The 2020 publication by HiPSA, Volume III-2 Sol T Plaatje: a life in letters, edited by Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae, won the 2021 S.A. Literary Award in the Creative Non-Fiction Category. Both editors paid a special tribute to HiPSA, Sabata-mpho Mokae saying, ‘Thank you for your decision to publish the book and your support throughout the years when we were working on it.’ Brian Willan commented: ‘I see the award also as recognition of all the other books you have published over the years.’

For more information see the SALA website 

Dit is met trots dat ons kan aankondig dat die 2020 publikasie van HiPSA, Volume III-2 Sol T Plaatje: a life in letters, rederigeer deur Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae, die 2021 SALA-prys, in die kategorie Kreatiewe Nie-Fiksie, gewen het. Albei die redakteurs het hulde gebring aan HiPSA, met Sabata-mpho Mokae wat gesê het: “Thank you for your decision to publish the book and your support throughout the years when we were working on it.” Brian Willan het opgemerk: “I see the award also as recognition of all the other books you have published over the years.”


  1. South African Historical Journal
  2. Historia
  3. The South African Philatelist
  4. Sol Plaatje University Website (
  5. Journal of African History
  6. LitNet



Sol T. Plaatje: A Life in Letters. Edited by BRIAN WILLAN and SABATA-MPHO MOKAE. Cape Town: Historical Publications Southern Africa, 2020. xxi + 359 pp. ISBN 978 0 9947207 6 4.

In this digital age it can be imagined that the good primary sources are already online, but this is not always the case. All the more important then that widely scattered, important sources continue to be published. This book presents a rich and expertly edited selection encompassing most of the extant correspondence of Solomon Tshe- kisho Plaatje. Best known as  inaugural  secretary-general  of  the  South  African Native National Congress (SANNC) – later renamed the African National Congress (ANC) – and author of Native Life in South Africa1 and of the first African novel in English, Mhudi,2 he was in addition editor  of  influential  newspapers  and  a leading campaigner against the Land Act and for his Setswana culture and Barolong people. Less known is that he was a prodigious, eloquent and effective letter writer. That his very dispersed correspondence has been traced, analysed and reproduced with accurate notes is primarily the result of five decades of painstaking research by Brian Willan, Plaatje’s leading biographer; that hitherto untranslated letters in Sets- wana are now included alongside their skilful rendering into English is the work of talented novelist Sabata-mpho Mokae. The two scholars also recently co-edited Sol Plaatjes Mhudi.3

Included are 260 letters, a fifth in Setswana, written by Plaatje from 1896 to his death in 1932, drawn from a wide range of repositories, comprising the bulk of the 300 surviving of 1000 he penned. Many others have disappeared – not a single letter to his wife Elizabeth survives, only a bare handful as Congress secretary are reproduced. The greatest number of those letters surviving were those sent to white sympathisers with resources more likely to see them preserved, such  as  Betty Molteno, Georgina Solomon, Jane Cobden Unwin and Sophie Colenso. The largest individual fond of letters is the Silas T. Molema and Solomon  T. Plaatje  Papers, lodged at the Historical Papers Research Archive at the University of the Witwaters- rand (Wits). Other notable archives plumbed include those at De Beers, the National Archives of South Africa repositories, the University of Cape Town, the Africana Library in Kimberley and the R. R. Moton Papers, Tuskegee University Library and E. B. Du Bois Papers, University of Massachusetts Library, Amherst.

The excellent, if rather brief, introduction summarises Plaatje’s life, publications, literary and linguistic work, as well as the growing scholarship about him, together with his legacy. The significance and content of the letters is detailed, relationships with correspondents noted, as is his style and what the letters reveal about his phil- osophy, politics, identities and loyalties, as well as his private life and challenges. Side by side with insights into ANC political history, they show the ‘distinctive expression of an African voice’ allowing ‘a far more nuanced and personal understanding’ (xix) of his life. The editors explain their criteria of selection:  some less  consequential letters were excluded, as were most he wrote to the press (they are more accessible elsewhere), enabling greater focus on personal correspondence. Perceptive comparison of Plaatje’s style allows the editors to determine his authorship of letters signed by others.

The letters are divided into eight chronological parts, corresponding to major periods of Plaatje’s life, each with a succinct introduction providing context. Part 1 (1896–1902) begins – ironically, given later events – with an unsuccessful begging letter to De Beers for money for a YMCA building; others  detail  Plaatje’s career  as an interpreter and efforts to  secure  salary  increases.  In  Part  2  (1903–1909)  we learn of struggles to keep his newspaper Koranta ea Becoana going in the face of tar- diness of advertisers (including De Beers) to pay and show his great efforts to raise funds for and popularise the paper. Part 3 (1910–1914) shows chronic financial pro- blems continuing with his new papers Tsala ea Becoana and Tsala ea Batho and, in letters to Silas Molema, we hear how funds Plaatje raised from writing for white newspapers helped him meet his financial obligations. Others  demonstrate  his support of land rights for the Barolong of Thaba ’Nchu and his campaign against the Land Act. A degree of  naivety peeps  out  from a  1910 letter to Schreiner where he expresses ‘warm admiration’ (44) of J. B. M. Hertzog; but by 1912 he confides to Molema that Hertzog has ‘no intention whatsoever to do anything good for a black person’ (66). Much is uncovered about Tswana personalities, and forthright letters challenge simplistic narratives too common today that gloss over difference between  members  of  Congress.  Revealingly,  in  a  letter  to   De   Beers complaining against racism on their trams he states he is a  ‘supporter’ of  the company (71). His frequent letters appealing to its philanthropy are generally suc- cessful, if at times bordering on the obsequious, but despite perfect politeness his more political requests, such as for access to compounds to post political flyers, are refused.

Part 4 (1914–1917) switches to England and is rich in correspondence with sympathisers, tussles with John Harris of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), who opposed publication of Native Life, and details of internal  tensions among the Congress delegation. A 1914 letter shows Plaatje’s outrage at conditions pro- posed by churches and the APS for a loan that would have silenced their protests. The letters reveal little new about his family, but we glimpse his feelings in a postcard to daughter Violet. A letter to Kgosi Lekoko is one of several disclosing he could not afford food or rent and worried about eviction. Particularly insightful is a passage lamenting that other Congress delegation members opposed publication of Native Life: ‘great men’ like John Dube and Walter Rubusana did not ‘want the first book that tells the truth about Africa to be published by a Mochuana while they were the first to see the light’ (98, 108). Letters also show that Plaatje himself was not immune from the ethnic politics typical of the day.

Part 5 (1917–1919) finds Plaatje back in South Africa, explaining to Jane Cobden Unwin why he declined an offer of the SANNC presidency. Letters of 1918 testify to the harrowing impact of the influenza pandemic that struck down members of his family. Details emerge of his efforts to solicit from De Beers an old tram shed for his new love, the religio-social Brotherhood, a gambit linked  to  his  anti-radicalism. ‘There is a belief among some of the native population here that I am in the pay of De Beers – employed to keep them quiet’ (134), he confides to the company, which urged him, ‘For God’s sake keep [Africans] off the labour agitators’ (142). He continued to boast success combating radicals, proudly informing the Kimberley Chamber of Commerce this was due to the De Beers’ ‘timely generosity’ but slipping in an appeal for higher wages for labourers given rising costs of living; his plaintive entreaty having no effect. His enthusiastic embrace of this early class ‘cold war’ was noted by revisionist his- torians from the 1970s, yet lately such critiques of Plaatje have fallen silent. That his atti- tudes to black workers were complex, marked also by sympathy, are evident in letters showing problems he faced as a labour agent: labourers were ordered home by police just because their agent, Plaatje, was Black.

Part 6 (1919–1923) covers a further period overseas. Letters include complaints of the racist ejection of Congress delegates from a ship in Britain at the behest of white soldiers, efforts to bypass the US consul’s refusal, on Pretoria’s advice, to issue him a visa, and success in receiving a Royal Literary Fund grant to write Mhudi. His letters from Canada to Betty Molteno and W. E. B. Du Bois speak of success lecturing and selling his books. To Molema he describes the novel he has completed and discloses he has declined a Chamber of Mines offer to edit a new newspaper (Umteteli wa Bantu) as he would be disenfranchised in the Transvaal, as Black Africans were denied the vote there, unlike in the Cape, where they had a limited franchise. A letter to Negro World indicates his sensi- tivity to criticism, seizing on a comment by a reviewer on the price of his The Mote and the Beam4 to claim too many African Americans treated his mission seeking solidarity as ‘a business proposition’ (204). If stereotyped as pro-empire, he was also impelled to criticise. In a letter from Detroit to a journalist, asking him to read his speech in absentia at the Pan African Congress, Plaatje argued that the ‘secret of the success of the British policy in South Africa has been the suppression of the truth. […] the daily press was asked to say nothing of our grievances’; uttering ‘not a word about […] indiscriminate shooting […] or the mowing down of scores of unarmed workers’ (206).

Part 7 (1923 to 1928) holds letters that indicate an increasingly  isolated  man. Plaatje sees danger in Hertzog’s Native Bills, telling Robert Moton of Tuskegee Uni- versity that they sought ‘to destroy the soul of the native people’ but confessed to Sophie Colenso that, whilst joining the Joint Councils, ‘what can they do’ (261). Letters in the final Part 8 (1928–1932) show his further retreat from political life, marked by disappointment with Herzog’s 1929 election victory. He increasingly focuses on literature and linguistics, seen in letters to the Bantu Studies Research Committee at Wits, on Shakespeare, where he had little publishing satisfaction with his translations, and finally came the joy of  the  much  overdue  appearance  of Mhudi. He lobbied against white ‘experts’’ efforts to change the orthography of Sets- wana – ‘singled out as the play thing of University Professors’ (293) – and supported a new Setswana dictionary, the only circulating work full of mistranslations and omis- sions; securing Tshekedi Khama’s support for the existing orthography. Seeking yet again money from De Beers, he claimed: ‘we have had our hands full combating and trying to keep the Communist movement outside Kimberley’ (277), a hyperbolic claim as radical influence there was marginal. Letters also indicate his increasing work for the Independent Order of True Templars (IOTT).

The volume rounds off with useful short biographies of major correspondents, lists of sources and archives consulted, plus a guide to further reading. There are 12 illus- trations, and facsimiles of select letters. The publisher provides a quality scholarly appar- atus with a thorough, accurate index (though IOTT is missed). Copious notes assist readers, tracking down many lesser-known figures that will help scholars fill gaps, though ‘Maronako’ remains obscure. Overall, the book is a wonderful reference and primary source.

This astute selection of letters will be new to those outside the small if growing circle of Plaatje scholars. Given their scattering across many repositories and countries, it is a great boon to research to have them collated, annotated and translated (some Setswana letters are online at the Wits Historical Papers, but without translation). If there are few sensational revelations for the specialist (Willan has already used most, and published 30 in his Sol Plaatje, Selected Writings,5 which is not noted), then they may prompt new research directions. New depth has been added to what we know of Plaatje’s life and character, showing for example how he suffered racist slurs, how he used cattle both for ploughing and to raise funds, how in his letters he used argument, irony and protes- tations of loyalty to pursue his aims.

If any criticism might be levelled, it is a need for rather more rigorous criticism of Plaatje, in keeping with trends in studies of nationalisms. Just as Mandela’s legacy faces closer scrutiny, so too do Plaatje’s limitations need addressing. Historiographical advances in Plaatje Studies are well noted in the introduction and each section has an excellent overview, yet often with little critical comment on, say, the effectiveness of his tactics or the wisdom of long years overseas. There is engagement with the Plaatje canon, but matters are sometimes seen as cut and dried, whereas new debates surely will arise. Despite his undoubted historical and literary role, talent, humanism and tol- erance, Plaatje had blind spots and contradictions, such as between his fierce critique of racism yet unwillingness to support effective change to overcome it. He may have been, as the authors claim, the most eloquent and consistent of his generation of liberal black African leaders, generating considerable impact by his writings, but his letters show a man plagued by limited resources, forced to beg again and again from white philan- thropy, scared of militant action from below, if not without sympathy for the underdog. If edited source series are not always the most appropriate genre in which to engage in reappraisal, it is a testament to this book’s quality and comprehensiveness that it is an ideal foundation to underpin such revisionism.

Sol T. Plaatje: A Life in Letters is a valuable, accessible source for historians, who can invest in their trade by subscribing to this book series by Historical Publications Southern Africa (from 1918 the Van Riebeeck Society, once nearly renamed the Van Riebeeck-Plaatje Society!). Some epistolary lacunae may never be filled – correspon- dence with linguist Daniel Jones is lost, possible letters to Dube would have burnt in the Ohlange fire. Yet one hopes scholars track down further letters, though these are unlikely to be substantial. A future volume of Plaatje’s collected, rather than selected, letters, one that includes his corpus of letters to the press, beckons, but in the mean- time this book is a mighty contribution to historiography that could be used to build, or criticise, a now firmly established African canon.


  1. T. Plaatje, Native Life in South Africa (London: P. S. King and Son, 1916).
  2. T. Plaatje, Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (Love- dale: Lovedale Press, 1930).
  3. Mokae and B. Willan, eds, Sol Plaatjes Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2020).
  4. T. Plaatje, The Mote and the Beam: An Epic on Sex-Relationship Twixt White and Black in British South Africa (New York: Young’s Book Exchange, 1921).
  5. Willan, ed., Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996)

Peter Limb

Michigan State University and Gender and Africa Studies Centre,

University of the Free State

© 2021 Peter Limb



On Sunday, 7 November 2021,  Sol Plaatje University (SPU) academics Professor Brian Willan and Creative Writing lecturer Sabata Mpho-Mokae, won the South African Literary Award (SALA) for the book compiled and co-edited titled Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters. The book won in the Creative Non-Fiction Literary Award Category at a virtual awards ceremony hosted by SALA.

SALA pays tribute to South African writers who have distinguished themselves as ground-breaking producers and creators of literature. It celebrates literary excellence in depicting and sharing South Africa’s histories, value systems, philosophies, and art as inscribed and preserved in all the official languages of South Africa.

Published by the Historical Publications Southern Africa (HiPSA) and launched in November 2020, Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters is a collection of over 260 letters written by the late Sol Plaatje to members of his family, traditional leaders, his comrades in the South African Native National Congress, De Beers, government officials, community leaders, and well-known political figures such as Marcus Garvey.

The letters record Plaatje’s career as a court interpreter, his involvement in the Siege of Mafeking, the beginning of his journalism career, the formation of his bilingual (Setswana-English) newspaper, his campaign against the Natives Land Act of 1913 in South Africa, Britain, Scotland, Canada, and the United States of America. The letters also shed light on how he conceived and struggled to publish two famous English books titled Native Life in South Africa and Mhudi.

These letters were sourced from archives found all over the world and include South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to name but a few. Plaatje wrote over 50 letters in his home language Setswana. These were primarily personal and have been translated into English. Readers can find both the Setswana and the translated versions in the book, categorized by years and context provided for each letter.

Sol T. Plaatje: A life in letters is the second book co-edited by Mokae and Professor Willan. The first book, Sol Plaatje Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration, won the Humanities and Social Sciences Award earlier this year.

“Professor Willan and I are grateful for the support and the space SPU is giving us to pursue our collaborative research writing on Sol Plaatje. We believe that Plaatje was an important figure in South African politics, literature and the development of Setswana as a written language. For a person who died at the age of 55, Plaatje achieved what would take many of us several lifetimes to achieve,” said Mokae.

The Creative Writing lecturer further thanked staff at various international archives who assisted with gathering the letters published in the book. He states that their only regret was not finding letters between Plaatje and his wife, Elizabeth. They, however, remain hopeful that they are preserved and will one day be found and made available to the public to further assist in understanding Plaatje better.

“These letters will help us pay homage to the woman who kept the home fires burning while Plaatje was traveling, writing books and making the world aware of the political situation in South Africa,” said Mokae.

The academics are now working on an edited volume on the Mafeking Diary of Sol Plaatje, which will be published in the second half of 2023, during the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Mafeking Diary of Sol T. Plaatje.


Historia, 66 , 1 May 2021 pp 157-166

The public and private life of Sol Plaatje

Brian Willan and Sabata-mpo Mokae, eds, Sol T. Plaatlje: A Life in Letters

Historical Publications South Africa, Cape Town, 2020

xxv + 359 pp

ISBN 978-0-9947207-6-4 (hardcover), 978-1-990981-46-3 (eBook)    R390.00

There has been an upswing in attention to South African biography in the past few decades, with a welcome trend towards remaking or revising the canon of important figures from the South African past. This has included edited collections of the works of prominent individuals, and notable among these have been early-twentieth century black African politicians and writers. Historical Publications Southern Africa (renamed from its previous moniker, the Van Riebeeck Society) has published four edited collections of the writings of such individuals since 2008, including Isaac Williams Wauchope, Richard Victor Solope Thema, and A.B. Xuma.  A Life in Letters, a collection of Solomon T. Plaatje’s correspondence, is the fourth such volume in just over a decade. There are 260 letters, written from 1896 to 1932, included in the book. Most are in English, but some are in Setswana, Dutch/Afrikaans, and a few are in German. Although a number of the letters are from the collections of the Cullen Library at the University of the Witwatersrand, the reviewer counted twenty-seven different collections across three continents. The book is thus an excellent resource not only for historians, but also for students and the general public who now have access to a wide range of Plaatje’s thoughts, opinions, and emotions that are evident in his letters.

There is something immediate and revealing about reading these primary sources: the directness of Plaatje in his own words rather than through the mediating assessments of biographers – notably the co-editor of this volume, Brian Willan in his Sol Plaatje: A Biography (Johannesburg, 1984) and Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Thekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932  (Johannesburg, 2018). Reading the correspondence conveys the range of Plaatje’s talents, but also the complex role of letters writing in  building and maintaining the social worlds of the Batswana in the face of increasing racist policies and the actions of white-minority rule in the Cape Colony, Transvaal, and later, the Union of South Africa in the twentieth century. As editors, Willan and Mokae provide a 12-page introduction, as well as short contextual openings to each of the eight chronological parts around which the book is organised. They provide concise context on the “public amnesia” toward Plaatje’ life and work following his death in 1932, and the revival of interest in Plaatje since the 1980s and 1990s, whwn his “public memory [was] … reclaimed” (p xi). Much of this revival arose from the handwritten dairy during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War, which focused primarily on the siege of Mafeking, in John L. Comaroff’s edited The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje (1973); a new edition of Plaatje’s 1930 novel Mhudi (Johannesburg, 1982).

The letters in this edited volume help to map Plaatje’s social networks: they include Batswana, and more particularly, Barolong individuals, including the prominent Silas and Modiri Molema; female advocates for Plaatje’s cause in England, including Betty Molteno and Sophie Colenso; and transatlantic connections such as Robert Moton, the African American educator and principal of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, whom Plaatje visited in 1922. What is particularly valuable about these letters collected together in one volume for the first time, is their scope and range and the ways in which Plaatje combines public and private concerns. “I live in perpetual sadness and … constant troubles” (p 78), Plaatje confided to Silas Molema at a low point in February 1914. In a tender exchange communicated to his seven-year-old daughter, Violet, in 1914, Plaatje refers playfully to “Doodles”, her nickname, thanking her for her “short illustrated letter” (p 92). This range of correspondence adds complexity to our picture of Plaatje beyond his public persona or popular memory of his life and legacy.

A skilled letter writer who drew on a range of local idioms and literary references, Plaatje conveys the passion, frustration and hopefulness of his political, literary, and educational causes. Less able to express his agency and views as an interpreter during the South African War, he soon found his voice through the editorship of the Setswana newspaper  Koranta ea Becoana (1901-1904). He would also later edit Tsala ea Becoana (1910 1915). Plaatje noted in a letter (although signed as Silas Molema) that Koranta ea Becoana was “the only channel through which the truth can be disseminated to the native population of Bechuanaland” (p18). Yet his letters reveal the many registers employed by Plaatje, depending on his audience,
ranging from deference to candour, in ways not always apparent in a public newspaper. His letters to government officials, prominent Cape liberals, and to Barolong allies – Silas Molema in particular – show a range of carefully chosen words. In a telegram in March 1913 to Thomas Zini, president of the Cape Peninsula Native Association and opponent of the Native’s Land Bill (it became an act in June), Plaatje wrote: “… please urge our people not [to] use language calculated to inflame” (p 68).

Plaatje’s agency, dignity and ambition is perhaps clearest in his Setwana letters. In complimenting Silas Molema for his publications on Tswana traditions, language and history, Plaatje expressed the hope that the Barolong would “appreciate these kinds of works because they show that something will remain even when people are no longer there”. They would, in his view, be “books that are read by the whole world just like white people’s books while other nations cannot [yet] do this” (pp 194-195). His vision of black South Africans within the world, rather than confined to localised place, was most clearly seen in his transatlantic travels to Britain and North America, which contrasted with his more racialised experiences in South Africa. Writing to Betty Molteno from Canada in 1920, Plaatje reflected on how he enjoyed conviviality with the “motley crew” aboard the ship to Quebec and that Canadian passengers especially “came and went precisely as if there was no such thing as colour” (p 197).

Through his contact with prominent African Americans including W.E.B. Du Bois and John Edward Bruce in the United States, Plaatje saw the full global scope of race discrimination. He also found a readership of his work and an audience willing to hear about the plight of black South Africans. In a letter written in 1921 to Walter White, then assistant national secretary of the US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Plaatje noted the uneven spread of news globally about violence against black bodies. As he put it: “American race-riots are receiving all the publicity they deserve… [they are] flashed throughout the world but not a word about … the mowing down of scores of unarmed workers by a cavalcade of police [in South Africa]” (p 207). Many of Plaatje’s letters have resonance to the present, while also providing insight into the lived experiences of structural racism during his times.

One of the final letters in the volume is addressed to the general manager of the De Beers Mining Company on 15 March 1932. Plaatje requested financial assistance for school premises in the hope of furthering his efforts to improve African education, particularly by printing Setwana schoolbooks. Plaatje described the “scarcity of Sechuana readers” as “not a local but national want’ (p 134). His final years were devoted to furthering such causes, and to finding publishers for manuscripts including Plaatje’s translations of Shakespearean plays. Sadly, Plaatje’s premature death in 1932 meant that many of these projects are incomplete or remained in manuscript form without a publisher. Reading the letters, one feels pathos for what might have been, and the extent of Plaatje’s contribution.

Plaatje was a man of his time, caught between a world of empire and an increasingly racially-exclusionary South Africa. His letters provide a glimpse into his inner thoughts beyond what was published, yet there are still gaps in the volume. Occasional mention is made of Plaatje’s wife Elizabeth (Lillith) but these do not provide a full picture of domestic life, nor are there any letters between Plaatje and his wife in the volume, if such letters exist. Letters have their limitations, but of course private conversations he would have had in his lifetime have not survived as a written record. A more rounded view of Plaatje and his times is best achieved by reading his biographies, as well as a wider range of his oeuvre. Besides Mhudi and Native Life in South Africa, Plaatje also wrote several other works, including pamphlets. A selection of these can be found in Brian Willan’s other edited collection, Sol Plaatje: Selected Writings (Johannesburg, 1997; republished in 2016). Willan and Mokae’s edited collection of Plaatje’s letters is nevertheless essential reading for those interested in his life and his considerable contribution.

Chris Holdridge, 

North-West University



(The South African Philatelist, Aug 2021)

Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae,

editors, Sol T. Plaatje: A Life in Letters: The public and private life of Sol Plaatje

Historical Publications South Africa, Cape Town, 2020

xxv + 359 pp ISBN 978-0-9947207-6-4 (hardcover),

978-1-990981-46-3 (eBook) R390.00

There has been an important upswing in attention with a welcome trend towards remaking or revising the canon of important figures from the South African past. This has included edited collections of the works of prominent individuals, and notable among these have been early-twentieth century black African politicians and writers. Historical Publications Southern Africa (renamed from its previous moniker, the Van Riebeeck Society) has published four edited collections of the writings of such individuals since 2008, including Isaac Williams Wauchope, Richard Victor Solope Thema, and A.B. Xuma. ‘A LIFE IN LETTERS’ a collection of Solomon T. Plaatje’s correspondence, the 4th such volume in over a decade.

There are 260 letters, written from 1896 to 1932, included in the book. Most are in English, but some are in Setswana, Dutch/Afrikaans, and a few are in German. Although a number of the letters are from the collections of the Cullen Library at the University of the Witwatersrand, the reviewer counted twenty-seven different collections across three continents. The book is an excellent resource not only for historians, but also for students and the general public who now have access to a wide range of Plaatje’s thoughts, opinions, and emotions that are evident in his letters. The co-editor of this volume, Brian Willan in his Sol Plaatje: 1876-1932 (Johannesburg, 1984) the correspondence conveys the range of Plaatje’s talents – building and maintaining the social worlds of the Batswana in the face of increasing racist policies and the actions of white-minority rule in the Cape Colony Transvaal, and later, the Union of South Africa in the twentieth century.


JOURNAL OF AFRICAN HISTORY  –  62:3 (2021) pp 439-441

Historical Publications Southern Africa (HiPSA), known as the Van Riebeeck Society until their recent centenary, has published a new edited volume of historical documents each year since 1918. The volume for 2020 is their fifth one of writings by black South Africans, a collection of letters authored by the prominent writer and activist Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje between 1896and 1932. Compiled by the leading Plaatje biographer Brian Willan and edited in partnership with the Tswana scholar Sabata-mpho Mokae, the letters provide a valuable glimpse of how South Africa’s momentous social and political changes during the early twentieth century were experienced and viewed by African educated elites of that era.

The book’s 260 letters were located by Willan during many years of research in a wide variety of archives, libraries, and personal collections. The book begins with a concise, helpful biography of Plaatje and then presents the letters chronologically, grouped into eight distinct chapters of Plaatje’s adult life. Text in Setswana and other languages is accompanied by English translations, and there are numerous informative footnotes identifying people, places, and events mentioned in the letters. The book concludes with brief biographies of the main correspondents, information about the locations of the original letters, a bibliography of suggested further reading, and a detailed comprehensive index.

Sol T. Plaatje is most often identified simply as one of the founders of the African National Congress, but his other extensive activities and accomplishments as a public intellectual have received less recognition. As argued in the book’s Introduction, ‘There is a striking contrast between Plaatje’s prominence in his own lifetime and the public amnesia that set in after his death’ (xi.) The idealism and moderate views of Plaatje’s generation became largely discredited and marginalized by events of the mid-twentieth century, but Plaatje’s reputation has been steadily revived since 1990, culminating with the recent establishment of Sol Plaatje University in his hometown of Kimberley, where the book’s co-editor Mokae teaches creative writing in African languages.

While many of Plaatje’s ideas about South African politics and society are described in his publications — most notably Native Life in South Africa (1916) — the personal letters reproduced in this volume provide important information not found in his other writings. Addressed to a wide range of friends, colleagues, and officials in South Africa and abroad, Plaatje’s correspondence reveals both the extensive network of progressive reformers with which he was connected and his undying efforts to mobilize public support and defend the interests of black South Africans. The historical value of a few of the letters is perhaps a little less clear, such as those focused on the mundane details of travel or managing a newspaper, but together they amply demonstrate Plaatje’s lively intelligence and charismatic personality amidst the contradictions and uncertainties of the ‘Segregation Era’ in South Africa.

One dominant characteristic of the letters was Plaatje’s stubborn hope that the Union of South Africa would be governed more by the relatively liberal laws of the British Cape Colony than by those of the Boer republics, allowing Africans to gain full citizenship through gradual adoption of some elements of European culture while retaining their distinctive communal identities. As Plaatje describes his newspaper Koranta ea Becoana in a 1903 letter to a colonial official: ‘To
the European readers it advocates fair treatment to their Native servants, equal political rights to their Native neighbours and the absolute social segregation of the white and black races of South Africa’ (24). At the beginning of the twentieth century, the cultural and political autonomy of African and European communities still seemed more salient than their economic interdependence, and Plaatje envisioned the role of ‘Natives’ in South Africa as separate but equal. When South African society instead became increasingly urbanized, exploitative, and discriminatory, Plaatje was harshly critical of new laws while continuing to seek support from sympathetic white liberals, and he was pleasantly surprised to encounter instances of racial integration outside South Africa. He was also in communication with both the Tuskegee Institute and W. E. B. Du Bois in the United States, pursuing black empowerment through education as well as through Pan African solidarity.

A second major theme displayed in the letters is Plaatje’s promotion of Tswana language and culture, with particular emphasis on the interests of the Rolong chiefdom to which he belonged through his parents. A key partner in his journalistic pursuits was the Rolong royal Silas Molema, and he was in regular correspondence with several other members of Tswana chiefly families, advocating on their behalf in his newspaper and in letters to government officials. As
Plaatje’s political activism appeared to be increasingly fruitless during the 1920s, he devoted
more of his attention to literary pursuits, writing a novel, translating several of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana, and collecting Setswana proverbs, praise poems, and tales.

Plaatje failed to find a publisher for many of his works, however, and a third theme that appears frequently in Plaatje’s personal letters was his chronic financial problems. In requesting a raise in 1900 for his position as a court interpreter, Plaatje argued that his pay was insufficient to support the standard of living expected of an educated and valuable government employee, obliging him to live in a ‘Native hut’ and subsist on ‘mealies’ and ‘Kaffir corn’ (13–14). On that occasion his request was granted, but numerous subsequent letters to British patrons, the DeBeers Company, Rolong chiefs, and other potential donors demonstrated the difficulty of earning a living as a writer and activist. The fact that most of Plaatje’s British supporters were women also suggests that British
liberal concern for black South Africans could be more accurately described as maternalistic than paternalistic. Although a full account of Plaatje’s achievements necessarily requires study of his other writings, Sol T. Plaatje: A Life in Letters provides valuable evidence of the challenges that he faced and the personal connections that he cultivated as an early champion of equal rights in South Africa.

REVIEW In LitNet by Barend van der Merwe 26-11-2021

As a historical figure, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876–1932) stands out as one of the greatest minds ever to emerge from South African history. Plaatje’s literary contributions continue to be a critically important source of historical information. Despite Plaatje being a person of humble beginnings (he only received a primary education), his achievements include, among others, being a founding member of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 (later rebranded as the African National Congress or ANC), translating some of the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) into the Setswana language, as well as publishing various books of fiction and nonfiction. His greatest contribution is perhaps the book Native life in South Africa (1916), which was a critique and exposé of the Union government’s policies with respect to black South Africans, in particular the 1913 Land Act, which confined black South Africans to 10% of the land in the Union.

Sol T Plaatje: A life in letters is the 2020 volume of the annual Historical Publications Southern Africa (HiPSA), formerly known as the Van Riebeeck Society. The book has recently been crowned as the winner in the category Creative Non-Fiction Literary Award 2021 at the South African Literary Awards. Brian Willan, who co-edited the publication with Sabata-mpho Mokae, is a renowned scholar on the life of Sol Plaatje, having also been awarded the prize Best Non-Fiction in 2020 at the 5th annual Humanities and Social Sciences Awards ceremony, for his biography titled, Sol Plaatje: A life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876–1932.

The volume under discussion contains a collection of 260 letters written by Plaatje during the years 1896–1932. Plaatje started his career as an official working in the post office in Kimberley. He moved on to become a court translator and later a journalist, eventually travelling to Europe and the United States of America for the purpose of political activism and also to publish his books. According to Howard Phillips, the chair of HiPSA, Sol T Plaatje: A life in letters is the fourth publication by HiPSA “which give[s] verbatim voice to prominent members of South Africa’s early political elite” (v). The book follows publications by HiPSA of the writings of Isaac Williams Wauchope (1852–1917), Richard Victor Selope Thema (1886–1955) and Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma (1893–1962), all of whom Plaatje was acquainted with. Although there are a number of resources on the life of Sol Plaatje, the publication of this volume therefore gives readers access to some of Plaatje’s own words, other than, of course, his official publications.

The 260 letters in this volume have been divided into eight sections by the editors. These divisions correspond to different recognisable periods in Plaatje’s career. As Plaatje was a well-known polyglot, it is no surprise that his letters are written in several different languages, such as English, Setswana and Dutch/Afrikaans, with short passages in German, and some letters being a mixture of different languages. The letters are all published in the original languages, but are provided with English translations for those letters not written in English. It is noted by the editors in the introduction that the letters obviously do contain large gaps. It is, for example, most unfortunate that not a single letter survived between Plaatje and his wife, Elizabeth.

Plaatje wrote most of his letters under his own name, but there are known instances where he wrote letters under different names, of which some are also included in this collection. A recurring theme in the letters is the financial struggles that Plaatje had to endure, particularly in relation to the publication of newspapers and books. Plaatje had lots of sympathy for his political activism in England, where he resided for a long time, and continued corresponding with acquaintances on private and political matters long after he departed. The fact that the letters do not include response letters makes it frustrating to read, at times, as it does leave the reader with many loose ends. In some instances, the editors do provide a short response to, or outcome of, a particular letter, which is a welcome addition. It should be noted, however, that if responding letters were included, the volume would probably not have been manageable.

Sol T Plaatje: A life in letters provides an important glimpse into the life of Plaatje, his ideas, his relationships and the world in which he lived. Another important feature of note in the book is the index, which is critically important and will greatly ease the task of future researchers. The book is also provided with some photographic material. Some of these photographs will be familiar to most seasoned readers of historical works, particularly those with an interest in the life of Plaatje, his times and related themes. A list of all the archival collections that were consulted is also included, as well as short biographical summaries of all the people with whom Plaatje corresponded in the letters. As the book covers a wide spectrum of Plaatje’s letters, it will be of value not only to historians, but also to various other fields of study.

REVIEW By Tina Steiner ( Institute for Study in English in Africa)

This volume of chronologically arranged letters of Sol Plaatje’s personal correspondence – the earliest letter dates from 1896, when he was twenty, while the last was written in March 1932 a few months before his passing in June of the same year – represents a feat of editorial archival collation and significantly enriches Plaatje scholarship. The editors, Brian Willan and Sabata-mpho Mokae, explain that this correspondence was assembled over decades, scattered as it is across southern Africa, Britain and the US, in private and archival holdings. What this means becomes clear already in the Acknowledgements, where the editors thank 29 different institutions and individuals for their permission to reproduce the 260 letters in this volume. They reveal Plaatje as a “consummate letter-writer, adept at speaking in the voice that was appropriate to context and circumstance”. Paying attention to the tonal range across these varied letters makes for fascinating reading indeed. The letters are organised into eight sections, each of them opening with a short and illuminating contextual commentary by the editors. The parts relate to distinct phases in Plaatje’s life, chiefly linked to his geographical location (except for the last two parts, which are thematically ordered and date from when he was living in Kimberley, from 1923 to 1932). Apart from the opening commentary, the editors postlude the letters with brief notes when “the outcome of the correspondence” was known. These notes shed light on Plaatje’s admirable, quixotic persistence in the face of much resistance to his requests and petitions.

Most of the letters were originally composed in English, but the volume contains a significant number of letters in Setswana (or a mix of Setswana and English), a handful in Dutch/Afrikaans and some letters to the Colenso family include a sprinkling of German phrases (Sophie Colenso’s mother was German and is referred to by Plaatje as Muti [sic], a diminutive for “mother”). All other language material is included in the original and in English translation. Mokae’s Setswana translations allow a non-conversant readership to obtain glimpses of Plaatje’s persona, corresponding with friends, family and Barolong leaders in his mother tongue. These letters are mainly addressed to Silas and Dr Modiri Molema, father and son, “who were leading Barolong figures in Mahikeng”; Chief Lekoko; and Tshekedi Khama, who became “chief regent of the Bamangwato in 1926, acting on behalf of his young nephew, Seretse” (319). Particularly the life-long correspondence with Silas Molema is noteworthy, as the two collaborated intensely on getting a Setswana/English weekly newspaper running in Mahikeng, the Koranta ea Becoana (Bechuana Gazette), to create a platform for the Barolong and wider Setswana-speaking people. When the paper folded due to financial constraints, their friendship survived, and the correspondence continued over the years, ranging from topics to do with the Setswana language; the devastating and long-lasting effects of the Natives Land Act of 1913; Plaatje’s accounts of his campaigns in the UK, Canada and the US, and the ever-present financial troubles he faced. The latter feature in most of his correspondence with other addressees as well. For example, during his first stint in the UK, from 1914 to 1917, when he was campaigning to get his book Native Life in South Africa published, he writes to Chief Lekoko: “Things are bad here, I have not paid for my accommodation and I don’t know if I will be arrested for my debts” (99); in the same letter, he continues to say “I even lack money to buy food” (98). A month later, in another letter to Chief Lekoko, Plaatje writes: “My debt for food and accommodation in the three months is now £13 such that I fear that even when I get some money it may all go to paying debt for the food I have already eaten in the previous months and nothing would be left for my transport home. I am in deep trouble. Chief, please help me before it gets worse” (102–103). The precarity of Plaatje’s finances emerges as a major source of distress, and time and again he reminds his addressees that they should honour their pledged support and – this was largely Silas Molema’s task over the years – remind other acquaintances to keep their promises. The frankness of Plaatje’s requests for financial support demonstrates that he understood himself as carrying out his political duties on behalf of his people and expected them to reciprocate accordingly.

The letters, for the most part, can be read as Plaatje’s way of asserting agency, their tone a mixture of pleading and of expectation that his words would accomplish what he sent them out to do in the world. That this expectation was often not met with action on the part of the recipient did not seem to deter Plaatje from reminding his correspondents of their responsibilities time and again. What this suggests, is that Plaatje had a firm sense of his cause – be it to ask for financial support in his efforts to keep his Setswana/English newspapers afloat; to remind De Beers that they could show their support to their many mine workers in Kimberley through various acts of sponsorship; or to campaign against the Natives Land Act of 1913 while in England, Canada and the US – as worthy of the recipient’s time, attention and action. Especially in his political dealings with South African government officials, these outcomes, where known, were mostly unfavourable. Plaatje’s persistence can only strike admiration in the reader: how did he sustain this tenacity in the face of so much resistance and near-constant financial worry?

Perhaps an answer to this question lies in considering what is not included in the collection – namely, Plaatje’s personal correspondence with his family, especially his wife, Elizabeth Plaatje (née M’belle). The editors explain that none of this correspondence has survived. These more intimate letters might have revealed sustaining words of encouragement and love supporting his tenacious activism. While this is mere speculation, we do get glimpses of the emotional support provided by friends. For example, his witty letters to the Colenso family, full of gratitude for their hospitality during his second stint in the UK, express a playfulness that suggests mutual affirmation: “When you miss me from the family circle, please don’t identify me with ‘the man who disappeared’” (185). Plaatje refers here to a story they read together during a visit at Elangeni, the Colenso residence in Amersham, at the end of 1919.

One of the many letters that stands out is occasioned by Plaatje’s anger at being subjected to a racist insult by a white police officer in Lichtenburg in the Transvaal in 1904. Plaatje writes to the Attorney General of the Transvaal, Sir Richard Solomon, and copies the insult verbatim, which is startling, given the extremely polite register of most of his correspondence. He then proceeds with understated wit to declare the following in his defence:

I may add for your information that I am not quite sure whether or not I am “damned”, but of the following I am quite certain, viz. (1) I had not blood stains on me, at the time; (2) I was not dirty, while I need hardly add that (3) I was not a pig. I transacted business with half-a-dozen businessmen in Lichtenburg, directly before and after this episode, none of whom objected to my appearance. (29)

This letter is significant for several reasons. It demonstrates that while Plaatje was seen by many black and white South Africans as an “articulate spokesman” of stature, he was not “immune to the prejudices felt by many whites towards educated Africans”, as the editors point out (22). By taking the insult at face value and enumerating in a humorous way why it did not apply to him, Plaatje exposes the racism of the insult and at the same time invites the reader of the letter to side with him, as his sense of humour makes him stand out in this encounter as the party who is reasonable against the absurdity of the insult. Perhaps it is owing to this rhetorical dexterity, evident across the entire collection, that the note by the editors reads: “Sir Richard Solomon’s private secretary forwarded Plaatje’s complaint to the Inspector-General, South African Constabulary, commenting that ‘Sir Richard feels sure that you will enquire into the matter and if the story told is true deal with the officer capable of using language such as is reported.’” (29). This is where the trace ends, and readers will never know how and if this matter was addressed, but there is the – albeit small – satisfaction in knowing that Plaatje’s complaint was not ignored.

In his letters to the American sociologist and civil rights campaigner W.E.B. Du Bois, Plaatje allows himself some rhetorical flourish as well. On 19 May 1919, Plaatje writes, “It is a howling pity we did not meet” (168), and in response to Du Bois’s efforts to help him to obtain permission to enter the US, Plaatje explains: “With reference to your yeoman efforts to get me to the U.S. I hasten to inform you that a second string to my bow has just responded. The Canadians have succeeded in obtaining a passport for me to go to the States. It now remains for you to ‘cease fire’ as they say in military signals ‘the enemy has surrendered’” (199). Asking for advice about an offer by a publisher to publish his manuscript of Mhudi, Plaatje wonders aloud: “Bearing in mind what you told me last year that there were publishers and publishers, do you think that Mr. Neale’s eulogy of this MS and his rosy forecast of the probable sales are worth the paper they are printed upon?” (210). Du Bois advised Plaatje explicitly to avoid Neale as his letter was an “out and out lie” (211). Plaatje and Du Bois read each other’s writing and their exchange demonstrates a deep mutual respect.

From the mid-1920s, with General Hertzog’s proposed “native bills” a threatening prospect, a tone of resignation begins to surface in some of Plaatje’s letters. The government turned out to be “deaf to his representations” and even his white allies proved to be unable to stem the tide of “segregation in every sphere” (236). Upon the victory of the Nationalist Party in the general elections of 1929, opportunities for employment for black South Africans were becoming fewer and fewer, making “that hearty laughter which proverbially sustained the South African in distress” disappear (285). Plaatje writes in early 1930 that “people are so impoverished” they can hardly “keep body and soul together” (286). Frustrated by politics, Plaatje turned his attention to several projects to do with the preservation of Setswana: he translated Shakespeare plays into Setswana, and he worked on a dictionary, an expanded new edition of his Sechuana Proverbs (1916) and a collection of folk tales and praise poems. For this, he received research grants from the Bantu Studies Research Committee at the University of the Witwatersrand. The letters of this period detail his delight in finding many new proverbs and tales, which he had not heard before. In a letter to the registrar at Wits, Plaatje writes that it had always seemed to him that the hare and the fox were “the cleverest animals” but that his recent research revealed that the “majority vote and the first prize” for “shrewdness” and “acme of sagacity” must go to the tortoise (280). Plaatje underscored this finding by writing tortoise in capital letters, another instance of his sense of humour, which suffuses several of his letters. This image of the tortoise is an apt conclusion, because if anything, the letters demonstrate Plaatje’s acme of sagacity in his ceaseless commitment to “a common society that had a place for black and white alike” despite the increasing hostility towards this vision (236). Sol T. Plaatje: A Life in Letters is an important collection which sheds new light on aspects of Plaatje’s career and life while offering readers insight into his thoughts, feelings, and political arguments as they are laid out in the persuasive mode of personal correspondence.