The edited volume titled Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration (James Currey, 2021) edited by Sabata-mpho Mokae and Brian Willan, opens with a Zulu poem by Siza Nkosi-Mokhele, a South African academic, poet and author of children’s books. The title of the poem is Bra Sol Othandekayo.
To some extent a poem is or at least aspires to be a chronicle of feelings. In an attempt to literally translate the title of this poem into English, one is faced with the reality that a European language has limitations when coming to adequately express African stories, feelings and even spirituality.
A poor attempt at translating the title of Nkosi-Mokhele’s poem into English would be “Dear brother Sol”. But that would just be one part of it. In the urban black communities of South Africa, the title “Bra” (pronounced ‘bro’) is often informally conferred upon older men by those younger than them, especially younger men, to show endearment and a deserved respect. It is earned through conduct in the society and shows the high regard people hold the one conferred with such title.
For Nkosi-Mokhele to address Sol Plaatje as “Bra”it also shows how Plaatje, who was born on a farm and went to a mission school in a rural outpost, had evolved into a man who was admired by urban dwellers in the bustling city of Johannesburg just as much as he was in the villages back in Mahikeng where he wrote his first book, The Mafeking Diary of Sol T. Plaatje, and cut his teeth as a journalist and editor.
The title “Bra” also comes from a language of the South African migrant worker, called Scamtho or Tsotsitaal. This language came to being as men from different parts of Southern Africa came to work in the mines, mainly in Johannesburg from the 1880s. They spoke no common language and in the process created a language of the street, with words and phrases derived from the languages they spoke back home, including Afrikaans.
It is significant that Nkosi-Mokhele chose this language because Plaatje was a migrant labour in many respects. In 1894 he left the mission station of Pniel at the age of seventeen to go and work at the Kimberley Post Office, then left Kimberley in 1898 to go and take up a post as an interpreter and typist, leaving behind his newly wed wife, who was to give birth to their first son, St Leger, in November 1898, just a month after Plaatje’s arrival in Mahikeng. Though they later joined him after the famous Siege of Mafeking, they returned to Kimberley in 1910 following the collapse of his newspaper. It is important to note that his wife was also on the staff of the newspaper, Koranta ea Becoana, for all those years before it closed down. He later went to England as part of the delegation of the South African Native National Congress to seek Britain’s intervention against the passing of the Natives Land Act, a piece of legislation that saw white South Africans who were just a minority, taking up most of South Africa’s land and in the process dispossessing black South Africans of the land of their birth, turning them into what Plaatje in Native Life in South Africa called “pariahs”in the land of their birth.
Plaatje was to stay in England from 1914 to 1917, addressing audiences on the South African land question while writing and publishing his first major book Native Life in South Africa. In 1919 he went back to England and visited North America between 1920 and 1922. During this time when he was away from home, he wrote Mhudi, the first English novel by a black South African.
During all these times his wife was left behind to take care of the family. Somewhere Sol Plaatje biographer writes that Elizabeth once remarked that the only time she could spend time with her husband was when he was ill and in bed. This is typical of migrant workers who stay away from home for long periods of time and only return for short breaks where they cannot even see their children grow up in front of them. It was the same with Plaatje.
In the poem Nkosi-Mokhele also pays tribute to Plaatje for making Mhudi, a young woman, the central character in his novel of the same title, at the time when it was not common to do so, especially by male writers. In a Zulu line, Nkosi-Mokhele applauds him for his portrayal of the character Mhudi in the novel: ngibonga indlela ophathe ngayo owesifazane. One could say Plaatje’s portrayal of Mhudi in the novel as a wise, calculating and very brave woman who shatters most known myths of male superiority is not coincidental, considering the many strong women he had around him from an early age to adulthood, including his wife Elizabeth.
For a man who spoke many languages and promoted the use of and defended his mother tongue, it is befitting that a tribute to him should be in an African language, even though it was not his mother tongue.
Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration is an edited volume of academic essays historical fiction and poetry published for the first time in 2020, at the time when the novel Mhudi turned hundred years since it was written in 1920 in London, England.
This guest post was written by Sabata Mokae, a novelist and lecturer in creative writing at Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley. He has written and lectured on Sol Plaatje, is the author of The Story of Sol Plaatje (Kimberley: Sol Plaatje Educational Trust, 2012) and is co-editor (with Brian Willan) of an edited collection of Plaatje’s letters, to be published by Historical Publications Southern Africa (formerly the Van Riebeeck Society) in 2020. Mokae is a co-editor, with Brian Willan, of “Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration”.