Book review – Intimate biography

2012-11-24 16:53

Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje was not only one of the founding fathers of the ANC, he was a pioneering journalist and politician.

So at a time when the movement he helped to establish is facing off with the media over freedom of expression, Plaatje’s legacy is all the more important to the public discourse. After all, a free press was a key value in his generation’s dream for South Africa.

Hence the release in English of Modiri Molema’s biography of Plaatje, originally written in Setswana, the subject’s mother tongue. The author knew his subject personally, which lends a unique intimacy to the writing.

Molema’s lyricism rings with the echo of its era, a time when missionaries were converting Africans to Christianity. Along with faith, they brought English traditions and ways into the daily lives of Africans. This

accounts for the oral Shakespearean language with its missionary Christian sensibilities that is part of both Plaatje and the author’s social fabric.

The writer, due to his personal proximity to his subject, though struggles to balance his admiration of the subject with the need to write an objective historical appraisal of a gigantic personality.

The book describes Plaatje’s spat with his siblings over the sale of his late father’s belongings, which gives insight into the personal reality of the man. The lessons he learns in domestic diplomacy, along with his job as a court interpreter, prepare him for his role as an international political negotiator.

As a gifted and hard-working education enthusiast, Plaatje taught himself to speak Dutch, English, German and many other languages.

His literary triumphs too are chronicled in the book.

He wrote the first English novel by an African, titled Mhudi.

It is a fictionalised account of the fatal clash between the Barolong and amaNdebele of Mzilikazi. Plaatje also translated Shakespeare’s classics into Setswana.

Molema also paints Plaatje as a tireless, industrious figure helping to realise a new African modernity, primarily as a crusader for education.

Though other more comprehensive biographies exist, Molema’s book shows us Plaatje as he was perceived by his contemporaries.



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