The launch of HiPSA’s 2020 volume, Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters, edited by Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae, was planned to be held at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, but due to the Covid pandemic had to be cancelled. Since then there have been a number of virtual events at which launch speeches were made. Details and links are:

  1. After the virtual Annual General Meeting of the Society, held on 15 December 2022, speeches were made by Howard Phillips and co-editor Brian Willan to launch the publication. To listen to these speeches and discussions please click HERE.
  2. The Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study arranged a virtual book launch of the publication on 23 June 2021. To listen to the speeches during this occassion please click HERE.
  3. An article titled ‘Compiling Sol Plaatje’s Letters: A Journey’, was published in the new, Kimberley-based Olive Street Journal on 14 August 2021,  by Sabata-mpho Mokae, who could not attend the December 2020 launch mentioned above. This article is copied below.

Compiling Sol Plaatje’s letters: A Journey

Olive Street Journal – 14 August 2021

By: Sabata-mpho Mokae (an academic at the Sol Plaatje University and a co-editor of ‘Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters’ alongside Professor Brian Willan)

One cold day just over a decade ago, I met with Brian Willan at the Kimberley Club. Willan is the renowned biographer of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje. We had tea and spoke about our common research interest; the life and works of Sol T Plaatje. At that time Willan had written a 500-page biography of Plaatje and had also compiled and edited Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings. Apart from few newspaper and magazine articles on Plaatje, I had just written an accessible biography; The Story of Sol T. Plaatje.

Willan and I spoke about how Plaatje was a prolific letter writer during his short life. He wrote letters to friends, benefactors, traditional leaders, political activists and many other people with whom he shared values. Basically, if we were to gather many of his surviving letters we could conclude that through these letters, Plaatje wrote the story of his life and also shed light into the history of the struggle for justice, for land and in the defence of his language. That was the beginning of a journey towards the book titled Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters, which was later published by the Historical Publications Southern Africa (HipSA) in the year 2020.

We decided to work on a book in which we were going to collect his letters. These letters were scattered all over the world in archives. Among others these archives were the De Beers Archives in Kimberley, Library of the Parliament of South Africa, Botswana National Archives, Africana Library in Kimberley, Library of the University of Zimbabwe, Archives of the Tuskegee University in Alabama, Library of Congress in Washington DC, National Library of South Africa, British Museum in London, Department of Manuscripts in the British Library, University of Witwatersrand Historical Papers as well as the Special Collections Department at the University of Bristol.

Fortunately most of these letters were already digitized and most of the archives gave us access. Willan, whose research on Plaatje started way back in the early 1970s, had most of the resources we needed. Eventually we had two hundred and sixty letters to work with. Just over fifty of them were in Setswana, Plaatje’s mother tongue. A handful in Dutch and Afrikaans and some short passages in German, another language that Plaatje spoke. We have categorised letters by years, wrote the context of each and translated the Setswana letters into English. The manuscript was ready for publication after nearly eight years.

Of course we took a break in late 2017 and early 2018 when Willan was completing a biography The Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje: 1876-1932 (Jacana Media, 2018) which later won him the Humanities and Social Sciences Award. During that break I also completed my novel Moletlo wa Manong (Xarra Books, 2018), which a year later won the novel award in the South African Literary Awards.

Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters sheds light in Plaatje’s life and career as a journalist, writer, translator and a political activist. It also increases our understanding about the times Plaatje lived in. The 260 letters in the book are personal letters that we believe the reading public would be interested in. We believe that the letters will make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing scholarship on Plaatje.

These letters illuminate the nature of his relations with the people he lived with such as Silas and Modiri Molema, regent chief of Bamangwato Tshekedi Khama, Dr Robert who was principal of a leading historically black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as well as civil rights leaders and intellectuals such as WEB Du Bois.

Some letters let us in on the struggles he had in keeping his newspapers afloat even when it was difficult to do so. He appealed to people to assist him financially to see to it that the paper does not perish. Eventually the paper he started with Silas Molema in Mahikeng, Koranta ea Becoana (Batswana’s Gazette) shut down in 1909, only to be resuscitated in Kimberley under a slightly tweaked name of Tsala ea Becoana (Friend of Batswana).

The earliest of his letters was dated September 22, 1896 and was addressed to W. Pickering, the acting secretary De Beers in Kimberley. In the letter he was asking the De Beers secretary to submit a letter he wrote with other young men, including Bud M’ Belle who later became his brother-in-law, requesting financial aid towards defraying the expenses related to the building and equipping that building for the use of the local Young Men’s Christian Association, which Plaatje was a member of. The De Beers simply refused the request without any explanation.

In many of these letters we see Plaatje as a man of unshakeable faith in his dreams and principles. Setting up a bilingual newspaper and getting it off the ground was a mammoth task in all respects. He struggled with money to keep it afloat, he hoped Batswana, for whom he set up the paper, would assist him but that hardly happened. It frustrated him but he kept going.

Some letters show us Plaatje the globalist. He exchanged letters with likes of African-American writer and civil rights leader WEB Du Bois. In a letter to Du Bois it is easy to see how personal their relationship was. Plaatje asks about Du Bois’ health following an operation and asks that they exchange books. In the 1931 letter to Du Bois he expressed the desire to have his novel Mhudi published in North America. “The first edition was confined to South Africa only, as Lovedale [Press] has no agency overseas, and the market here is so limited, that all but few readers will have their MHUDIs by the end of this year.”

Of interesting is the parallels between the Spanish Flu of 1918, which ravaged the country and the currently raging pandemic of Coronavirus. Plaatje tells of how a cloud of death had fallen over the city of Kimberley and had taken the people he knew. In a letter to Silas Molema dated November 6, 1918 he writes: “I came back from Basutoland on the 4th of October only to find Mrs Plaatje and the four children – Richard and Ngoetse, Poppie M’Belle and Maria Motshumi – sick. I picked up my brother’s children from Pniel. They had come to get the dressmaker cut wedding dresses for them. The dressmaker was sick and while they were waiting for her, they too became sick. The following day everybody was sick except Ngoetsi. Five of them could not move and I had to take care of them. This is all taking place in this month of many deaths in our area where so many people have died.” He then went on to give a list of people he knew who died during that pandemic.

The letters tell us a lot about Plaatje’s relationship with people such as Dr Modiri Molema, Tshekedi Khama of the then Bechuanaland Protectorate, Clement Doke of Wits University, African-American historian John Wesley Cromwell, Silas Molema, Elizabeth Molton, Georgian Solomon, Elizabeth Molteno, magistrate and civil commissioner of Mafeking Charles Bell, Tuskegee Institute principal RRR Morton, Sophie Colenso as well as his interaction with entities such as De Beers. Letters also shed a light into his role in the SANNC (later ANC), his defence and contribution to Setswana and his battles relating to the land.