Sol Plaatje, South African nationalist, 1876-1932
Kevin Shillington reviews.
Sol Plaatje: South African Nationalist, 1876-1932
by Brian Willan, 436 pp, (Heinemann Educational Books, £8.95)
It is all too seldom that one has the pleasure of reading a first-rate, powerful African biography. In Sol Plaatje , Brian Willan has provided us with just such an opportunity. If readers of this journal are unfamiliar with the name Sol Plaatje (pronounced Plaakie), they need not feel alone. As the author points out in his preface, even in Plaatje's native South Africa 'the vast majority... have never even heard of his name'. That this should be so is perhaps a reflection upon South African society, past and present. In his day Plaatje was recognised, in the words of Reuters correspondent Vere Stent, as 'one of the greatest of the sons of South Africa'. In the brief space available here one can only hint at the vast range of Plaatje's achievements.
Having squeezed the maximum out of his brief formal mission education, Plaatje rose from the ranks of a telegraph messenger in the diamond city of Kimberley in the 1980s. He lived through the Anglo- Boer War's siege of Mafeking (1899-1900) as a court interpreter and like many of his white contemporaries he kept a diary, in English – a unique record of an African viewpoint of this famous siege. After the war Plaatje was to edit a succession of three 'native' newspapers. Through his editorials he was instrumental in drawing people away from tribal disunity and bringing about a sense of African unity and national consciousness. Having established his reputation as a dedicated and articulate national figure, Plaatje became founding General Secretary of the African National Congress formed in 1912 to express African opposition to the increasingly segregationist legislation of the then Union Government. In 1913 that Government passed the Natives' Land Act which was to become one of the legal cornerstones of the present South African state system.
After exhausting all limited constitutional means open to them in South Africa, Plaatje and a handful of delegates took their case to the British Government and people in 1914 and again in 1919-20, The first campaign was fobbed off by the Colonial Office and the flagging momentum of their public appeal collapsed with the outbreak of war in August 1914. But in 1919, against considerable official opposition, Plaatje's delegation achieved a remarkable degree of success in the form of an extensive interview with the British Prime Minister. On that occasion Plaatje's personal appeal to Lloyd-George was so effective that the Liberal statesman wrote to the South African Prime Minister, General Smuts: 'The contrast between the case made by these black men and by the [Afrikaner Nationalist] Deputation headed by General Hertzog was very striking'. Tragically for Plaatje and the cause he represented, the British Government was not prepared to interfere directly in the independent decisions of its dominion's all-white parliament.
In his many hundreds of public appearances in Britain and North America as well as South Africa, Plaatje had the knack of captivating a whole range of audiences with his sincerity, command of language and sense of humour. He dispIayed a considerable literary talent. He published a powerful 350-page defence of his people's cause in Native Life in South Africa in 1916, He wrote the first African novel in English, translated several works of Shakespeare into his native Setswana and did much besides to promote Tswana literature and preserve his Tswana cultural heritage.
Copiously illustrated with over a hundred photographs, the book is the fruit of many years of extensive and scholarly research. Willan's easy style captures the humour, character and determined spirit of the man who was to leave a lasting impression upon all who came to know him. It is a moving and at times exciting story. It provides a window onto a crucial and dramatic period in South Africa's history.
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