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Sol Plaatje in Kimberley

Sol Plaatje in Kimberley

Brian Willan’s new biography

Kimberley, a town in the heart of South Africa, is patently unremarkable in many ways. It doesn’t have the mad hustle of Johannesburg, nor the guilty charm of Cape Town. The neighboring Bloemfontein – equally drear – can claim a pulsating vein of Afrikanerdom running through it. Kimberley, in contrast, is no one’s favorite. It is a town which history has preserved for itself. A mounted statue of Cecil John Rhodes, in the middle of town, supposedly gazing northwards towards the rest of Africa with the continent’s map resting on his lap, would generate repulsion elsewhere; but in the town where Rhodes made his fortune, one might detect a gleam of nostalgia.

The grubby feel may let you forget that this was one of the first modern towns in southern Africa. De Beers, the mining conglomerate, was established in this town named after a British Secretary of State for Colonies. It housed the first stock exchange in the region, and was second only to Philadelphia in the world in installing electric street lights. The town perhaps produced more diamonds for the British Empire than any other; nearly 15 million diamonds were excavated from the ‘Big Hole’ – the largest of Kimberley mines – before it was closed in 1914. However, as the regional economic nerve-centre moved from Kimberley to Johannesburg in the early twentieth century, Kimberley remained in a state of arrested development.

History, as is often the case, misremembers. It confuses grandeur with relevance. About a kilometer away from the 72-ton Rhodes Statue is a small house that belonged to a man who is far more relevant for South Africa’s present: Sol Plaatje. Indeed, the town municipality and the local university are now both named after him.

Like almost any other field of academic inquiry in South Africa, the country’s history – both its narratives and the narrators – has been demonstrably white. Post-apartheid narratives have their own challenges and blind-spots. Plaatje’s life has been a casualty of both, albeit not to the same degree. Mostly forgotten during apartheid, his return to official memory in post-apartheid South Africa has been as an Amandla-fisted struggle veteran. In 2009, the ANC-run provincial administration in Kimberley wanted to unveil a Plaatje statue with his arm held aloft and with fist clenched. Plaatje’s family protested against this representation, pointing out that this pose only became popular many years after Plaatje’s passing. The worry that Plaatje’s life is being reduced to his association with the ANC – he was its founding corresponding secretary – does little to capture the many hats Plaatje wore. His contributions to scholarship, journalism, literature, activism, and the preservation of the Setswana language are not in any way less than his political life – a point that is reinforced in the recent publication of a painstakingly thorough and immensely enjoyable new biography of Plaatje by Brian Willan.

Willan is not new to Plaatje. He wrote a shorter biography of Plaatje more than three decades ago, and has also edited Plaatje’s classic Native Life in South Africa. The new biography, however, is the most comprehensive work on the life of this South African giant. Willan infuses life into dry biographical details, conveying the vitality of the social life of the emerging African elite in Kimberley in the late 1890s, and their attempts to hold on to the immensely flawed but demonstrably better Cape political system which accorded at least the semblance of equality to Africans through a right to vote and equality before law, before the South African Union was seized at the altar of segregation in 1910.

Plaatje’s struggles were overwhelming but his spirit remained undaunted. His two newspapers in Setswana were failures, and he struggled to get his books published – Native Life in South Africa took two years, and his better-known classic, Mhudi took ten. His travels – both international and domestic – produced little actual results. He was often penniless, even while he was abroad, and yet he persisted, placing faith in the goodness of the human nature and the value of communication. In London, Plaatje managed to survive for almost three years (1914-1917) without adequate funds, while continuing to write and speak to the British audience on the condition of Africans in South Africa. In these years, he delivered 305 speeches, an average of one every three days. By the end of his life, he had produced a tremendously impactful corpus of writings – an exceptional account of the Anglo-Boer War (Mafikeng Diary) that showcased African contributions to the war and in turn becoming one of the most important historical documents in South African history, a political document (Native Life) stinging in its criticism of the segregation envisioned in the Native Lands Act of 1913, and a historical fiction (Mhudi) which married oral tradition to political writing to produce the first ever English novel written by an African in South Africa.

Mhudi was modelled on Rider Haggard’s Nada the Lilie and weaved a narrative that seems remarkably progressive even for the times we live in (unlike Haggard whose stories remain very much steeped in the Victorian tradition). Through his female protagonist, Plaatje often subverts gender roles in the novel. The novel, as Willan acknowledges, was also a literary testament to the many women who provided Plaatje unflinching support – Georgina Solomon, Harriet Colenso, Agnes Colenso, Betty Molteno, Jane Cobden Unwin, and Alice Werner. But Willan’s Plaatje – and it is unclear whether it is the biographed or the biographer who gets the blame – seems to underappreciate the role that his wife, Elizabeth, played. Plaatje’s public life kept him away for long periods in his later life; including two very extended foreign tours (1914-1917 and 1919-1923). All this while, Elizabeth raised his five children, often without any help from Plaatje or the organization that sent him, ANC. In Willan’s biography, as Plaatje’s struggles become more pronounced, Elizabeth’s mute into the background. Elizabeth perhaps needs a biography of her own.

The least well-known of Plaatje’s works are his translations of Shakespeare into Setswana and his books of Setswana proverbs. In these works, Plaatje wrestles with the translator’s dilemma between fidelity and freedom, and he often preferred the latter, making his translations breathe on their own.

Every generation cultivates its own political morality, often at odds with the next. So was the case for Plaatje. His politics, as Willan shows, is a mixture of Christian puritanism and Victorian liberalism. His beliefs were steeped in a constitutional vision to the extent that he even campaigned for Jan Smuts’ South African Party in the 1920s. The new, more disruptive generation of African leaders would find it too mild. However, Plaatje was also more reflective and thoughtful about the questions of African identity itself. During his visit to the United State in 1921-22, he was amused by how African-Americans themselves carried stereotypical notions of Africans, so that someone like Plaatje – who would dress in western attire and speak impeccable English – was not considered an authentic representative. Within South Africa, he was also attentive to the dangers of unreflectively subliming Tswana identity under the broad rubric of Africanism, which would allow for more dominant cultures such as of the Zulus to dominate. As a translator, he releases Shakespeare from the elitist, often impenetrable clutches of the Victorian literati, and turns him into an African bard. Shakespeare in Setswana becomes both local and global, and so does Willan’s Plaatje. The product of decades long research, Willan has delivered a feast of a book.