he spent eight years in the Cape Civil Service but as early as 1901 was involved with Koranta ea Becoana, which began as a supplement to the Mafeking Mail, and the following year he was editor. It was one of only four black newspapers at the time. A highly professional publication dedicated to progress and enlightenment, it was a vehicle for Plaatje’s credo of Victorian liberalism and his lobbying efforts on behalf of the Barolong. However, it suffered constant financial difficulty, battered by a stream of summonses. Nevertheless, Plaatje’s editorial and lobbying skills were impressive enough to make him a possible Unionist candidate for Mafeking in the 1907 Cape election. Plaatje was later to edit Tsala ea Becoana and become proprietor of Tsala ea Batho, but his life in these roles was enduringly precarious. The editorship of Umteteli wa Bantu could have been his, but the paper was controlled by the Chamber of Mines. After his final return to South Africa in 1924, he earned a living as a productive journalist writing for a number of titles.

The Natives Land Act (1913) turned Plaatje’s world upside down, an ‘existential threat to his fundamental beliefs’. It was the product of the common interests of mine owners, farmers and Afrikaner nationalists and the rise of racial chauvinism; a dire threat to the Cape liberalism Plaatje held in such high esteem. As a result of his travels in rural areas and chronicling of black immiseration, Plaatje called the Land Act a ‘monstrous crime’ and the outcome was his well-known polemic and appeal to humanity, Native Life in South Africa, written and published in Britain and dedicated to Harriette Colenso. It made an impression even on Prime Minister Louis Botha, but failed like Plaatje’s other efforts to prevent the inexorable march of discriminatory legislation between the world wars. The alliance that underlay the Land Act in part foreshadowed the Pact government of 1924, which ironically took office shortly after Plaatje had been granted an interview by Prime Minister Jan Smuts. White labour and Afrikaner nationalism would together bury Cape liberalism as a national political and moral force.

Although a founder member (corresponding secretary) of the South Africa Native National Congress in 1912, Plaatje played a relatively low-key role intermingled with many other involvements and would later turn down the presidency. His was a world of deputations and attempted persuasion based on reason, logic and faith in unshakeable principles although the opportunity to influence opinion would decline steadily with the rise in white racial prejudice backed by discriminatory legislation. Twice he left home for Britain in the ANC deputations of 1914 and 1919; twice he was let down financially by the ANC. On the first occasion he was marooned by the outbreak of the Great War and lack of funds. On the second he departed hopeful of raising money for the Brotherhood movement in South Africa and then managed to get to the United States. There is no doubt he worked tirelessly under great stress during his overseas sojourns for the cause of African rights in South Africa. From 1914 to 1917 he addressed 305 meetings and these made considerable impact, although with no material effect except increased goodwill among the converted. Naturally he seized opportunities to pursue his literary ambitions. But there is also a sense, shared by some of his friends and supporters and recorded by Willan, that he enjoyed himself a little too much while his family suffered at home. Like many black colonial subjects he was lionised by liberal sympathisers, in his case the Colenso family among others. On his return in 1919 he was able to meet David Lloyd George, who reacted favourably to Plaatje.

Like John Dube before him, and later Albert Luthuli, Plaatje was very impressed and influenced by the United States. Given its levels of segregation this is a measure of the repressive climate of South Africa. As a result of South African meddling he was in fact refused an American visa, but showed his resourcefulness by getting to Canada and acquiring an entry permit in Toronto. The South African government might well have been alarmed: Plaatje experienced Harlem at the height of Garveyism and shared a platform with Marcus Garvey at Liberty Hall. But the favourable impression he made had no lasting impact beyond ephemeral goodwill: black Americans had problems enough of their own.

There is a lingering melancholy about these overseas trips, doomed to political failure from the start and laden with personal sacrifice. On his return home in 1923 Plaatje found his family virtually destitute. He had brought with him a number of American films with uplifting messages and for a while became a bioscope impresario travelling the country hawking them to small and often unimpressed audiences. In the process he continued his role as acute observer of rural conditions. In 1927 he also became, as a lifelong teetotaller, an advocate for the International Order of True Templars from which he drew an income. Given the times and his fundamental beliefs, his advocacy of moral regeneration was not illogical.

Plaatje spent the last few years of his life as a journalist and writer, especially after passage of the Native Administration Act of 1927, another nail in the coffin of his political credo. Plaatje had participated in the final Native Conference that rejected the Hertzog Bills. Legislation would put paid to even his very conservative vision of a common society. Journalism aside, Plaatje had always seized every opportunity to write, especially on long sea journeys, and priority in the final years of his life was to assist the preservation of Setswana, one of the first southern African languages committed to writing, which had recently languished. Perhaps his greatest achievements were translations of Shakespeare plays: Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar were both published, the second posthumously. He did not simply translate, but used idiomatic language and adapted plots, which was not widely welcomed. He was also a collector of folktales and proverbs. And in another major accomplishment he published Mhudi, the first full-length novel by a black South African writer (based in the nineteenth-century conflict between Tswana and Matabele), which was published in 1930. Other unpublished fragments survive, including a second novel set among the Bhaca. Unsurprisingly, his literary life was much frustrated, not least by financial issues, but vindicated by resurrection of his work from the 1960s onwards.

Another battle was over Setswana orthography. Nineteenth-century missionaries had provided no fewer than four and Plaatje had employed further adaptations in his newspapers. During his first visit to Britain he had worked with Daniel Jones at University College London on phonetics and Plaatje was inclined to favour this approach. By the 1930s arguments had become ‘vitriolic’ with the addition of white officials to the debate in the context of the new vogue for Bantu studies and a preference for indirect rule. Plaatje understandably argued that the Tswana were best placed to determine the future of their language and was bitterly opposed to the employment of diacritics and use of ‘ts’ in preference to ‘c’ (thus Becoana). Typically, he was excluded from the official debate.

Like many accomplished people he felt let down by his offspring, in particular his sons, who did not share his temperance convictions and were unable to live up to his near exemplary record as public servant. But this was not entirely their own fault as Plaatje for years was largely absent from their lives. His wife Elizabeth had a record of public service of her own, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that she was effectively abandoned for long periods to bear an enormous weight of responsibility, not least for Plaatje’s interminable debt – a consequence of his ambitions and the tenor of the times.

Plaatje’s style was not one of rhetorical flourish and grand gestures, which makes him hard to accommodate within the ANC’s narrative of itself today – a statue of him in militant pose is stored away in Kimberley after family and other objections. Nowadays, he would no doubt be denounced by some as coconut or agent.

Contemplating his relatively short life (he died in 1932 aged 56 from double pneumonia and heart failure inherited from the 1919 influenza epidemic and exacerbated by overwork) and the measured but uncompromising way he assessed people and issues, it is possible to see in him early and distinct promise of black consciousness. Willan stresses, naturally, that Plaatje has to be regarded as a man of his era. There were few significant events in his lifetime in which he was not involved, although in a sense most of his activities seem fruitless. Yet he kept hope alive and was vindicated by the final Constitution adopted by a liberated South Africa in 1996. He is undoubtedly not a man of our time. But his measured, principled, uncompromising and selfless approach to his times certainly makes him one for ours.