Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje

views updated

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1878-1932) was a South African writer whose historical novel Mhudi depicts the attempts of an African tribe and a group of Boers to attain their freedom.

Sol T. Plaatje was born into a family of Tswana origin in Southern Transvaal (South Africa). He was educated at a Lutheran mission school. Because of his uncommon knowledge of several European and African languages, he served as interpreter in several South African courts. When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899, he enlisted in the British army. After the war he became a frequent contributor to English newspapers in Cape Town and Kimberley. In 1901 he founded the first Tswana newspaper, the Kimberley Korante oa Bechoana, which he edited until 1908.

When the South African Natives National Congress was founded in 1912 in the hope of defending the rights of the black population, which were threatened by the racialist policy of the Afrikaners, Plaatje was elected its first secretary general. And when the Botha government introduced the Native Land Bill, which aimed at depriving the blacks of much of their landed property, Plaatje traveled through the Orange Free State, gathering evidence about the hardships suffered by the Africans. In 1914 he was a member of the Congress delegation which vainly sought protection from the London government.

While the deputation returned to Africa empty-handed, Plaatje stayed in Britain, where he worked as a journalist. He published Native Life in South Africa (1915), Sechuana Proverbs and Their English Equivalents (1916), and, with the help of Daniel Jones, a Sechuana Phonetic Reader (1916). Presumably also at that time he started writing Mhudi, the first novel composed in English by a black South African.

After the war Plaatje attended the Pan-African Congress organized in Paris by W. E. B. Du Bois and subsequently made a lecture tour in Canada and the United States. Back in South Africa in the early 1920s, Plaatje withdrew from active politics, as did several other African leaders, driven to despair by their sense of importance; yet he continued to help his people as a journalist, a social worker, and an educator. In 1916 he had contributed an essay to Sir Israel Gollancz's Book of Homage to Shakespeare. Later, Plaatje translated two of Shakespeare's plays into Tswana: The Comedy of Errors (1930) and Julius Caesar (1937).

In 1930 Mhudi, which had been rejected by several publishers, was printed in Lovedale. It is a historical novel of remarkable objectivity and serenity which deals simultaneously with the fratricidal fighting among Bantutribes in the 1830s and with the Great Trek of the Boers fleeing northward to shed British supremacy in the same period. That Plaatje named his book after the heroine of the story suggests that part of his concern was to counteract current European misconceptions about the Africans' alleged contempt for and ill treatment of women. But his basic purpose was to point out, in a skillful, unobtrusive way, the similarity in situation and aspiration between the Barolong tribe, who were trying to free themselves from the yoke of the Amandebele, and the white Boers, who were bent on evading British rule. Plaatje died on June 19, 1932.

Further Reading

For general literary background see R. H. W. Shepherd, Bantu Literature and Life (Lovedale, South Africa, 1955); Claude Wauthier, The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa: A Survey (1964; trans. 1966); and Janheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature: A History of Black Writing (1966; trans. 1968).

Additional Sources

Willan, Brian, Sol Plaatje: a biography, Johannesburg: Ravan, 1984.

Willan, Brian, Sol Plaatje, South African nationalist, 1876-1932, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. □