Sol T Plaatje’s ground-breaking work Native Life in South Africa was published 100 years ago in 1916. Janet Remmington, Brian Willan and Bhekizizwe Peterson are the editors of a new scholarly work on Plaatje’s book, Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present (Wits University Press), from which this edited extract of the editors’ introduction is taken
Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, originally published in 1916, was first and foremost a response to the landmark Natives Land Act of 1913. It arose out of the protest campaign of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) founded in 1912, renamed in 1923 the African National Congress (ANC).
But the book was far more than a robust rejoinder to a significant piece of legislation, and it was far from being an ANC publication. Native Life was Plaatje’s distinctive handiwork, independent and individualistic, casting a wide net in its observations and sparing no one its critical gaze.
It ranges widely in its commentary on pressing issues of the day — many persisting in contemporary South Africa — while vividly narrating the author’s journeying in South Africa’s farmlands and from its industrialising centres to Britain’s imperial capital and beyond.
Written by one of South Africa’s most talented early 20th-century black leaders and journalists, Native Life is a foundational, but sometimes under-recognised, book in South African politics, history and literature. At home and abroad, it is not nearly as widely studied or read as Plaatje’s 1930 novel Mhudi.
In the century since its publication, Native Life has been curiously neglected by historians. This contrasts with the attention it attracted at the time it was published, when it was widely read, reviewed and even mentioned during debates in the South African House of Assembly. But after that it largely disappeared from view.
Partly this was because it self-evidently failed to achieve its objective. Not only was the Land Act not repealed, but other legislation built upon its foundations, taking South Africa further down the path of segregation. It did not help either that the book defied easy categorisation. Part polemic, part political commentary, part history, part autobiography, it fitted into no recognised genre, falling between the cracks of conventional epistemologies.
A more damning reason for Native Life’s neglect was its being a book written by a black South African — its seriousness, reliability and relevance arguably not being recognised. For much of the 20th century historians engaged with South African history through the lens of the white population. Black history, when it made an appearance in historical writing, was largely relegated to the realm of the tribal and customary.
Historians were slow to develop a more inclusive approach to South Africa’s past.
When they did, Native Life was mostly neglected. But, from the 1960s and 1970s, as historians began to take a more sustained interest in black South African
history and the origins of political opposition, Native Life was rediscovered as an important source.
In the following decade, Native Life came into its own. Ravan Press published a new edition, the first time it had been printed in South Africa. The Land Act, too, attracted more scholarly attention as historians turned their attention to rural history.
In 2013, the centenary of the passing of the Land Act focused attention not only on the Act itself and its consequences, but led several historians to take a closer look at Native Life.
In contrast, Native Life and its author were highly regarded among black intellectuals of the day, and since.
A week after Plaatje’s death in 1932, the journalist, poet and playwright HIE Dhlomo wrote a eulogy, ‘An Appreciation’, of his friend. Dhlomo’s esteem of Plaatje and his writing were generally shared by African intellectuals of the time. In the 1950s annals of the history of the ANC, ZK Matthews acknowledges, in reference to the Land Act, that “the story of the hardships and the disabilities in land matters which that Act imposed upon African people is told by … Plaatje, in his well-known book Native Life in South Africa”.
Njabulo Ndebele describes Native Life as a landmark in the historiography on South African political repression: “The book is remarkable not only for its impressive detailing of facts but also for its well-considered rhetorical effects which express intelligent analysis, political clarity and a strong moral purpose.”
Many referenced the “prescience” of the opening sentence of Native Life, lending it an affective power and a somewhat prophetic aura: “Awaking 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’s generation faced many challenges in engaging in social advocacy and intellectual work. The mission-educated African intelligentsia was a small group, occupying a precarious social and economic position — attested to by the perilous state of Plaatje’s finances throughout his life. Even in beating the odds to gain an education, the African intelligentsia had to circumvent a range of institutional exclusions.
Dhlomo noted, in an overview bemoaning the biased ethnocentric history penned by white scholars, that research by blacks was hampered by segregationist policies: “Natives cannot get access into public and state libraries and into the archives departments.”
Apart from publishing in newspapers, there were very few outlets for their writings. Black intellectuals faced limited resources and their marginal status made the production, circulation and reception of their contributions significantly harder than for their white counterparts.
The writing of Native Life signals the aspirations and needs of the African intelligentsia to assert their humanity, modern citizenship and agency.
Their texts — in all their ideological diversity and differences in craftsmanship — represent, in the first instance, a significant body of knowledge that in itself constitutes an immeasurable archive.
Its marginalisation and even omission from the institutions and canons of South Africa’s knowledge systems is not a reflection of its quality or relevance, but of the Eurocentric and ethnocentric premises that have informed social, cultural and educational life — and continue to do so.
The presence of this textual archive should be acknowledged in relation to cultural and educational life, not as nationalist doctrine, but as a reflection on the messiness of South Africa’s heritage.
Once the archive is more fully recuperated, it will be best approached with a deep appreciation of the historical, political, economic and ideological conditions of its emergence and goals.
Plaatje, his generation and their works are important for other reasons. They held in high regard the labours, significance and pleasures of creative and intellectual work. Despite unconducive social conditions, they led multifaceted and purpose-driven lives, challenging us to evaluate what we aspire to in leadership and public intellectual roles today.
Many were extraordinarily adept across fields and endeavours spanning journalism, politics, education, languages and the arts.
Their works grappled incisively with race and class, democracy and authority (whether traditional or modern), power and gender, culture and identity. Inasmuch as they were critical of aspects of traditional culture and authority, they were also appreciative of their meanings and roles in the past and the present.
Regarding the politics of race, Plaatje and his peers produced alternative visions that strengthened African senses of self. These affirmations were simultaneously local and particular, while remaining cognisant of and receptive to the rest of the world.
Although their encounters with other races and cultures were sharply brokered through the racism, violence and exclusions of colonialism and imperialism, they affirmed a belief in a common humanity.
These are all concerns that continue to animate public life in South Africa and much can be gained by revisiting black South Africans’ writings from the past.
Many of the sociopolitical and economic conditions that hindered Plaatje’s creative and intellectual life continue to lie behind the conflicts that affect the tertiary education sector today, and the calls for its transformation.
Important institutional challenges include racial imbalances in the composition of academic staff, and curricula with content overwhelmingly skewed towards canonical texts drawn from Europe and North America. Exclusionary practices and inhospitable surroundings have typified many campuses, where the institutional culture has led to the alienation, conflict and subsequent departure of black academics and professionals.
Improvement of the lived experiences of black staff and students is a key part of the changes that are being called for.
There is also what may be termed the monolingual nature of teaching and knowledge production. The dominance of English across disciplines and the inability or limited abilities to speak or write in African languages by scholars across the racial divides means that the experiences, views and insights of the majority of citizens have not been meaningfully engaged with and brought into the orbit of education and pedagogy.
“If Plaatje were alive in current day South Africa, what would he do?”
This was the question posed by Athambile Masola in the Mail & Guardian against a backdrop of the country’s varied, deeply felt, sometimes problematic centennial reflections on the Land Act in 2013.
In writing of the intense vulnerabilities of those living in informal settlements and of “the poverty continuing unashamedly today”, she makes connections between her reading of Native Life and the contemporary situation to interrogate the relentless persistence of the past in the present, and to insist upon a new reality from current government.
While there is an understandable focus on apartheid’s bitter inheritance, South Africa’s socioeconomic legacies have deeper roots too of course, as has been highlighted in energised student activism in 2015 and beyond.
Looking to South Africa’s colonial past, as well as to the phenomenon of apartheid, the #RhodesMustFall decolonisation initiative and its ripple effects across South African institutions — and to others abroad such as #RhodesMustFallOxford — have heightened the public discourse about the normalisations and continuities of history’s inequities and the erasures of violence.
Solidarity has been expressed with protest movements such as #BlackLivesMatter in the United States in confronting racism’s sometimes “whitewashed” historical underpinnings that inform contemporary manifestations.
To some extent, Plaatje has been invoked in revisiting South Africa’s colonial past and African resistance. In a milieu of historical interrogation, a re-evaluation and commemoration of Plaatje’s Native Life seems particularly fitting.
While some attention has been given to “recover[ing] the roots of debate and engagement” through research and heritage endeavours, many pre-apartheid black leaders from South Africa and other parts of Africa are less well covered and less well known than figures of the mid-to-late 20th century, in spite of the ANC’s centenary celebrations in 2012.
Hlonipha Mokoena argues that encountering the “blank spaces” of South Africa’s past and filling in the gaps of black history is the undertaking of new generations.
In this light, contemporary South Africans negotiate their subjectivities to some degree in relation to the claims and impacts of pioneering figures such as Plaatje whose words live on. In the struggle for equal rights and opportunities for the black majority, Native Life makes a significant contribution.
It was a book of its time, but arguably is also for all time, in attempting to understand South Africa’s past, weigh up its present and imagine its future.