Sol Plaatje’s name is probably unknown to all but a handful of people at UCL. Yet his scholarship in his lifetime, was partly linked with UCL, and his scholarly legacy is highly significant for thinking about education and international development as a field of inquiry.
Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876-1932) was a South African whose whole life was an engagement with different aspects of education and a negotiation with what we call today international development, but what was, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, framed by Empire and colonial relationships . Sol Plaatje was born in 1876 in what is today the Free State province of South Africa. Educated by German missionaries he was fluent in Setswana, English, Dutch, and four other languages. He worked as a teacher, a telegraph messenger, a clerk, a court interpreter, a journalist, newspaper owner, editor, a translator, a researcher, a political organiser and lobbyist, a negotiator, an actor, a singer, a novelist and an academic researcher. His life story brims with so many incidents, and highlights so many different kinds of educational relationships in South Africa, England and the USA, that it is a clear education and international development can never be only about one kind of formation of human capital, a single kind of accumulation of social capital or a one-dimensional form of subordination to colonial rule.
Plaatje was immersed in, but always critically engaged with, colonial cultures. His dialogues, disputes, and demands came through his religion, his education, his nuanced responses, for example with translating and performing Shakespeare, or writing political commentaries to be read by colonial rulers and their critics. But, for all his dress and bearing in the style of a Victorian and Edwardian gentleman, he was also, keenly aware of the dispossessions colonial relations brought – the denial of the vote to the majority of people in South Africa, the dispossession of land rights that had been established under Colonial law, and the ways in which the experience of colonial subjects, viewed primarily in terms of their race, were overlooked in what was documented and published about South Africa. He wrote about much of this in his widely circulated book Native Life in South Africa , published in 1916, which generated much discussion when it first came out and continues to excite debate. He was a founding member of the SANNC (South African Native National Congress), which became the ANC. His contribution to literature, art and politics has now been acknowledged in South Africa and beyond.