Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (9 October 1876 – 19 June 1932) was a South African intellectual, journalist, linguist, politician, translator and writer. The Sol Plaatje Local Municipality, which includes the city of Kimberley, was named after him.
Plaatje was born in Doornfontein near Boshof, Orange Free State (now Free State Province, South Africa), the sixth of eight sons. His grandfather's name was Selogilwe Mogodi but his employer nicknamed him Plaatje and the family started using this as a surname. His parents Johannes and Martha were members of the Tswana tribe. They were Christians and worked for missionaries at mission stations in South Africa. The family moved to Pniel near Kimberley in the Cape Colony when Solomon was four to work for a German missionary, Ernst Westphal, and his wife Wilhelmine. There he received a mission-education. When he outpaced fellow learners he was given additional private tuition by Mrs. Westphal who also taught him to play the piano and violin and gave him singing lessons. In February 1892, aged 15, he became a pupil-teacher, a post he held for two years.
After leaving school, he moved to Kimberley in 1894 where he became a telegraph messenger for the Post Office. He subsequently passed the clerical examination (the highest in the colony) with higher marks than any other candidate in Dutch and typing. At that time, the Cape Colony had qualified franchise for all men 21 or over, the qualification being that they be able to read and write English or Dutch and earn over 50 pounds a year. Thus, when he turned 21 in 1897, he was able to vote, a right he would later lose when British rule ended.
Shortly thereafter, he became a court interpreter for the British authorities during the Siege of Mafeking and kept a diary of his experiences which were published posthumously.
After the war, he was optimistic that the British would continue to grant qualified franchise to all males but they gave political rights to whites only in the 1910 Union of South Africa. Plaatje criticised the British in an unpublished 1909 manuscript entitled "Sekgoma – the Black Dreyfus."
As an activist and politician he spent much of his life in the struggle for the enfranchisement and liberation of African people. He was a founder member and first General Secretary of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which would become the African National Congress (ANC) ten years later. As a member of an SANNC deputation he travelled to England to protest the Natives Land Act, 1913, and later to Canada and the United States where he met Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois.
While he grew up speaking the Tswana languag
, Plaatje would become a polyglot. Fluent in at least seven languages, he worked as a court interpreter during the Siege of Mafeking, and translated works of William Shakespeare into Tswana. His talent for language would lead to a career in journalism and writing. He was editor and part-owner of Koranta ea Becoana (Bechuana Gazette) in Mafikeng, and in Kimberley Tsala ea Becoana (Bechuana Friend) and Tsala ea Batho (The Friend of the People). Plaatje was the first black South African to write a novel in English – Mhudi. Plaatje wrote the novel in 1919, but it was only published in 1930. In 1928 the Zulu writer R. R. R. Dhlomo published an English-language novel, entitled An African Tragedy, at the missionary Lovedale Press, in Alice. This makes Dhlomo's novel the first published black South African novel in English, even though Plaatje's Mhudi had been written first. He also wrote Native Life in South Africa, which Neil Parsons describes as "one of the most remarkable books on Africa by one of the continent's most remarkable writers"; and Boer War Diary that was first published 40 years after his death.
Plaatje was a committed Christian, and organized a fellowship group called the Christian Brotherhood at Kimberley. He was married to Elizabeth Lilith M’belle, a union that would produce five children – Frederick, Halley, Richard, Violet and Olive. He died of pneumonia at Pimville, Johannesburg on 19 June 1932 and was buried in Kimberley.
In 2000, the South African Post office created a series of stamps about the writers of the Boer War including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Winston Churchill. Plaatje appears on the 1.30 Rand stamp together with Johanna Brandt and the Anglo-Boer War Medal.
The Sol Plaatje Municipality in South Africa's Northern Cape Province is named in his honour. In 1998, with several of his descendants present, an honorary doctorate was posthumously conferred on Plaatje by the University of the North-West.
In Kimberley, the house at 32 Angel Street, where Plaatje spent his last years, was declared a National Monument (now a provincial heritage site) in 1992 (as was his grave in West End Cemetery, in 1998), when it became the Sol Plaatje Museum and Library, run by the Sol Plaatje Educational Trust, with donor funding.
A statue featuring Plaatje, seated and writing at a desk, was unveiled in Kimberley by South African President Jacob Zuma on 9 January 2010, the 98th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress. By sculptor Johan Moolman, it was erected at the Civic Centre, formerly the Malay Camp, and situated approximately where Plaatje had his printing press in 1910 – 13.