Martin Plaut was born in Cape Town, South Africa in May 1950.  His parents were Erwin Plaut and Faith Plaut. His father was a furniture designer who had a shop on the Cape Town Foreshore [Plaut Interior Design] and his mother was an artist working with paints and in fabrics. His mother was born in Cape Town but grew up in Britain and his father was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, but left in the 1930s due to the persecution of Jews.

Plaut schooled at Saint Georges and from Standard 8 (Grade Ten) onwards, he attended Cape Town High.  From 1969 until 1973 he worked at his father’s shop in Cape Town.

He received his first degree in Social Science from the University of Cape Town, and an Honours degree in Industrial Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand, before going on to complete an MA degree at the University of Warwick, England, between 1976 and 1977. While a student, he was active in the Wages Commissions movement, an affiliate of the National Union of Students (NUSAS) which led to the resurgence of trade unions and ultimately Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

In 1978, Plaut worked for a year as an Industrial Relations adviser to Mobil Oil before joining the British Labour Party as an adviser on Africa and the Middle East. He liaised with the Anti-Apartheid Movement as part of his role as Secretary of the Labour Party’s Africa Committee and was the Secretary of the Africa Committee of the Labour Party, preparing policy documents and doing research for the party. As a result, Plaut represented the Party on many bodies, including the UK Anti-Apartheid Movement.

According to Plaut, this was not always an easy task, as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the African National Congress (ANC) pushed the Labour Party hard to recognise the ANC in the same way that it recognised the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Namibian people.’ Plaut resisted this, since the Labour Party recognised the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on the same basis as the ANC, just as the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity did. The Labour Party also dealt with the Progressive Party and had good relations with FOSATU and then COSATU. The ANC was opposed to them building these links. Instead the ANC pushed for Labour to only work through them in making links with South African organisations.

The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) ran a campaign around the slogan ‘Direct links stinks!’  Plaut also resisted this, as he considered it was quite inappropriate for the Labour Party, as a democratic organisation to cut ties with the PAC or COSATU and allow the ANC to dictate how they should relate to progressive organisations in South Africa. The ANC sent a high-level delegation, led by Abdul Minty, to meet the Labour Party International Committee, in an attempt to get him sacked, but the Labour Party stood by him. It was a very difficult period for him but he survived, despite rumours being spread that he was working for South African intelligence, the Bureau of State Security (BOSS).

For two years, he was an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, leading their Africa research programme and continues to be an active member. In 1984, Plaut joined the BBC, working primarily on Africa. He has reported from most of East Africa, as well as some parts of West Africa, and specialises in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa. He is currently Africa editor, BBC World Service News.

Plaut is still active in Southern African politics and is a member of Action for Southern Africa, the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He is still a member of the Labour Party.

Martin Plaut's publications include:

  • Power! Black workers, their unions and the struggle for freedom in South Africa. Spokesman Press, 1984 (with Denis MacShane and David Ward)
  • South Africa: Out of the Laager? Fabian Society, 1991
  • War in the Horn Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999 (with Patrick Gilkes)
  • Unfinished Business: Ethiopia and Eritrea at war Red Sea Press, 2005, (editor, with Dominique Jacquin-Berdal)
  • Ethiopia and Eritrea: Allergic to persuasion. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2007 (with Sally Healy)
  • Fighting for Britain: African soldiers in the Second World War, 2010 James Currey, (by David Killingray, with Martin Plaut)
  • The Hamster of Hampstead Heath. 2007 - Self publish

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