With only a primary school education, Sol Plaatje established a bilingual newspaper and co-founded Africa's oldest surviving political organization, the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912. He was also the first Black South African to write an English novel and the first African to translate Shakespeare into an African language, Setswana. He also exchanged letters with African-Americans WEB Du Bois and RR Morton, who was the second principal of Tuskegee Institute, after the death of founder Booker T. Washington.
“His efforts into developing our language into a written language interested me the most,” says Sabata-mpho Mokae, our next Port of Harlem Podcast guest. After learning more about Plaatje, the academic, novelist, and translator began seeing language as a way of knowing rather than just a tool to communicate.
When one potential reader asked why he didn’t publish the book in an international language. The professor of Setswana replied, “Setswana is spoken not only in South Africa, but three other countries, all which require me a passport to visit.”
“When I was a journalist in Johannesburg around 2006, I came to Kimberley (known for its 19th-century diamond mines) to write about Sol Plaatje,” recalls Mokae. “I started reading up everything about him and by him. My interest was sparked by his genius,” he continued. At that time the city of Kimberley and Plaatje’s family were debating how best to preserve his legacy.
In time, the former writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa-USA, found himself to be the “go to” person on anything Sol Plaatje as the university in Kimberley was named after Plaatje. Mokae also became one of the university’s first professors and taught creative writing. As one would expect, Mokae developed and taught not only in English, but in Setswana.