Sabata-Mpho Mokae gave the Sol Plaatje Lecture at the Rutanang Book Fair on 27th April 2016 in Potchefstroom, South Africa.
A man goes to appeal to the crown to the better nature of the British Empire because the land of his people has been taken away in the worst way possible in 1914. He stays in the UK for years on end giving speeches and eventually pens a book talking about the way of life of his people. He eventually comes home without having convinced the crown, which was pharaonic in his mind, to let his people go. So who was he and what book did he write? Kenyans will quickly say that his name was Johnstone Kamau turned Jomo Kenyatta and the book was Facing Mount Kenya.
This is correct. However in the context of the Rutanang Book Fair that was happening at the Potchefstroom in Tlokwe Municipality this past week, that honour goes to another gentleman. He was a South African called Sol Plaatje and his book was The Native Life in South Africa. The book was written by Plaatje, who was a journalist and editor, to try and appeal to the crown to look kindly on the natives of South Africa who had just had the 1913 Native Land Act foisted upon them by the South African Boer administration at the time. I have often read that the root of South Africa and its land problems can be directly traced to awful law; it would later form an important part of the Apartheid system. The book starts to show just terrible the act was with the opening line,
“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.”
The lecture was important because this was 100th anniversary of the publishing of the book. Giving the lecture was Sabata-Mpho Mokae a creative writing lecturer at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, South Africa. Yep. Just like Jomo Kenyatta, they named a university after him. Mokae has written the poetry collection Escaping Trauma (2012) and His debut novel in Setswana, Ga Ke Modisa [I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper] (2012) won the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana as well as the M-Net Film Award; the youth novella Dikeledi [Tears] was launched in 2014. In 2011 he also won the South African Literary Award in the literary journalism category. He was uniquely placed to give this lecture as he wrote The Story of Sol T. Plaatje in 2010.
Mokae’s lecture shed light on the history of Plaatje’s move to the UK, his meeting with the administration and his being ignored by it. He stayed on while the people who went on the mission together went home when they realised that they would be wasting their time. He stuck around and his book says a lot about the people whose rights he was agitating for back home. He wasn’t there agitating for the “naked hordes of cannibals who are represented in the shop windows in Europe, most of them imaginary.” He was in the battle on behalf of the “five million loyal British subjects who shouldered the black man’s burden every day doing so without looking forward to any decoration or thanks.” Yep, the dude was a racist and he didn’t even know this.
The lecture weaved around his methods like imploring to the Christian nature of the British by quoting the bible hoping that they would change their ways.
After his lecture the hall, which had a decent turnout if you imagine that this was South African Freedom Day, was filled with questions from the audience members. One could easily see that Sol Plaatje was not a very popular individual with the thinking people within it. He went to look out for the educated blacks and never spared a thought for the majority who lived in the country.
The copyright for the author and the estate of Native Life in South Africa ends this year and you can expect to see more copies of the book moving around in South Africa and further afield.