Sol Plaatje was the co-founder of the African National Congress (ANC). As an activist and politician, he spent much of his life fighting for the enfranchisement and liberation of the South African people.

In 1910, South Africa became a single country under white rule. Parliament immediately began enacting laws and policies with devastating impact on Africans. In 1912, Africans began to organize as a single people, forming the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that has endured until the present and played a major role in the country’s evolution.

In 1913, the new government of the Union of South Africa passed the Natives Land Act, prohibiting Africans—67% of the population—from buying or leasing land in 93% of the country. This 93% was set aside for whites. This law was one of several pieces of legislation in the early twentieth century that formalized the racial ideology at the heart of colonialism.

The ANC immediately began organizing, writing, and speaking in opposition. They also met with a few world leaders, though never South African ones. Sol Plaatje [PLAH-key] was the president of the ANC, a man of extraordinary intellect, a journalist who wrote in eight languages and was sufficiently prominent to meet with leaders like the British prime minister. Adelaide Dube [DOO-bay], who was also a part of the ANC, came to the US for college. After her return home home, she became a teacher and a published poet. Both Plaatje and Dube found an important audience for the expression of their opposition to the new law—a first step toward encouraging people to take action against the law.

In 1921, Sol Plaatje was invited to speak at the 1921 gathering of the Pan-African Congress, an international meeting of black leaders to oppose colonialism and racial injustice. Plaatje himself was unable to attend, as he was on a US speaking tour to expose South African race rule to Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois, who chaired the congress, announced Plaatje’s paper as coming from a South African who needed “to remain anonymous for the present.” The following is an excerpt from this speech.

Mr. President and members of the Pan-African Congress,

I bring to you the greetings of six million British [South African] subjects . . .

The Union Parliament

[The] new parliament [established in 1909] became notorious for the most barbarous legislation that ever characterized white man's rule in South Africa; the effect of it being that the South African Native today finds himself an exile and a helot [slave] in the land of his ancestors. . . .

 

Fresh Restrictions & Discriminations

. . . In 1912, citizens of colour were by law debarred from participating in the citizen's defence force; and a new enactment debarred them from doing skilled work in the industrial centres. God almighty, maker of Eeaven and Earth has decreed that “in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread,”, that (if the labourer's skin be black) is unlawful in British South Africa.

All that the native is allowed to do is the ill-requited [ill paid] “unskilled” work. Occupations that call for the highest skill and which are too hard for the snow-white hands or the cultured brains of the aristocratic whites (such as, for instance, scientific cooking by women, expert mining by men, and the spelling and deciphering of the difficult African names of the Native labourers) are classed as “unskilled” and remunerated at half-a-dollar per day, or less. . . .

Draconian Prohibitions

By far the most outrageous of the monstrous crimes that characterised the South African Parliament's crusade against law-abiding Natives was the passage and enforcement of Law No. 27 of 1913. Under this enactment the Native is not only ostracised but outlawed from the land of his fathers. . . .

Since Europeans took possession of the subcontinent Native peasants made a living by renting portions of farms and sharing the produce with the landowner. Since 1913 when the act came into operation, thousands of these unfortunates have been evicted from their farms. Many of them flocked to the slums of the cities where amid appalling squalor they eke out a painful existence in congested quarters under new and unknown urban restrictions. Many more travelled from farm to farm seeking vainly for a place to abide and, having lost all, they had perforce to return to the farms and settle down to the peonage proscribed for them by law. . . .

The homes that once were a heaven to the families of Native peasants are now monuments of shattered hopes, leaving them perplexed by the relentless vicissitudes of a civilized tyranny. . . .

And what have we done to deserve this rude unsettlement and persecution? We have faithfully borne more than our share in the spread of British dominion in South Africa; for a mere pittance, we have built the beautiful railroads and magnificent cities and towns of the subcontinent; in return for a scant subsistence allowance and at frightful loss of life we have during the past quarter of a century produced for our masters more gold and diamonds than the rest of the world; we have paid all the government's taxes both fair and unfair, in addition to which we have given our sons and daughters in service to the most thankless taskmasters that ever controlled forced labour.1

While Plaatje used his position as the head of a civil rights organization, Adelaide Dube used her poetry to speak out against the Natives Land Act, as with the following poem.

Africa: My Native Land
Adelaide Charles Dube

How beautiful are thy hills and thy dales!
I love thy very atmosphere so sweet,
Thy trees adorn the landscape rough and steep
No other country in the whole world
          could with thee compare.

It is here where our noble ancestors,
Experienced joys of dear ones and of home;
Where great and glorious kingdoms rose and fell
Where blood was shed to save thee, thou
          dearest Land ever known;

But, Alas! their efforts, were all in vain,
For to-day others claim thee as their own;
No longer can their off-spring cherish thee
No land to call their own—but outcasts
          in their own country!

Despair of thee I never, never will,
Struggle I must for freedom—God’s great gift—
Till every drop of blood within my veins
Shall dry upon my troubled bones, oh
          thou Dearest Native Land!2

Citations

  • 1 : Sol T. Plaatje, Speech to the Pan African Congress (1921), UMass Amherst Special Collections and University Archives website. Reproduced by permission of University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
  • 2 : Originally published October 31, 1913, in the Zulu newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal.

Connection Questions

  1. What specific restrictions did the new laws place on Africans? What aspects of their lives were most severely affected?
  2. Plaatje and Dube both describe Africans as cruelly victimized by Europeans. What is the difference between being a victim and being a victim who speaks or writes about it?
  3. Both Plaatje and Dube write about the importance of land for black South Africans. Who are they writing for and why? Compare the tone of each text and the focus. What is similar about each of their approaches? What differences stand out? What does Dube promise at the end?

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