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100 Years Later

Brian Willan
‘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’.
These are the famous words with which Sol Plaatje began his book Native Life in South Africa, published 100 years ago this year.  What changed that Friday morning was that the Natives Land Act of 1913 came into force. This imposed severe restrictions on land purchase, and outlawed various forms of labour tenancy, leading to widespread evictions – especially in the Orange Free State, where Plaatje had been born 37 years earlier. Native Life in South Africa was his protest against the Act and the wider injustices that black South Africans faced at that time. It was a hugely influential book, and deserves to be remembered today – not just as an eloquent denunciation of unjust and discriminatory policies but as a book that can still provide inspiration as South Africa struggles to come to terms with a contested past.
                But Native Life in South Africa could very easily have failed to see the light of day and simply disappeared, like some of Plaatje’s other writings.  He began to write it on board the S.S. Borda, the P&O liner which took him to England in May 1914, a member of a deputation from the South African Native National Congress, forerunner of today’s ANC. Founded two years earlier, the Congress had campaigned against the Land Act and, failing to make any impression on South Africa’s rulers, decided to appeal to the British imperial government to disallow the legislation – a constitutional power it still possessed.  The five members of the deputation – Plaatje was its secretary – met the Colonial Secretary, Lord Harcourt, but got nowhere. As Plaatje wrote in Native Life, ‘Mr Harcourt made no notes and asked no questions’ On every point they put to him he repeated the assurance of General Botha, the South African prime minister, that ‘we have not exhausted all South African remedies before coming to England’.  The Congress delegates were left with no alternative but to appeal to the British public, hoping they could be persuaded to put pressure on the imperial government to reconsider.
                But then – in August 1914 - war broke out. The Congress decided to recall the deputation, believing that a display of loyalty to both South African and British governments was their better course. The other delegates returned home, but Plaatje did not. Ignoring the Congress’s instructions, and the advice of his fellow delegates, he decided to stay on, determined to complete the book he had started, and to get it published – well aware that the opportunity was unlikely to present itself again. It was a brave decision, and one of those moments that brings to mind Nelson Mandela’s decision – in the 1980s – to go his own way and initiate discussions with the Nationalist government, knowing full well that his colleagues would not have agreed.
                It would be a huge struggle to get Native Life in South Africa published. Plaatje had no money to live on, let alone to pay the subsidy required by P.S. King & Son, the publisher he had found to take it on. He also faced the hostility of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, the one humanitarian organisation that might have been expected to help. Instead the Society’s Secretary, John Harris, sought to suppress the book, believing that the principle and policy of segregation which the Land Act supposedly embodied was in the best interests of the African population.
                Against this Plaatje had the support of a number of sympathisers, including Betty Colenso – a daughter-in-law of the famous Bishop Colenso of Natal - and Mrs Georgiana Solomon, widow of Saul Solomon, a leading Cape journalist and politician, well-known for his liberal views. Both women helped him to raise funds and to counter the opposition of the Anti Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. Without their support, and that of other sympathisers in England, Native Life would have remained unpublished.
                Native Life in South Africa was eventually published on 16 May 1916. Over 350 pages long, it took the form of an appeal to the British public, setting out the case of black South Africans. In it he focussed on the injustices of the Act and described its effects, recounting what he had seen when he travelled through the countryside in 1913 when it first came into operation. He goes on to describe the efforts of the SANNC to mount its protests, ranging widely across the history of his people and the situation in which, after the Act of Union in 1910, they found themselves. Native Life was both well documented and purposely emotional in tone. It includes an account of the Afrikaner Nationalist rebellion of 1914-1915, contrasting this with the loyalty of his own people and their support for both British and South African governments in the war with Germany. He was well aware of the power of patriotism in time of war.
Native Life in South Africa made a significant impact. In England, despite the war being so major a preoccupation, it was widely reviewed, and mostly very favourably. Reviewers acknowledged that he had presented a powerful case which at the very least needed answering – once the war was over.
In South Africa the book was even more controversial. Several times it was mentioned in the South African House of Assembly. Once the Minister of Lands called it ‘a scurrilous attack on the Boers’, and Plaatje was accused of ‘endeavouring to spread the belief that the Boer was the oppressor of the natives’. General Botha, the prime minister,  sent a copy of the book by Mrs Solomon, was also critical: ‘Mr Plaatje’, he wrote, ‘is a special pleader, and consciously or unconsciously, he has, in my opinion, been somewhat biased in his structures against the Government in regard to the Natives Land Act: he has exaggerated incidents which tell in his favour, and suppressed facts that should be within his knowledge which show the honest attempts made by the government to avoid the infliction of hardships which, you must remember, was sanctioned by the legislature’.
The General had missed one of Plaatje’s main points: that only when that legislature was fully representative of the people of South Africa could its deliberations and enactments have any claim to legitimacy.
Plaatje returned to South Africa in 1917 to something of a hero’s welcome among his people.  In May, at the sixth annual conference of the SANNC, he was offered its presidency. He declined, however, saying that ‘the deterioration of my business during my enforced absence made the idea utterly impossible’. He had returned from England heavily in debt and his newspaper, Tsala ea Batho (Friend of the People), had collapsed while he was away – despite the best efforts of his wife Elizabeth and his brother-in-law, Isaiah Bud Mbele, to keep it going. Native Life in South Africa came at a heavy price for Plaatje personally – and to his wife and family too.
 For a few years Native Life remained in the public eye. Altogether it went into five editions, the last accompanying Plaatje on his travels in the United States in 1921 and 1922. But after that it largely disappeared from view. It was not until 1982, as the struggle against apartheid intensified, that the radical publisher, Ravan Press in Johannesburg, brought out a new paperback edition.
Today it is available in another paperback edition, published by Picador Africa, with a foreword by the late Kader Asmal, former Minister of Education. Later this year Wits University Press is to publish a book to celebrate its centenary, in which 12 different contributors explore its many different aspects.
It should not only be remembered but read.  It is an enormously powerful piece of writing, setting out not just an unanswerable case for justice but a vision of a future South Africa with a place for all its peoples. A more equitable political and constitutional system may now be in place but the legacy of the past is all around us. The Land Act itself was repealed in 1991 but issues of land and landownership are as contentious as ever. Today’s readers would do well to return to Plaatje’s measured arguments – and to the vivid portrait he provides of the South Africa of his day, with all its complexities and contradictions.
Native Life in South Africa was not Plaatje’s only book.  While he was in England he compiled a collection of Setswana proverbs, adding to them English translations and equivalents, and also co-authored with Daniel Jones, a leading phonetician, a Sechuana Reader. Later he translated a number of Shakespeare plays into Setswana, Diphosho-phosho (Comedy of Errors) being published in 1930 – reflecting both his love of Setswana and his fascination with Shakespeare. In the same year his English-language novel, Mhudi was published too.  Native Life in South Africa, however, remains his political testament par excellence.

-       Willan is co-editing a book being published by Wits University Press about Native Life in South Africa, due for release this September
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