Sol T. Plaatje Essay - Critical Essays

Plaatje, Sol T.


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 While several diaries by whites documenting the siege appeared in subsequent years, Plaatje's rare account remained unpublished until its discovery in Mafeking in the 1970s.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.

Principal Works

Native Life in South Africa (nonfiction) 1916; revised edition, 1983

Sechuana Proverbs, with Literal Translations and Their European Equivalents (proverbs) 1916

A Sechuana Reader, in International Phonetic Orthography [with Daniel Jones] (dictionary and folklore) 1916

The Mote and the Beam (nonfiction) 1920

Diphosho-phosho [translator; from the drama A Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare] (drama) 1930

*Mhudi: An Epic of Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (novel) 1930; revised edition, 1978

Mabolela a ga Tshikinya-Chaka [translator; extracts from the works of William Shakespeare] (extracts) 1935

Dintshontsho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara [translator; from the drama Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare] (drama) 1937

**The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje (diary) 1973; also published in revised form as Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War, 1990

*This work was originally written in 1919-1920.

**This work was originally written in October 1899-March 1900.


Sol T. Plaatje (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: A preface to Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago, Negro Universities Press, 1970, n.p.

[In the following preface to Mhudi, Plaatje explains his reasons for writing the novel.]

South African literature has hitherto been almost exclusively European, so that a foreword seems necessary to give reasons for a Native venture.

In all the tales of battle I have ever read, or heard of, the cause of the war is invariably ascribed to the other side.

Similarly, we have been taught almost from childhood, to fear the Matebele—a fierce nation—so unreasoning in its ferocity that it will attack any...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Tim Couzens (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Sol Plaatje's 'Mhudi'," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 1, June, 1973, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Couzens contends that most early reviews of Mhudi failed to consider the socio-cultural background of the work.]

One of the first novels written in English by an African, Mhudi, which was published in 1930 but probably largely written about 1917 or 1918, has not been considered worthy of major critical attention. In 1952, J. Snyman could dismiss the book fairly quickly and attack Plaatje for a lack of imagination:

In Mhudi (1930), Plaatje deals with the times...

(The entire section is 8083 words.)

Brian Willan (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "'Mhudi'," in Sol Plaatje: South African Nationalist, 1876-1932, Heinemann, 1984, pp. 349-71.

[In the following essay, Willan offers an analysis of Mhudi.]

'After ten years of disappointment,' Plaatje informed his old friend, Georgiana Solomon, in May 1930, 'I have at length succeeded in printing my book. Lovedale is publishing it. I am expecting the proofs any day this week.' The book to which Plaatje referred was Mhudi, the title of the manuscript he had completed in London in 1920, and somewhat modestly described at the time as 'a love story after the manner of romances … but based on historical facts'.

The Lovedale Press...

(The entire section is 12361 words.)

Further Reading


Furlong, Patrick. Review óf Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War. The International Journal of African Historical Studies 23, No. 4 (1990): 733-5.

Review of the 1990 edition of Plaatje's Boer War diary that discusses its subject matter, style, and unusual blend of African and English languages.

Mphahlele, Ezekiel. The African Image. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1962, 240 p.

Contains a brief plot summary of Mhudi, as well as commentary on character, theme, and elements of Bantu oral literature in the novel.

"Life in Mafeking." Times Literary Supplement (30 November...

(The entire section is 128 words.)