Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Sol Plaatje
Literary Pioneer
9 October 1876 - 19 June 1932

Sol PlaatjeSol Plaatje was born near Boshof in 1876 and educated at Pniel on the banks of the Vaal River. He was one of the foremost black leaders of his generation in South Africa. As the first general secretary of the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, Plaatje was a prominent political spokesperson, interacting regularly with government officials and other leading whites in both South Africa and Great Britain.
Plaatje was much more than a political figure, however. Prior to the formation of the ANC, he was a court interpreter at Mafeking, where he became caught up in the famous siege during the Anglo-Boer War. His diary of this period was later published as "The Siege of Mafeking" (1984). After the war he became editor of two successive newspapers, "Koranta ea Becoana" (Bechuana Gazette) and "Tsala ea Becoana" (The Friend of the Bechuana), both published in Setswana and English. As one of the band of pioneering African newspaper editors, he viewed his role as that of a "mouthpiece" for his people. It was this role that brought him to prominence and led to his selection as ANC general secretary.

His writing was not limited to political developments, however, for in the same year he published "Native Life", he also published a book of Tswana proverbs in both the original language and in translation. On 16 October 1923 while in London, he was the first to have the future anthem "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" recorded, accompanied by Sylvia Colenso on the piano. Later in life, Plaatje increasingly turned his attention to literary pursuits, translating Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors", "Julius Caesar", and "Much Ado about Nothing" into Tswana.

Plaatje was a significant writer. His political tract, "Native Life in South Africa", was an angry denunciation of the 1913 Natives' Land Act. The first sentence is perhaps one of the hardest hitting political statements in South African history:
"Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth."

Plaatje also wrote the first novel in English by a black South African, entitled "Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago". He wrote movingly about this period after Shaka's death, and it focussed on the Ndebele defeat of the Barolong in the 1830's. It was only edited and published some ten years later, by Lovedale Press (1930). The complete manuscript was first published in 1978 and includes a greater focus on "Mhudi" as well as elements of "oral" narrative which had been excised from the first edition.

A house at 32 Angel Street was donated to him in 1929 by the black community of Kimberley, as a token of their gratitude towards him for all his community service. The house was situated in the residential area then known as the Malay Camp. Today the area is part of the commercial centre, with the Plaatje House surrounded by a number of commercial buildings, a five-storey apartment block and some municipal buildings. The house is also situated near the main road to Cape Town. Although the house itself is of no real architectural value, the front garden, facade and two front rooms were declared a national monument in 1992.

Sol Plaatje died in 1932. The funeral took place at Kimberley and was marked by the notable tributes paid to his memory by the many people from all race groups who assembled to do honour to a hero. He was remembered as one whose mature knowledge, quiet humour and innate kindliness had enriched his fellow human beings and built for himself a never-dying monument of public esteem. Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal said:

"I mention Sol Plaatje as an example of the ability to weave between the different languages and cultures, and to contribute through writing, literature and journalism, to the betterment of the lives of South Africans."

For Plaatje, Scholar and Patriot, the most fitting epitaph would be:



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