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Sol Plaatje and the antinomies of writing against ‘South Africa’

By and large, Sol Plaatje’s foundational anti-colonial work has been reduced to the gut-wrenching opening of his Native Life in South Africa, often invoked by state officials and opportunistic elites in their lip service to Black people’s landlessness. This is despite him being a leading member of this country’s earliest generation of modern African nationalists.

In the wake of colonialism’s conversion of abantu into Blacks, Plaatje’s generation heeded  Isaac Williams Wauchope’s call and turned to the pen as a weapon. 

Although the historians William Beinart and Peter Delius have questioned the extent to which the Native Land Act of 1913 directly dispossessed African peoples of their land (and, by extension, the conclusions of Plaatje’s opus), the political import of Native Life lies in the impetus it gave to the advocacy and organising work of what would later become the ANC.                    

Because they couched their demands for civil equality within the (limiting) frame of property ownership, Plaatje and his peers allow us to think about South Africa’s foundational social contract (the Union of South Africa Act of 1909) in terms of what scholar Cheryl Harris calls “whiteness as property” — as opposed to the psychosocial wage that dominates discourse on state-sanctioned racism. 

With this in mind, we can then eschew the triumphalism of liberal multiculturalism, which would have us believe that we have reached the “end of Blackness” and that “whiteness isn’t worth what it used to be worth”; to instead sit with the disappointment of knowing “that it is only in our memory that this is our land”, close to 40 years after Wally Serote bled onto his page.

Over the past month or so I have been thinking about the protocols of a belated or deferred reading that, instead of revealing how things have changed through the years,“illuminate[s] the intimacy of our experience with the lives of the dead” at the paradigmatic level (as Saidiya Hartman would have it). 

Our disenchantment with politics, as a result of the incompleteness of freedom, must be historicised because, in my view, disappointment has been the major thread running through colonial modernity. The viscerality of Frantz Fanon’s devastation in Black Skin, White Masks is in how he narrates the disappointment of Black soldiers who fought imperial wars in defence of “Europe”, only to later realise that this episteme does not see them as equal subjects. The same with Plaatje, who after his unsuccessful campaign to convince the so-called civilised world of the unjustness of the 1913 Land Act and the racial contract underpinning it, I imagine must have been a very disappointed man.

By and large, Sol Plaatje’s foundational anti-colonial work has been reduced to the gut-wrenching opening of his Native Life in South Africa

Plaatje was betrayed by the British Crown, which found common cause with the Boer republics at the expense of the native African population — many of whom fought on the side of the British during the Anglo-Boer War. Although Plaatje himself did not take up arms during the war, he did, from his Mahikeng digs, keep a diary during the siege of that town. The 23-year-old Plaatje grants us intimate access into everyday life during the earliest stages of this political war and the personal war taking place inside his mind. Here, I am referring to the war between the Morolong man he was becoming and the “British-protected child” he had been educated as.

It is now common knowledge that colonial discourse is ambivalent and in Plaatje’s daily reflections we see the inner workings of this duplicitous discourse, which offers the Barolong protection from the cattle-raiding Boers with one hand and takes away their “being in the world” with the other. 

Therefore, if the object of Plaatje’s disappointment was the very notion of “civilisation” that he had been conscripted into, then his literary response of “constantly explode[ing] the image created of him” (as Njabulo Ndebele would have it) inaugurates an Azanian critique of Western civilisation. This he does by giving a detailed account of the lived experience of being a “pariah in the land of [one’s] birth” after the passage of the Land Act, which could help us understand the multiple ways of entering into Blackness (as a political condition of social death).

My argument is that Plaatje’s generation’s penward turn must be read beyond the “qaba vs gqobhoka” binary in which it has been historically framed. Just like the vision that informed the liberation movement’s anti-colonial efforts, this dichotomous view of the options facing early generations of modern Africans is no longer useful. This is why, in line with the Caribbean literary scholar, David Scott, I have used the word “conscripted” to signal that this so-called gift of enlightenment was not one that could be refused. 

The modern African subject was neither discursively formed nor linguistically interpellated into Western civilisation, but rather was b(r)ought into this worldview by the barrel of a gun — a destructive scene of subjection masterfully dramatised in Mam’ Busi Mhlongo’s Umentshisi.            

What CLR James and Cedric Robinson have termed as Black Studies could help circumvent this problem of a dogmatic reading of the archive of African resistance. 

The event of colonialism may have passed, but the spirit of antiblackness lives on, haunting our post-postcolonial present. Scholars of the future will have to be armed with the proper intellectual tools to help them ask different questions in response to this fact. This is the import of the deferred reading of Plaatje that I have attempted here.

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V Njabulo Zwane
V Njabulo Zwane is a writer and researcher, with scholarly interests in Black popular cultures and South African historiography

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