Sol T. Plaatje Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sol T. Plaatje 1876-1932

(Full name Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje) South African novelist, diarist, linguist, translator, newspaper editor, journalist, and political activist.

Plaatje was a multitalented man of letters and a political activist, who, inspired by a profound love for his Black South African people, worked tirelessly to promote their civil rights and to preserve their cultural heritage during the early years of white political supremacy in South Africa. Often noted for his numerous contributions to government reform, he is also remembered as the author of works of fiction and nonfiction that express his political and cultural ideals.

Biographical Information

Plaatje was born in the Orange Free State, one of several sections of South Africa often the object of dispute among white European ruling classes. Although originally populated by native Black tribes, it was claimed at various times by both the Boers, descendants of early Dutch settlers, and the British. Plaatje's family was descended from native converts to Christianity who spoke Tswana (also spelled Sechuana), a form of the African Bantu language, and Plaatje received his early education at a Christian missionary school, where he demonstrated a remarkable gift for both African and European languages. Plaatje left the school at seventeen to become a postal messenger in the nearby town of Kimberley, a city in the British-ruled Cape Province. Here he continued to develop his language skills by learning English. In 1898 he became a court interpreter for the Cape civil service in Mafeking. It was during this time that the Boers of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, angered by British interference in their political affairs, declared war on Britain, and lay siege to a number of Cape cities, including Mafeking. Plaatje served as interpreter and signal man for the British Army during the siege, and kept a personal diary—written in English—of his experiences. While several diaries by whites documenting the siege appeared in subsequent years, Plaatje's rare account remained unpublished until its discovery in Mafeking in the 1970s. After the Anglo-Boer War, Plaatje embarked on a newspaper career as editor of a Tswana-English newspaper, Koranta ea Becoana (The Tswana Gazette). During the next ten years, he became an increasingly articulate defender of native African rights in the face of segregationist constitutional policies implemented after British victory in the war. He was eventually recognized as one of the foremost newspaper editors in the country.

In 1914 Plaatje was appointed secretary general of the organization he helped to found, the African National Congress, designed to promote Black equality. Together with other representatives from the Congress, he traveled to England to persuade the British government to repeal the Natives' Land Act of 1913, a law that seriously restricted Black African land rights. Meeting with little success, Plaatje's delegation returned to South Africa. Plaatje himself remained in England, where he wrote and published three books in support of his people and culture: Native Life in South Africa (1916), a denunciation of the Land Act and past efforts by South Africa's white rulers to exclude Blacks from political power; A Sechuana Reader (1916), an attempt to preserve the sounds of the Tswana language by using the phonetic alphabet; and Sechuana Proverbs (1916), a collection of Tswana proverbs in English. Plaatje returned to Africa in 1917. Although he made further trips to both Great Britain and the United States in defense of Black South African rights, these were largely unsuccessful. In 1923 Plaatje settled permanently in South Africa.

Although attempts to resume his career as a newspaper editor failed and his political influence waned, Plaatje continued to write for newspapers read by both Blacks and whites. During the final years of his life, Plaatje concentrated on works that would preserve Tswana language and culture. An English-Tswana dictionary, a collection of Tswana folktales and praise poems, and a new edition of Sechuana Proverbs were never published. Two translations of Shakespeare's plays into Tswana, Diphosho-phosho (1930; A Comedy of Errors) and Dintshontsho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara (1937; Julius Caesar), were the first translations of Shakespeare into African and received critical acclaim for their exceptional facility of language. Plaatje's novel Mhudi, written in England in 1919-1920, and detailing in English the history of several African tribes in the 1830s, was published in 1930. At the time of his death, another African historical saga written in English was left unfinished.

Major Works

Plaatje's love of his people and their language and heritage, his desire for Black equality, and his hatred of racism are themes reflected in his most important works. The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje (1973) exhibits his interest in and knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of African, English, and other European languages, and describes the role of Black Africans in the defense of Mafeking, a subject often overlooked by white writers. Native Life in South Africa, his plea to the British government for African rights, emotionally depicts the broken lives of Black farmers in the Orange Free State after the Land Act of 1913 abolished their rights to the crops they grew on white men's farms. Plaatje's novel Mhudi, set in an early period of South African history, also reflects his major thematic concerns. During the clash of several warring tribes and the onslaught of white Boer rule the heroine, Mhudi, and her lover Ra-Thaga, members of the same tribe, meet, undergo displacement and deprivation, and marry. Critics point out that through the character of Mhudi, Plaatje describes his belief in the healing effect women exercise on race relations; another relationship in the novel, the friendship achieved between a native African and a Boer, has a similar significance. As critics note, Plaatje suggests in the novel that a solution to the evils of prejudice between Blacks and whites begins with a rejection of racism on a personal level.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, critical reception of Plaatje's fiction and nonfiction was limited, for the most part, to a recognition of his achievement as the first Black South African writer to express himself in English. Appreciation for his works has steadily grown, however, especially since the first publication of his Boer War Diary in 1973 and the appearance of a new edition of Mhudi in 1978. Critics have noted in particular the historical significance of Plaatje's Diary and its eclectic use of languages. They have also praised his use of Western novelistic techniques and African oral tradition in Mhudi, a mixture often employed by later African novelists. As Brian P. Willan comments in his 1984 biography of the writer, Plaatje "drew inspiration from both African and European traditions, and was sustained throughout a life of ceaseless endeavour by a vision of what South Africa could be, given only the freedom to draw upon what he saw as the best of those traditions, created from South Africa's unique historical experience." Plaatje's works are now considered central to the development of Black South African literature.