A gentle troublemaker

2016-10-09 16:01

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa Past and Present edited by Janet Remmington, Brian Willan, Bhekizizwe Peterson

Wits University Press

300 pages


Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje’s place in South African history is secure. “One of the greatest of all South Africans, the equal at least of Mandela”, who termed him “that giant among African men of letters”, Plaatje helped to shape the black press. Perhaps his “greatest achievement … was as a journalist”.

This is evident in Native Life in South Africa, which, as today’s journalists observe, began as “a little book”, but left “a giant legacy”. It is a “remarkable narrative of lucid prose, vivid imagery and eyewitness reporting”; his “greatest work”, which “should be compulsory reading for all South Africans [and] translated into all South African languages”.

Native Life has endured although, today, few besides historians or literary scholars remember his reporting. Yet we can appreciate his journalism in the book. Plaatje included many extracts from the press and draws on his own and others’ reporting for argument, evidence and flair.

Plaatje the journalist was central to the rise of both ethnic and national black politics. Sketching his role from apprentice to investigative journalist and author of Native Life, the great exposé of the Land Act, places this, his masterwork, in focus.

The substantial histories of the black press need no repeating here, save to trace Plaatje’s contribution. His own papers, Koranta ea Becoana (Bechuana Gazette, 1901-1909) and Tsala ea Becoana/Batho (Friend of the People, 1910-1915), stood in a collegial relationship to other early organs.

There was some rivalry and differences, notably with John Tengo Jabavu (Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion, 1884), who alienated Plaatje by supporting the Land Act. Considering Native Life’s relationship with the black press, we should appreciate that the nascent black intelligentsia had few publication outlets and that newspapers filled the vacuum, serving as news carriers, magazines and literary or historical journals.

Plaatje’s role in the media was significant … He soon became a central player in a vibrant (if financially fragile) black-owned press, part of an emergent national, Pan-African and global network of black editors, joining AK Soga and FZS Peregrino in the short-lived South African Native Newspaper Press Association.

At Plaatje’s funeral, ANC leader ZR Mahabane underscored that, “as a journalist, he was as versatile as he was diplomatic, and shrewd in the selection, preparation and presentation of his matter for the public press”. As he passed, the rise of new white-owned black media heralded the final demise of an independent black press. Yet Native Life has endured, with new editions helping to spark a desire to end injustice: for example, a 1989 popular history by a revived black press drew on the book.

Despite a post-1994 success story of new tabloids, respite from a past “dismal reputation for government restriction of the media”, and a freeing of public opinion via the internet, media concentration is much greater than in Plaatje’s time; only four press groups owned 90% of newspapers by 1996. The press has come under growing pressure from intrusive legislation, notably the 2011 Protection of State Information Bill (passed a second time in April 2015, but still lacking provision for public interest). This also has become a regional and global problem with media restricted in most countries and investigative journalists hounded, indicative of the fragility of the media in the face of corporate-government power.

Today’s media predicament is different, but reminds us of Plaatje’s problems of independence, a small paper standing up to powerful interests.

What Plaatje might have thought of today’s scene, only contra-factual historians can say. Probably he would join those intrepid journalists striving for truth against the rich and powerful. He would be appalled at today’s intrusions against press freedom. Yet this gentle troublemaker emphasised not so much liberty of the press – which in a limited sense had won through in the 19th century – but, rather, its ethics and role for justice.

He strove, too, for black freedom; with South African media still predominantly white-owned, he surely would see a continuing need for an independent and a black-owned press, and for land reform, so central to Native Life. In this regard, his book continues to offer a shining example of how to use the press to wage an unrelenting campaign to expose injustice.

Read more on:    sol plaatje  |  education

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.