University of Botswana History Department
Electronic texts

Sol Plaatje,
Native Life in South Africa

Introduction by Neil Parsons

Contents page

Introduction etc. | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Appendices etc.

History Home Page  |  Site Index  |  Electronic texts index  |  To end of document

Introduction, by Neil Parsons

Native Life in South Africa is one of the most remarkable books on Africa, by one of the continent's most remarkable writers. It was written as a work of impassioned political propaganda, exposing the plight of black South Africans under the whites-only government of newly unified South Africa. It focuses on the effects of the 1913 Natives' Land Act which introduced a uniform system of land segregation between the races. It resulted, as Plaatje shows, in the immediate expulsion of blacks, as "squatters", from their ancestral lands in the Orange Free State now declared "white". But Native Life succeeds in being much more than a work of propaganda. It is a vital social document which captures the spirit of an age and shows the effects of rural segregation on the everyday life of people.

Solomon Tshekeisho Plaatje was born in 1878 in the lands of the Tswana-speaking people, south of Mafeking. His origins were ordinary enough. What was remarkable was the aptitude he showed for education and learning after a few years schooling under the tuition of a remarkable liberal German Lutheran missionary, the Rev. Ludorf. At the age of sixteen Plaatje (using the Dutch nickname of his grandfather as a surname) joined the Post Office as a mail-carrier in Kimberley, the diamond city in the north of Cape Colony. He subsequently passed the highest clerical examination in the colony, beating every white candidate in both Dutch and typing.

From Kimberley the young Plaatje went on to Mafeking, where he was one of the key players in the great siege of 1899-1900. As magistrate's interpreter he was the vital link between the British civil authorities and the African majority beleaguered inside the town's military perimeter. Plaatje's diaries from this period, published long after his death, are a remarkable record both of the siege and of his early prose experimentation -- mixing languages and idioms, and full of bright humour.

After the war Plaatje became a journalist, editor first of one Tswana language newspaper at Mafeking and then of another at Kimberley. Like other educated Africans he came out of the war optimistic that the British would enfranchise all educated and propertied males in the defeated Boer colonies (Transvaal and Orange Free State) without regard to race. But in this he, and the others, were soon sorely disappointed. The British gave a whites-only franchise to the defeated Boers and thus conceded power to a Boer or white Afrikaner parliamentary majority in the 1910 Union of South Africa which brought together the two Boer colonies with Cape Colony and Natal. Clinging to the old but diminished "colour blind" franchise of the Cape, Plaatje remained one of the few Africans in South Africa with a parliamentary vote.

Plaatje's aggravation with the British government can be seen in an unpublished manuscript of 1908-09 titled "Sekgoma -- the Black Dreyfus". In this booklet he castigated the British for denying legal rights (specifically habeas corpus) to their African subjects outside the Cape Colony.

Plaatje became politically active in the "native congress" movement which represented the interests of educated and propertied Africans all over South Africa. He was the first secretary-general of the "South African Native National Congress", founded in 1912 (which renamed itself as the African National Congress or ANC ten years later).

The first piece of major legislation presented to the whites-only parliament of South Africa was the Natives' Land Act, eventually passed in 1913, which was designed to entrench white power and property rights in the countryside -- as well as to solve the "native problem" of African peasant farmers working for themselves and denying their labour power to white employers.

The main battle ground for the implementation of the new legislation was the Orange Free State. White farmers took the cue from the Land Act to begin expelling black peasants from their land as "squatters", while the police began to rigorously enforce the pass-laws which registered the employment of Africans and prescribed their residence and movement rights.

The Free State became the cockpit of resistance by the newly formed SANNC. Its womens' league demonstrated against pass law enforcement in Free State towns. Its national executive sent a delegation to England, icluding Plaatje, who set sail in mid-1914. The British crown retained ultimate rights of sovereignty over the parliament and government of South Africa, with an as yet unexercised power of veto over South African legislation in the area of "native affairs".

The delegation received short shrift from the government in London which was, after all, more than preoccupied with the coming of the Great War -- in which it feared for the loyalty of the recently defeated Afrikaners and wished in no way to offend them. But, rather than return empty-handed like the rest of the SANNC delegation, Plaatje decided to stay in England to carry on the fight. He was determined to recuit, through writing and lecturing, the liberal and humanitarian establishment to his side -- so that it in turn might pressure the British government.

Thus it was that Plaatje resumed work on a manuscript he had begun on the ship to England. Native Life in South Africa. The book was published in 1916 by P. S. King in London. It was dedicated to Harriette Colenso, doughty woman camnpaigner who had inherited from her father, Bishop Colenso, the mantle of advocate to the British establishment of the rights of the Zulu nation in South Africa.

While in England Plaatje pursued his interests in language and linguistics by collaborating with Professor Daniel Jones of the University of London -- inventor of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and prototype for Professor Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion and thus the musical My Fair Lady. In the same year as Native Life was published, 1916, Plaatje published two other shorter books which brought together the European languages (English, Dutch and German) he loved with the Tswana language. "Sechuana Proverbs" was a listing of Tswana proverbs with their European equivalents. A Sechuana Reader was co-authored with Jones, using the IPA for Tswana orthography.

Plaatje returned to South Africa but went once again to England after the war's end, to lead a second SANNC delegation keen to make its mark on the peace negotiations in 1919. This time Plaatje managed to get as far as the prime minister, Lloyd George, "the Welsh wizard". Lloyd George was duly impressed with Plaatje and undertook to present his case to General Jan Smuts in the South African government, a supposedly liberal fellow-traveller. But Smuts, whose notions of liberalism were patronizingly segregationist, fobbed off Lloyd George with an ingenuous reply.

Disillusioned with the flabby friendship of British liberals, Plaatje was increasingly drawn to the pan-Africanism of W. E. B. Du Bois, president of the NAACP in the United States. In 1921 Plaatje sailed for the United States on a lecture tour that took him through half the country. He paid his own way by publishing and selling 18,000 copies of a booklet titled The Mote and the Beam: an Epic on Sex-Relationship 'twixt Black and White in British South Africa at 25 cents each. In the following year, after Plaatje had left, this new edition of "Native Life in South Africa" was published, by the NAACP newspaper The Crisis edited by Du Bois.

Plaatje returned home to Kimberley to find the SANNC a spent force, despite its name change to ANC, overtaken by more radical forces. At a time when white power was pushing ahead with an ever more intense segregationist programme, based on anti-black legislation, Plaatje became a lone voice for old black liberalism. He turned from politics and devoted the rest of his life to literature. His passion for Shakespeare resulted in mellifluous Tswana translations of five plays from Comedy of Errors to Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. His passion for the history of his people, and of his family in particular, resulted in a historical novel, Mhudi (An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago), dedicated to his daughter Olive who had died in the influenza epidemic while Plaatje was overseas -- described in the dedication as "one of the many victims of a settled system".

Mhudi was published by the missionary press at Lovedale in 1930, in a somewhat bowdlerized version. It has since been republished in more pristine form and is today considered not just the first but one of the very best novels published by a black South African writer in English.

Plaatje lived an extraordinary life but died a largely disappointed man. His feats of political journalism had been largely forgotten and his creative talents had hardly yet been recognised -- except in the confined world of Tswana language readership. But today Plaatje is regarded as a South African literary pioneer, as a not insignificant political actor in his time, and as a cogent commentator on his times. He was an explorer in a fascinating world of cultural and linguistic interaction, who was in retrospect truly a "renaissance man".

Related Reading:

Sol T. Plaatje (ed. John Comaroff with Brian Willan & Andrew Reed), Mafeking Diary: a Black Man's View of a White Man's War, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press & Cambridge Meridor Press, 1990. (1st edn. London: Macmillan, 1973, publ. as The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje).

Sol. T. Plaatje (ed. Tim Couzens), Mhudi, Cape Town: Francolin, 1996; definitive edition.

Brian Willan, Sol Plaatje: South African Nationalist, 1876-1932, London: Heinemann, 1984.

Brian Willan (ed. & comp.), Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1996.

Back to top

Chapter 1

Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
This document may be reproduced freely, in electronic form or otherwise, provided that