Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje was born on 9 October 1876 in the Boshof district of the Orange Free State. His parents were Christians who belonged to the Setswana-speaking Barolong tribe. About the time he was born, his parents moved to the Pniel mission station of the Lutheran Berlin Mission Society, near Barkly West, and it was there that Plaatje received his only formal education, a few years in the elementary grades. He remained at Pniel for several years as an assistant teacher, studying further with the aid of the missionaries. In 1894 he went to Kimberley, where he found work as a postman, continued his private studies, and eventually distinguished himself on the civil service examinations. On the eve of the Boer War he was sent to Mafeking as an interpreter, and during the siege of Mafeking in 1899 - 1900 he acted as both court interpreter and clerk to the Mafeking administrator of Native affairs. He was proficient in at least eight languages, including German and Dutch, as well as English and all the major African vernaculars.
Advancement in the civil service being closed to him, Plaatje turned to journalism at the end of the war, and, with financial backing from Silas Molema, chief of the Barolong, he established the first Setswana-English weekly, Koranta ea Becoana (Newspaper of the Tswana) in 1901. This existed, under Plaatje's editorship, for six or seven years, after which he moved from Mafeking to Kimberley. There he established a new paper; Tsala ea Becoana, later renamed Tsala ea Batho (The Friend of the People). While producing these papers, Plaatje also contributed many articles to other papers, particularly to the Kimberley Diamond Fields Advertiser. When the South African Native National Congress (later called the African National Congress) was formed in 1912, Plaatje was chosen its first secretary-general. An articulate opponent of tribalism, he exemplified the new spirit of national unity among African intellectuals. (At a time when intertribal marriages were still uncommon, Plaatje had married a Fingo. His wife Elizabeth was a sister of H. I. Bud-Mbelle.)
The first major campaign of the SANNC was against the Land Act of 1913, a measure that drastically curtailed the right of Africans to own or occupy land throughout the Union. In 1914 Plaatje went to Britain as a member of the deputation charged with appealing to the British government against the Act. The mission proved futile, but Plaatje decided to stay behind after the departure of the rest of the deputation, and he remained in Britain until February 1917, when he returned to South Africa. During this time he lectured, worked as a language assistant at London University, and produced three books, including a detailed and moving appeal against the Land Act, Native Life in South Africa, Before and Since the European War and the Boer Rebellion (1916). The other two works, Sechuana-Proverbs, With Literal Translations and Their English EquivÂalents and A Sechuana Reader, written with Daniel Jones of London University, also appeared in 1916.
He is said to have attended the first pan-African conference in Paris in February 1919 and also the 1921 conference, but no evidence supports this. He did return to London in May 1919, a few months after the SANNC deputation to Versailles had left South Africa. Late in 1919 he took part in a meeting with British Prime Minister Lloyd George. In December 1920 he went to Canada and the United States, where he traveled widely. Meeting with leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he arranged for an American edition of his book. Native Life, to appear.
At the end of 1923 he returned to South Africa. He continued to write, and when Parliament was in session he traveled to Cape Town to cover the sessions and to lobby for African interests as a representative of the ANC. Influenced by his experiences in the United States, he became involved in the Joint Council movement. He also joined the African People's Organization of Abdul Abdurahman. He made a trip to the Congo to observe conditions there and was active in civic affairs in Kimberley. Although his relations with the ANC were sometimes uneasy, in December 1930 he accompanied an ANC deputation to the Native affairs department to register African complaints against the pass laws. He died of pneumonia while on a trip to Johannesburg on 19 June 1932.
In addition to the works already mentioned, his writings include a novel, Mhudi, An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago (1930), The Mote and the Beam: An Epic on Sex-Relationship 'Twixt White and Black in British South Africa (1921), and translations of four Shakespeare plays into Setswana.
In 1972 his Mafeking diary, discovered in 1969 and edited by John L. Comaroff, was published under the title The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje: An African at Mafeking.