2016 marks the centenary of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, a detailed and moving appeal against the Land Act of 1913. The immemorial opening phrase of the book describes the Act’s devastation: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913,” Plaatje wrote, “the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
Plaatje’s work not only highlighted the consequences of the Act, but also the complexities of a country recovering from the Anglo-Boer War and trying to rebuild itself in the form of the Union of South Africa.
Plaatje was a founding member and the first General Secretary of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which later became the African National Congress (ANC). During his lifetime he worked as a teacher, telegraph messenger, court interpreter, journalist and politician. He died of pneumonia in 1932 in Soweto.
In Native Life in South Africa Plaatje hoped to ‘describe the difficulties of the South African natives under a very strange law, so as most readily to be understood by the sympathetic reader.’ His account contains not only the facts of the situation, but also stories of the people who had suddenly lost their land on that fateful day in 1913, which he gathered by travelling extensively around the country, mostly on bicycle.
Decades passed before he began to receive the recognition he deserved for his publishing and political life’s work. Among the tributes to Plaatje today are: the Sol Plaatje Museum, which opened in his former Kimberley home in 1991 and is now a provincial heritage site; the renaming of the Kimberley Municipality to the Sol Plaatje Municipality in 1995; the English Academy of South Africa instituting the Sol Plaatje Prize for Translation in 2007 and the Jacana Literary Foundation creating the Sol Plaatje Poetry Prize in 2011; a statue of Plaatje unveiled in Kimberley in 2010 to commemorate the 98th anniversary of the founding of the ANC; and the Sol Plaatje University, which opened in Kimberley in 2014.