Christians Who Changed Their World: Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, Christians have long been at the forefront of the push for racial equality. This work comes from the Bible’s teaching that the image of God which we all share is the foundation for human dignity, and from the New Testament’s insistence on the spiritual and moral equality of all people.

In American history, we see the importance of Christianity in the Civil Rights movement in the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Less well known is the work of African Christians in promoting racial equality in the face of European colonization of Africa. One of these native Africans was Solomon Plaatje.

Racial segregation in South Africa
To understand Plaatje’s career, a brief history of European colonization in South Africa is in order. The indigenous people were primarily speakers of Bantu languages, including for example Shona, Zulu, and Tswana. When Europeans began sailing around Africa to India in the sixteenth century, the region came under the trading domination of the European powers looking to control trade to the Indian Ocean. This began with the Portuguese, who dominated the region without actively colonizing it. They were displaced by the Dutch in 1652, who established the first European colony in the area. With the growing importance of India for the British Empire, the British took over the territory in 1806.

The British established a policy of racial equality (in principle, at least) and eventually abolished slavery. Even though the Empire compensated slave owners for the loss of their property, this was too much for many of the Dutch who remained in South Africa. They moved to the interior and established a series of republics run by whites, including the Orange Free State. Eventually, due to the discovery of diamonds and gold in these territories, they were absorbed by the British and incorporated into the Union of South Africa.

Formative years and events
Solomon Plaatje was born in the Orange Free State, the sixth of eight boys. His parents were Christians who worked for missionaries around South Africa. The family moved to the British Cape Colony when he was four years old to work for the Lutheran Berlin Mission Society. He was educated in the mission school, but was so capable that at age 15, he began teaching in the school while continuing his studies privately with the missionaries. Ultimately, he became fluent in seven languages, including English, German, Dutch, and the major African languages of the region.

Plaatje left his teaching position after two years to become a telegraph messenger. He then passed the civil service examinations in Dutch and typing. The Cape Colony allowed anyone who was literate in either English or Dutch and who made 50 pounds per year to vote, so when Plaatje turned 21, he was able to participate in elections. When the Second Boer War broke out, he became an interpreter at the critical Siege of Mafeking. He kept a diary of his experiences in English, which was published after his death.

After the war, since he could no longer advance within the civil service, Plaatje turned to journalism. In 1901 he began publishing the first Setswana-English weekly, Koranta ea Becoana (Newspaper of the Tswana), in Mafeking. After editing the paper for six or seven years, he moved to Kimberley, where he started Tsala ea Becoana (Friend of the Tswana), later renamed Tsala ea Batho (Friend of the People). The name change reflected an important aspect of Plaatje’s thinking: he was ardently opposed to tribalism, and spent much of his career working to promote African unity and national consciousness. Along with his work on his own newspapers, he also contributed articles to others. Throughout his work as a journalist, he saw his role as being a mouthpiece for his people.

Unfortunately, through the Treaty of Union of South Africa (1910) Plaatje and other blacks lost the right to vote. Plaatje understandably felt betrayed, which helped to set up much of the rest of his career as an activist.

Plaatje the activist
In 1912, in part as a response to the Treaty of Union of South Africa, a number of black leaders formed the South African Native National Congress, which was later re-named the African National Congress (ANC). Because of his leadership in promoting African unity, Plaatje was selected to be its first secretary-general.

The following year, the South African government passed the Natives’ Land Act, which restricted the right of blacks (“natives”) to own property. This became a cornerstone of apartheid. The South African Native National Congress fought this act and did everything in its power constitutionally to try to have the rights of blacks recognized, but to no avail. When all legal avenues within South Africa were exhausted, they decided to go over the head of the colonial government and appeal to Parliament in London in 1914.

Unfortunately, that was the year World War I broke out, and the government had no time to deal with South Africa. The rest of the delegation returned to South Africa, but Plaatje stayed behind in London until 1917. While there, he lectured, worked as a language assistant at the University of London, and published three books: Native Life in South Africa, a denunciation of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act; a book of proverbs in his native language with English translation; and a reader in his native language.

After the war, the British government had the opportunity to revisit the issue of the rights of blacks in South Africa. In 1919, Plaatje made a personal appeal to Prime Minister Lloyd-George, who had also received a submission from the Afrikaner Nationalist delegation headed by General Hertzog. Lloyd-George wrote to General Smuts, the Prime Minister of South Africa, that Plaatje made a much better case than Hertzog, but the British government was unwilling to interfere with the decisions of the all-white South African parliament. And so the system of apartheid remained in place.

Plaatje travelled a great deal in promoting the cause of the black South Africans, including time in Canada and the United States, where he met with Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and the leaders of the NAACP.  With their help, he arranged for an American edition of his book, Native Life in South Africa. Wherever he went, he won over audiences with his command of language and sense of humor.

As time went on, Plaatje devoted more time to literary activities. He had already written the first English language novel written by an African (Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago, written in 1919 but not published until 1930). Returning to London, he began producing translations of Shakespeare’s plays into Tswana, including Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar, and Much Ado about Nothing.

At the end of 1923, Plaatje returned home to South Africa, where he continued to lobby the government on behalf of the native community and to report on the doings of parliament. In 1929, the black community in Kimberley gave him a house at 32 Angel Street to thank him for his service to their people. Although his relationship with the ANC became strained at times, he continued to work with them, including travelling with a delegation to Congo to observe conditions there. He also became involved in a number of other organizations, including the Joint Council movement and the African People’s Organization.

In the midst of all his work, he continued to be a committed Christian. For example, in the last period of his life he organized the Christian Brotherhood, a fellowship in Kimberley.

Plaatje’s death and contributions
Plaatje contracted pneumonia on a trip to Johannesburg in 1932. He died there, and was buried in Kimberley. Over a thousand people attended his funeral. After that, however, he was gradually forgotten. His manuscripts were lost, his works largely unread, and his political activity produced no tangible results. It wasn’t until 1970 that he was rediscovered, resulting in a growing interest in his work. The front garden, façade, and two front rooms of his house in Kimberley were declared a national monument in 1992.

Plaatje’s career was an outworking of his Christian faith that recognized that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus that they are all equal in dignity and possessed of God-given rights that cannot justly be taken from them. His efforts to overcome tribalism and apartheid both grew from that conviction, as did his burning indignation at the unjust system that had been put into place in his country.

But one other lesson from Plaatje’s life is worth noting: he did not appear to have succeeded at all in his work. While recognized as an important leader in his lifetime, he faded quickly into obscurity even as the ANC moved toward radicalism and communism. Yet the principles he worked for eventually resurfaced in the leadership of the ANC, including in Nelson Mandela, as well as in other anti-apartheid leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Allan Boesak. Despite his obscurity, the seeds he sowed eventually bore fruit, which should be a reminder to us that we should not judge our work for God by what we see, but rather by our faithfulness in carrying out his purposes for us.

Next Steps

Do you have any part to play in racial reconciliation, however small? What might you do beyond “being nice” to someone of different ethnicity? And what might you be able to do to encourage others along those lines?


Further Reading:
For a different perspective on racial justice, purchase Letters from Apartheid Street: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine from our Online Bookstore. If you’re interested in how Christian values affect social health, download from the Colson Center Library Miroslav Volf’s article “Free of Charge? Forgiveness and Faith in a World of Rejection and Rights.”

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.

You must be logged in to comment on Christian Worldview Journal articles.