One of the last remaining pieces of history

Against Mahikeng’s failure to honor and preserve his legacy, a new Setswana biography examines Plaatje’s years in this South African town, once a regional capital.

Statue of Sol Plaatje, Kimberley. Image credit @flowcomm via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

On the tomb ya ga Solomon Plaatje / from the womb o tswe o tshwere botaki

– Hip Hop Pantsula (We built this city, YBA 2NW)

Go fitlhela re bua maleme a rona, ga go sepe se setla re lokelang (until we speak our own languages nothing will go right for us)

– Geoff Mphakati, Cultural Activist

On Mahikeng’s Martin Street throngs of traders and workers walk daily past a painting of Solomon Plaatje, the town’s most famous literary citizen. It is one of the last remaining pieces of history in a fast-changing town; that change isn’t positive. With chronic unemployment and failing infrastructure Mahikeng, the capital of South Africa’s North West Province, has come to resemble the collapse of so many of the country’s towns. Plaatje is the only thing about the town that still feels intact.

The Mahikeng Museum wall is one of several places where his face is immortalized in paint. On the walls of the Lotlamoreng Cultural Village in Magogoe Village, a few kilometers out of town, he occupies his place amongst the great tribal chiefs of the Barolong Bo-RraTshidi, Mahikeng’s founding tribe. Plaatje wears a formal black blazer and white shirt complete with a bow tie; it is a colonial image that attempts to appeal to the town’s conservative residents. But if the idea behind painting the image of Plaatje is to provoke some form of patriotism and pride in the town’s history the results are often the opposite.

The siege of Mafeking

Plaatje arrived in Mahikeng in 1898 to begin work as a court clerk; two days after starting his new job one of Africa’s most consequential conflicts began—the Anglo-Boer War, which led to the 217 days siege of Mafeking (as Mahikeng was known). (The Anglo Boer War is now known as The South African War; though blacks fought on opposing sides of the conflict, its principal protagonists were factions of South Africa’s population fighting over who should control the country’s natural resources and cheap black labor.) A century later Mahikeng is still a town under siege; today it’s a political elite perpetuating the misery that comes with unemployment, corruption, and incompetent and unimaginative leadership.

In today’s Mahikeng Plaatje’s legacy doesn’t reveal the depths of history, but exposes the moral hollowness of those claiming to be advancing it. Plaatje then, is as much a symbol of the town’s failure or what its people often describe as its “slow death” as he is, a symbol of its history and contribution to the South African story. His legacy is part of a cultural arsenal that local government has long failed to harness into a sustainable and progressive sociocultural program that would partly address the crisis of youth unemployment and drug abuse in the town.

The failure to honor Plaatje’s legacy beyond museum walls has to do partly with the political resonance of his writings. In his 1926 book, Native Life in South Africa, Plaatje documented the impact of South Africa’s cardinal sin: land dispossession. Though slavery predates it by over 200 years, land dispossession continues to be a more resonant colonial crime. The genesis of that crime being the Land Act of 1913 that effectively legalized the daylight theft of African wealth.

“Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth,” Plaatje wrote in Native Life in South Africa as he began to reckon with the colossal loss of identity, wealth, and ancestral land that came with the state sponsored theft legislated by the Land Act.

But if Plaatje dreamed of a South Africa where it’s natives have land, the ruling ANC, inheritors of his party, the South African Native National Congress, have largely made a mockery of that dream. The ruling party’s record of governance is incompatible with Plaatje’s legacy. Not only has it failed to address lack of housing or apartheid spatial planning legacies for millions of impoverished people, but it has also failed to disrupt apartheid legacies that continue to define some of the most important economic sectors in the country, such as mining and agriculture.

Morata Baabo

Plaatje has suffered a fate similar to that of the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Like Biko, Plaatje has been rendered a liberal whose nationality seems to trump his revolutionary ideals. But Ngaka (Dr) Seetsele Modiri Molema, the author of a new Setswana biography, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, Morata Baabo (Solomon Tshekisho, A Lover of His People)—first brought to life in English by scholars D.S. Matjila and Karen Haire in 2012 (Wits University Press) and translated to standardized Setswana by University of Sol Plaatje’s Sabata-Mpho Mokae—revisits the moments that defined Plaatje’s ideals and politics.

Morata Baabo is not Mokae’s first book on Plaatje. He also wrote The Story of Solomon Plaatje (2010) and edited Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: A century of Black history, criticism, celebration, and land struggles (2021). But it is the first book that makes the intimate life of Plaatje accessible in his mother tongue; it is also a book that reckons with Plaatje’s humanity.

“It remains the only account of Plaatje’s life and work written by people who knew him personally and lived with him,” Mokae explains on the importance of the book and why he chose to edit it.

It’s a book anchored on a simple argument: that until one appreciates Plaatje without his accolades, one may struggle to appreciate the enduring appeal and importance of his ideals. Before Plaatje would sit down to document the impact of land dispossession in Native Life in South Africa (1916). Molema had long been capturing the nuances and complexities of black life under colonialism. If Plaatje charged the state with murder and dispossession, Molema wanted to know how that injustice manifested in the personal? What happened to the men and women who would not surrender to the limits of colonialism? It was that curiosity about defying the parameters of colonialism that brought Molema to craft what is arguably the most intimate portrait of Plaatje anywhere. It is not that reckoning with state power or dispossession didn’t interest Molema, but that someone had to write about the men and women whose lives were a stark contradiction to the state and its racist lies.

As someone who traversed the best of both worlds: a world that claimed colonialism as a birth-right and a world disrupted by that right, Molema was uniquely qualified. A prolific chronicler of his time and people in books such as Montshiwa, 1815-1896: Barolong Chief and Patriot, and Chief Moroka: His Life, His Times, His Country, and His People, Molema understood that Plaatje did not stand alone, and that in a world that denied it, the act of capturing his humanity was inherently political. “Apart from his spouse and children, no other person could claim to have known Plaatje better than Modiri Molema. He observed his life from 1898 until he accompanied his body when (Plaatje) was going to be buried in Kimberly in June 1932,” says Mokae.

A decade before he would sit down to pen Plaatje’s story, Molema was a student in the streets of Glasgow. It was an experience that would become critical to how he would treat Plaatje as a subject. Molema dedicated a significant amount of his time in Glasgow exploring native possibilities and making the case against the colonial state’s treatment of natives culminating in his first published work The Bantu Past and Present (1920).

Morata Baabo can be read as the first time Molema deals with what the colonial state could not take away from natives or black people—the fugitive state of blackness. Plaatje’s brilliance was one of those things that was beyond the state’s grasp; he was not an anomaly, but an example of the possibilities of blackness in the absence of the albatross of whiteness via colonialism. Both Molema and Plaatje were not oblivious to their class positionality; that because of their education they formed part of a black colonial elite. In fact, it was consciousness of this very fact that made them appreciate the social implications of their privilege. But it was hardly class suicide, in the Cabral sense.

Resurrecting a Setswana classic

Mokae first got the idea of dragging Plaatje’s biography out of obscurity from his grandson Rasenti Molema in 2007. Then still a budding writer Mokae felt he was still too undeveloped to undertake the mammoth task of searching for the manuscript, which had been languishing for years in the Historical Papers Library of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and editing it to a more accessible form of Setswana. It was a process that would demand not only careful attention to historical nuance but also demand the care of a linguistic expert out of Mokae. Written in the Serolong dialect, mostly spoken in Mahikeng, Mokae sought to edit the book in standardized Setswana.

“Because the orthography has evolved so much. I had to make sure that Molema’s voice is not altered or muted in the book,” he says.

But more than his skills as a writer, it was how he was going to convince a publisher to agree to the publication of a half-a-century-old manuscript in an indigenous language that often discouraged Mokae. That anxiety also spoke to the continued de-valuing of indigenous languages, mostly perpetuated by the state’s neoliberal outlook and a publishing industry almost exclusively defined by how well it can adjust to neoliberalism—or how much publishers can extract out of local literature.

“The challenge of writing in an African language, ironically in Africa, is that most publishers are not willing to publish African language works” says Mokae on the some of the hurdles faced by those who write in African languages.

Molema submitted the manuscript to his publisher Botswana Book Center in 1965 but died in August of the same year. It’s unclear whether his death had anything to do with the book never being published.  It was a few years after his death that literary researchers Brain Willan and Tim Couzens learnt of the existence of Molema’s manuscript in Gaborone, Willan and Couzen had gained a reputation as persistent literary scholars, having dragged out of obscurity writers like H.I.E Dhlomo through a publication of a collection of his works in the English in Africa journal.

Morata Baabo was not their first encounter with Plaatje. Prior to learning about the existence of Molema’s manuscript Couzens had edited a new edition of Plaatje’s famed novel, Mohudi. Willan and Couzens would come to be largely responsible for re-introducing Plaatje to a public that had only known him as an obscure intellectual and politician from different era. Like with H.I.E Dhlomo that feat was achieved most notably through a collection of Plaatje’s journalism and writing in the English in Africa journal in September 1976, though there are other platforms where Plaatje’s writing features as result of Willian and Couzen’s agitation. They would later travel to Gaborone to retrieve Molema’s manuscript so it could be kept safe in the Historical Papers Library. Notwithstanding the efforts of Willian and Couzen to bring Plaatje to a wider audience of readers, he has remained stuck in a historical vault. In a sense, Mokae is the first to burst that vault wide open.

Ngugi of Setswana

For Mokae, Morata Baabo is a book that validates the most important decision of his career: to write in Setswana. Mokae has described writing in Setswana as freedom, and it is not a hyperbole to liken one’s writing in mother tongue to liberation or freedom; Mokae is free in ways we are not. As the first Setswana writer to achieve significant mainstream access Mokae can dictate the direction of his writing with little restriction. But as his work gains recognition he’s constantly confronted with the reality of living in a country that Bessie Head once described as “a desert of gold mines and an advertiser’s paradise”—neoliberalism in today’s South Africa.

But Head had a solution to living in a country that measures a writer’s worth by how well their art can be exploited. Head argued that until there are men and women willing to betray conventions, South Africa will never be a country with a tradition of serious thought. Mokae is the free spirit Head imagined, refusing to adjust his writing to satisfy neoliberal sensibilities. But Mokae isn’t the only Setswana academic interrogating Plaatje’s work and legacy. In her 2019 PhD thesis (“Taoto ya Phetsolelo ya Mhudi ka Sol T. Plaatje mo Setswaneng jaaka mmusetsagae wa dikwalo tsa Maaforika tsa Seesimane”), which was also South Africa’s first PhD thesis to be fully written in Setswana, NorthWest University’s Eileen Pooe argued that Plaatje owes his obscurity to the inaccessibility of English as a colonial language, and argued that his works—particularly his 1930 seminal work of fiction—the novel Mohudi be made accessible to the people who inspired it. Mokae’s work in many ways is a response to Pooe’s call for Plaatje’s work to be made more accessible. Like his Setswana novels, Moletlo wa Manong (2010), Ga ke Modisa (2012) and Dikeledi (2014), Mokae’s translation work addresses the issue of indigenous languages. It’s a recognition that language is at the heart of South Africa’s epistemic injustice.

In 1977 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, broke ranks with what he termed “Afro-European literature,” or what he saw as writing that addressed itself to European sensibilities rather than the communities that inspired that very same literature. Like Ngugi, Mokae’s decision has implications that aren’t immediately obvious, but with closer scrutiny one can see what he’s attempting to do: scorch the reliance on the colonial language.

Yet, a more important question haunts his work: can African languages be rescued without a reckoning with neoliberalism?

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.