A new book documenting the letters written by the pioneering activist and scholar Sol Plaatje illuminate the nature of his relationship with the people with whom he corresponded.
The book titled Sol T. Plaatje -A life in letters, is edited by Brian Willan and
Sabata-Mpho Mokae. In the introduction the authors write:
‘By any standards Sol Plaatje (1876–1932) lived a remarkable life. From humble beginnings he rose to become one of the most important political and literary figures of his generation, making his name as a journalist, writer and spokesman for his people. His was one of the most powerful and eloquent voices that spoke out against the policies of South Africa’s rulers in the early decades of the twentieth century. In contrast to those who promoted segregation he was inspired by a vision of a common society in which race and colour were no bar to full participation in the
life of the country.’
They explain the focus and significance of the letters:
‘Read in the light of a growing scholarship on Plaatje, his letters are of special interest, shedding light not only on his life and career but on a variety of issues that have engaged scholars. We have assembled a total of 260 letters, constituting the majority of his personal letters that have survived, located over several decades in archives, and in private hands, in southern Africa, Britain and the United States…As he was an accomplished letter-writer it was natural that people should approach him to write or to draft letters on their behalf, particularly when approaching white politicians or administrators.
The following extracts from the book are copies of the letters written by Plaatje dealing with a diverse range of issues but mostly reflect his activism and challenging of authority.
1901:1.17. 8 January 1901. Letter to CC and RM, Mafeking.
Office of the Resident Magistrate, Mafeking
I have the honour to report that on Sunday morning last, some Government cattle trespassed on my cultivated lands. They were in charge of two Transport Herds [sic], who replied to my remonstrances with abuse. They eventually went away, leaving the cattle in my lands.
About 3.00 pm I drove the cattle away intending to take them to the A.D.T.’s34 office, to report the matter, and to state that I intended to put in a claim, through the Commandant’s Office, for damage done by the cattle.
I brought the cattle along the main road, and on reaching Buluwayo Road a
Conductor overtook me and with the assistance of the herds, mentioned above, took the cattle from me in spite of my explanation that I was taking them to the Transport Office.
On a previous occasion, last week, when I was turning some cattle off my lands a Conductor, evidently under the impression that I was taking them to the Pound, said I could do what I liked with them. On hearing that I was going to the Transport Office to claim £3 for damage by them, he advised me to entrust the matter to him as the best way of obtaining immediate settlement. I agreed to do so and have not seen him again.
If the cattle were left alone less damage would be done for the herds actually drive the cattle into the lands.
I trust that I shall be allowed compensation for the damage done and some steps may be taken to control the herds.
Your obedient Servant
Sol T. Plaatje
[Plaatje’s complaint was investigated but his demand for compensation was turned
down on the grounds that his gardens were “very badly fenced in” and the Ox Transport
department could not therefore be held liable. A further dispute over the same issue
occurred on 19 March when it was alleged that Plaatje assaulted the herdboy in charge
of the cattle. When the matter came before the magistrate, Assistant R.M. William Geyer
dismissed the charge.]
1904:2.5. 13 May 1904. Letter to the Attorney General, Transvaal.
P.O. Box 185
Abuse by South African Constabulary
I have the honour to report that on passing Lichtenburg (the first Magistracy from Bechuanaland) on the 30th ultimo on my way here, I called at the Police Station to ascertain if my Cape passport wanted renewal by Transvaal officials before I could proceed with it. Standing near the door of the Police Station I could see a Policeman writing at a table near the door. Further in the room there was seated a man in the Constabulary, with three stars on his shoulder. I spoke to the Policeman from the door. I think he said, “take off your hat.” Of this I am not quite sure, however, for just then the man with the stars yelled at me, in a furious manner which, apart from
my personal injury in consequence, would amount in the Cape Colony to a distinct contravention of the Police Offences Act, 27, of 1882.66
In order that there should be no misunderstanding I stepped aside of the door and noted his abuses of me in my pocket-book, from which I now copy them as follows:-
“Take off your hat off you damned, bloody, dirty black swine!”
“And always wait till you are spoken to!!”
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 no 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. Not having an amplitude of time at my disposal I waited – but not “till I was spoken to”. I had perforce to bide my time with the enquiry until I reached Klerksdorp, where it came off satisfactorily unaccompanied by thunder. I may also add that it is unnecessary to make “my hat” the raison d’etre of an official’s indulgence in a butt of vulgarity at my expense. I have been in Police offices, and also in the private offices of heads of similar Departments, in this, the Cape and Orange River Colonies and never gave cause for such extraordinary treatment as I know exactly when and where to “take off my hat”.
I think, Sir, you will agree with me that it is lamentable that a stranger should be treated kindly by the villagers and that he should regret ever having set his foot at a public office, and for this reason I trust that you will enquire into the matter.
Sol T. Plaatje
[Sir Richard Solomon’s private secretary forwarded Plaatje’s complaint to the InspectorGeneral, 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.” No record could be found to reveal what, if anything, happened subsequently.]
Letter to the Clerk of the House of Assembly, Cape Town.
P.O. Box 143,
Native Affairs Administration Bill643
It is to be regretted in the name of the native population of the Union that on referring the above Bill to the Select Committee, the Prime Minister decided on calling only the officials of the Native Affairs Department (on whose recommendations its several provisions were drawn up) and no evidence from the Native People whose lot it will be to enjoy or endure the effects of its operation.
The Prime Minister has already shown some inclination to concede some points brought before his notice and that fact encourages me as a member of the last Annual Statutory Conference at Pretoria, nominated thereto by unanimous decision of the rural Natives of Griqualand West on the invitation of the Prime Minister, and on behalf of the other tribal and detribalized Natives unofficially represented in various capacities by me, I beg to forward through you the following observations with the request that you will please do so kindly and lay them before the Select Committee.
The importance of this vital Bill is that, unlike any other measure of its kind,
it will, when enacted, effect some drastic changes in native life not only politically but even socially. Its aim is to put all Natives under the same native law. One could no more draw up a single code for all the tribes than fix the same speed limit for Adderley Street, Cape Town, and the highways of the Karroo; and one cannot but foresee trouble in any attempt to apply the same social code to the Bapedi (under whose tribal laws it is permissible for a Native to marry his first cousin) and the Tembus, under whose tribal laws it is an abomination, purged only by death, for a Native to marry a blood relation, however, distant.
The method favoured by the officials is to advise the Prime Minister to extend the Natal Native code and to make it the native law of all the Natives of the Union. Now, it was always understood that the Natal code was based on the tribal law of the Zulus, but at the Annual Government Conference members from other Provinces learnt with surprise that this well-advertised code, operates only in Natal, and not in Zululand. The Zulu representatives stated that it was the wish of their people that the
code should be confined to Natal (where, they emphatically declared, it had done a lot of harm) and never be extended to Zululand where nobody wanted it. In discussing the principles of the Bill the members recalled the Prime Minister’s repeated expressions of satisfaction at the conditions found in Transkei whence he returned just previously, and they regretted to find that conditions which so pleased the Premier and satisfied Transkeian Natives were to be displaced by Natal conditions for which no Natives seem to care. But to an observer it sounded rather anomalous that our Government which not long before petitioned the King to stop creating any more South African barons and baronets should itself take power to create fresh tribes and fresh chiefs in the same country and invest them with new judicial and administrative powers.
HOLDING PUBLIC MEETINGS. Time and again divisions of the Supreme
Court in Transvaal and elsewhere held that no charge could be laid against a Native, who calls a meeting of his fellows to discuss their mutual affairs.
And the Government Conference a year ago gave reasons showing the possible hardships if the holding of a meeting should be subject to the will of any Chief or Paramount Chief. Some Chiefs, it was urged, were against the education of their people. One of these may object to the opening of a school which the Government would be willing to finance provided it is erected by the Natives. How is it to be obtained if the calling of the meeting against the wishes of the Chief is to be made a criminal offence? And members urged that restriction and control of public meetings
will only increase opportunities for secret meetings and so cause more trouble than it is thought to avoid.
I may mention that a similar attitude was adopted in connection with another subject which was down for control by Proclamation; and our people are glad to find the government has decided to drop that course. But it will put back the clock if public meetings which the Supreme Court has declared could not lawfully be restricted by regulation are now to be definitely controlled by Proclamation and placed in the power of local Chiefs and Government representatives…’
Note: Sol T Plaatje – A life in letters is published by the Historical Publications Southern Africa.
Members of HiPSA receive it as part of their 2020 membership which costs R310 until 31 December. Both prices will rise in the new year. To become a member, go to https://hipsa.org.za/join-the-society/