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:
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.
For Plaatje, Scholar and Patriot, the most fitting epitaph would be:
Copyright © zar.co.za January 2007