Kimberley's Sol Plaatje statue at the heart of new wrangle

Sol Plaatje at his writing desk taken from his book Native Life in South Africa. (Photo: Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand).

Sol Plaatje at his writing desk taken from his book Native Life in South Africa. (Photo: Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand).

For nine years, a life sized statue of Kimberley resident and South African icon Solomon Thekiso Plaatje, commissioned by the Northern Cape Heritage Authority, has been languishing in storage at the McGregor museum.

This after the initial mounting of the statue had to be halted due to objections from the Plaatje family over the way their ancestor was depicted with a clenched fist associated with the black power salute.

The statue was meant to be located in Bultfontein Street in Kimberley City Centre at the time, just opposite a statue of struggle icon Francis Baard. The family, through the Sol Plaatje Trust, argued however, that the statue misrepresented Plaatje’s character, as there was no evidence of Plaatje ever giving the specific salute and it was changed to him carrying newspapers instead.

Now the statue is at the heart of a new wrangle after the Sol Plaatje University wrote to Sports, Arts and Culture MEC Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, requesting that the statue be donated to the institution.

Mbinqo-Gigaba approved the request - much to the ire of both the Plaatje family and the Northern Cape Heritage Authority.

“As part of our mandate to transform the provincial heritage landscape, we donated the statue which we had to the Sol Plaatje University after we received a letter from them,” Mbinqo-Gigaba said.

“The statue will be erected on the premises of the university which will also be responsible for the financial implications related to its installation and unveiling. The university is named after Sol Plaatje and therefore this is the most suitable and appropriate venue to have it erected.

“There is nothing sinister around the donation of the statue to the university, and it is done with the aim of promoting and preserving the heritage of an icon of the city of Kimberley.”

‘Thorny disputes around this issue’

A source with inside knowledge, however, told News24 that the Northern Cape Heritage Authority felt the MEC had overstepped her mandate as the heritage authority had commissioned the statue.

“The department does not understand its role by doing as they please with the ownership of the statue, without consultation,” the source said.

The source said that while the heritage authority was an agency of the provincial arts department, decision-making rests with the authority and the statue remained its sole property.

Approached for comment, university Vice Chancellor Yunus Ballim would say only that “the donation of the statue was a sensitive matter to comment on at this stage”.

He was echoed by the eldest great-grandson and trustee of the Sol Plaatje Trust, Sebeka Plaatje, who said “because of the thorny disputes around this issue, it’s not convenient to talk about this right now”.

It is not clear when the statue is expected to be donated. 

Exhibition to take place

When the university first opened its doors in 2014, the Plaatje family were also reportedly taken aback that it had been named after the late Plaatje.

The family apparently threatened to snub the event at the time, saying they had not been consulted on naming the institution after Plaatje.

Kimberley currently boasts several statues of its famous son, including a bust of Plaatje at the William Humphreys Art Gallery as well as a sculpture of Plaatje with a pen at the Sol Plaatje Municipality’s Civic Centre, where Plaatje was believed to have had his publishing firm.

Meanwhile, the William Humphreys Art Gallery is expected to host an exhibition by artist Giorgie Bhunu dedicated to Plaatje’s life on October 4, but the event has also been marred by the fact that several speakers have apparently already pulled out.
By Monday - two days before the event - the programme was yet to be finalised.

However, this would not deter the event, said the Gallery’s Anne Pretorius.

“The exhibition will take place as planned. These alleged schisms make a mockery of the work of Bhunu, who has dedicated a lot in honouring Sol Plaatje through his art,” she said.

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