Plaatje’s story brought back to life in Tswana

The story of three South African intellectuals intertwined this week in a hat-trick of a historic occasion for language, literature and history. The revered Sol Plaatje, who was a mentor to the late Dr Modiri Molema, and Sabata-mpho Mokae, an author and scholar of the work of Sol Plaatje, shared the limelight on Thursday evening during a beautiful moment to launch the biography of Plaatje by Molema written in Tswana. The book is edited by Mokae.

Commemorating the 90th anniversary of  Plaatje’s death, the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, Northern Cape, and Xarra Books hosted a virtual launch of the book Sol Tshekisho Plaatje: Morata Baabo.

Written by medical doctor, politician and academic Molema – who died in August 1965 shortly after submitting the manuscript to Botswana Book Centre – in Serolong, a dialect of Tswana, the book has been in Wits University’s archives for half a century.

In 2012, the manuscript was translated into English by DS Matjila and Karin Haire, and published in the Queen’s language as Lover of His People: A
Biography of Sol Plaatje.

Mokae, an award-winning writer and this year’s winner of the Pan South African Language Board’s multilingualism award, said he thought that with the release of the English translation, it would only be a matter of time before the book was published in its original language. Mokae, a Sol Plaatje scholar, said he waited until his patience started wearing thin. He approached Xarra books, which agreed to publish it.

“I was made aware of the existence of the manuscript of the biography of Sol Plaatje by Dr Molema about 15 years ago. I also read about it in Prof [Brian] Willan’s first biography of Sol Plaatje published in the 1980s,” said Mokae at the launch.

“I also visited Sol Plaatje’s late grandson and namesake in 2008/09, and he also confirmed that the manuscript was at the Wits archives,”

Mokae spent months translating the original manuscript to bring it up to date with the standardised Sotho version.

“I felt the biography need to be published in the language it was written and for the people it was written for.”

It is also an important piece of literature and history in that it is the only biography of Plaatje written by someone who knew him personally.

“Molema was seven years old when he met Plaatje, who was 22. Plaatje, who was from the Free State and had accepted a job as a court interpreter in Mahikeng, was invited by Molema’s father Silas to stay with them. It was the beginning of a brotherhood that lasted until Plaatje’s death in 1932.”

What a beautiful moment to witness the story of three writers, from three different generations, intertwine in one historic book – originally written in Serolong and now translated to Tswana. What a time to be alive.

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