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