Solomon T. Plaatjie and His Role in Etching African Lives into the Annals of South Africa’s History.
With its absurdities, the present, if looked at with an impartial eye, is nothing more than an amalgam of all that was, coupled with the possibilities of all that could be. That is to say, the now we currently inhibit, if studied with honest intention, will be found to be nothing more than a collection of every human act ever enacted, both good and bad, coupled with every act man plans to enact in the future.
Because of this, the task of making sense of the present, while having proved itself elusive for many people, is made possible only by scrutinising the past and preparing for the future. In order for one to understand why things are the way they are today, why people act the way they do and say the things they say, they first have to know what was said and done in the past, while simultaneously preparing for what people plan to say and do in the future.
But, burdened with distorted pasts and uncertain futures, many Black people in South Africa find it difficult to gain any sort of understanding of the unfortunate present they find themselves in.
For many Black people, looking into both history and the future in order to gain an understanding of the present can be a futile exercise. In most cases, the history they have to search through, having lost its malleability to the stringent need of those telling it to portray themselves as conquerors and liberators, is only accessible to them through the biased lens of White narration; while the future, which is also driven by the objectives of White narration, relies on the shaky hope of the future success of capitalism and having corruption-free political governance, two aspects of modern life that have caused as much harm as they have helped in propelling humanity to the heights it finds itself today.
As a result of this, the present, for many Black people, can only be understood as the result of history and future that are, fundamentally, White.
To find traces of themselves in history, many Black people turn to mostly academic narratives that were written more about them than they are for them. These narratives once exhumed from the aged canons of academia, reveal Black people, at least in the eyes of those writing them, as nothing more than objects of anthropological inquiry, people to study and analyse, instead of subjects capable of self-determination and self-actualisation.
Because of this, Black people have, for many years, seen themselves as being without agency in the course of our country’s history, making it difficult for them to see themselves becoming actors in both its present and future. However, even with the veil of White narrative still denying Black people a chance to see themselves as subjects and not objects of history, there are a few Black writers in South Africa’s troubled history whose work has helped lift this veil. One such writer, whose work has remained relevant for many generations, is Solomon Tshekisho Plaatjie, known to many as Sol T. Plaatjie.
Born October 9 1876, Solomon Plaatjie, having published multiple books and other literary works documenting the lives of African people during the early stages of the development of the Republic, is one of a few African writers whose work has helped shine a light on the African faces who, otherwise, would have been left behind by White narrative.
When reading his work, which includes the famed Native Life in South Africa (1915) and Mhudi (1930), one always finds that, unlike with other narratives of the time, Plaatjie’s work was driven by a need to give life to the Black bodies that had lived on the pages of White narrators for many years as empty vessels incapable growing out of their primal instincts.
As a result, when reading Plaatjie’s work, the reader is certain to find the African people living in them attributed to the emotions, faculties, and intelligence they deserve.
The African in Plaatjie’s work is, amongst other things, a parent who mourns the loss of a child they had to bury under the dark cover of night because of a law that had forced them out of their homes; and a lover who, after months of solitude, falls in love with a man she would spend the rest of her life with.
The African in Plaatjie’s work is alive, and her life counts for more than just her ability to dig into the earth or clean after other people’s children. As a result, the African, in Plaatjie’s work, is more than just an object on which history happened. Rather, she is an actor in its violent drama, playing her own role in determining the route it takes.
Because most of Plaatjie’s work was written during the beginning stages of the South African Republic and covers periods leading up to its development, most of it makes evident to the reader the foundations on which many of today’s problems were built. From the passing of laws that turned many African people into vagrants (Natives’ Land Act, 1913), to battles that separated many families and tribes (the Matebele war against the Barolong), his work links together the broken pieces of history that many Black people have struggled to put together for many years.
Furthermore, due to his role as a political leader (he was the founding Secretary of the South African Natives National Congress, known today as the African National Congress), most of Plaatjie’s work also had political motives.
For instance, by writing Native Life in South Africa, Plaatjie intended to do more than just document the effects the Natives’ land Act of 1913 had on African people in South Africa after its passing. Rather, he planned to use the findings documented in it to make a plea to the Imperial Government to “end the suffering of the native English subjects of one of His Majesty’s colonies due to an unjust act passed by its’ parliament”. As a result, Plaatjie’s work not only established African people as social beings, it also established them as political ones.
Together with his colleagues from the South African Natives National Congress, Plaatjie fought to have African people included in the colonial parliament, arguing that they had just as much right to be in it as everyone else, especially if the decisions it took affected them the way they do.
Nevertheless, even with his political career thriving at the time, Plaatjie’s work as a writer did more to imprint African lives into South Africa’s history than his political career ever did. His work as a writer helped establish a foundation on which many African writers after his time built their own, unique narratives, and it carved a path through which many continue to walk today.
Through reading Plaatjie’s work, many Black South Africans have come to understand how and why our country got to the state it currently is. They have come to learn the injustices their ancestors had to endure under the crushing weight of the colonial West, and how many stood to fight against it. Through reading his work, many Black South Africans have learned that their history is not as devoid of dignified, courageous, and loving figures as they were led to believe. They have learned that the African was not always docile and submissive; that the rebellious fires that burn in each of their chests was sparked by the fighters of liberation that came before them; and that the present and future, as white as they may seem at present, are theirs for the taking!
When reading the history documented in Plaatjie’s work, the mist that hides the true cause of Black suffering lifts; and the white mask that covers the present and future falls off, revealing the black face that lies beneath. When reading it, the sources of the chains that have shackled Black people for many years are revealed, and it becomes clear to them whom they need to defeat in order to free themselves of them.
Plaatjie’s work might not be the only one that has successfully written Black lives into South Africa’s history, but its meticulous focus on the daily lived experiences of Black people has brought to it a layer of life that many lack. Because of this, his work transcends time and continues to remain relevant years after its first appearance.
In the end, the reading of Plaatjie’s work by Black people is not just an act of learning. Rather, it is a politically charged act through which they raise from the dead the Black bodies that were left in the canals of South African history to die! It is a politically charged act that will lead to them not only seeing themselves as a necessary part of the present but also a necessary one of the future.