“AWAKENING on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually, a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”
And so began the first chapter of Sol T Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, a harrowing account of how a ganging up between state and white farmers and mine owners would dispossess black people and leave them in a state of abject poverty.
In a foreword to the book, author Bessie Head wrote: “It is possible that no other black legislation has so deeply affected the lives of black people in South Africa as the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. It created overnight a floating, landless proletariat whose labour could be used and manipulated at will, and ensured that the land had finally and securely passed into the hands of the ruling white race.”
Another writer, Brian Willan, described Native Life in South Africa as one of South Africa’s “great political books”.
“Published in 1916, it was first and foremost a response to the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, and written by one of the most gifted and influential black writers and journalists of his generation. Native Life provides an account of the origins of this crucially important piece of legislation, and a devastating description of some of its immediate effects,” Willan wrote.
“But it is much more than this. It explores at the same time the wider political and historical context that produced policies of the kind embodied in the Land Act, and documents meticulously the steps taken by South Africa’s rulers to exclude black South Africans from the exercise of political power.”
Sol Plaatje was a special and, in many ways, one of the greatest South Africans of all time. He was an author, a lobbyist, a newspaper editor, a linguist (he spoke eight languages) and a friend of cabinet ministers.
And yet, his formal education did not go beyond primary school.
He was one of the founder members of the South African Native National Congress and, with his fluency in languages, he was the natural choice to become the first general secretary of the congress.
But what he will always be remembered for is the way he opposed the Natives’ Land Act, and how he recorded the effects of the act on the country’s African people.
Furious over the promulgation of the act, but calm in deciding how to oppose it, Plaatje chose to travel across the country – by train from Kimberley to Bloemhof in the Transvaal, and from Bloemhof by bicycle, in the direction of Johannesburg – to gain first-hand insight to its effects.
“ ‘Pray that your flight be not in winter’, said Jesus Christ, but it was only during the winter of 1913 that the full significance of this New Testament passage was revealed to us,” Plaatje wrote at the beginning of the third chapter of Native Life. “We left Kimberley by the early morning train during the first week in July, on a tour of observation regarding the operation of the Native’s Land Act; and we arrived in Bloemhof in the Transvaal at about noon.”
Plaatje wrote that even then some farmers had already “viewed with eager eyes the impending opportunity for at once making slaves of their tenants and appropriating their stock; for, acting on the powers conferred on them by an act signed by Lord Gladstone, so lately as June 16, they had during that very week (probably a couple of days after, and in some cases, it would seem, a couple of days before the actual signing of the bill) approached their tenants with stories about a new act which makes it criminal for anyone to have black tenants and lawful to have black servants.”
As he continued his journey, Plaatje witnessed scenes he said he would never forget. One of these involved a meeting with a man called Kgobadi, whom he had met in the Orange Free State. Kgobadi had worked for a farmer who, on hearing of the new law, wanted to change their working agreement. The farmer wanted Kgobadi and his wife and his oxen to work on the farm for 30 shillings a month.
It was open season.
Kgobadi, who had previously earned 100 pounds a year on the farm, refused – at which point the farmer immediately ordered him to leave.
Plaatje wrote that the couple’s baby had been ill at the time he was evicted. Two days after the the family had moved from their house to an ox-wagon, the child had died and had to be buried on “stolen land”, in the dark, “lest the proprietor of the spot should surprise them in the act”.
Plaatje noted: “Even criminals dropping straight from the gallows have an undisputed claim to six feet of ground in which to rest their criminal remains. But under the cruel operation of the Land Act little children, whose only crime is that God did not make them white, are sometimes denied that right in their ancestral home.”
Despite the ruthless manner in which the Land Act was imposed, Plaatje and other members of the congress still believed that the white authorities would do the decent thing if convinced about the error of their ways. They, therefore, drew up a list of evictions, with details of the livestock that the former tenants had lost. In so doing, they found that losses also included homes, schools and churches.
It was obvious that the evictions had been carried out solely to obtain forced, cheap labour. And in this respect, the state had succeeded in its aims.
At that point, the damage done seemed irreparable…