Maureen Rall. Peaceable Warrior: The Life and Times of Sol T. Plaatje. Kimberley: Sol Plaatje Educational Trust, 2003. xvi + 314 pp. ZAR 265 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-620-29098-2.
Reviewed by Peter Midgley (Department of English, University of Alberta)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2004)
There is something inspiring, intriguing, and remarkably complex about Sol Plaatje: a largely self-taught man who establishes an international reputation as a journalist, interpreter, translator, writer, politician, and statesman. He speaks several languages fluently, translates Shakespeare, collects Setswana proverbs and folklore, collaborates on the first phonetic study of an African language, and is a pioneer of African-language journalism--all this while he tirelessly defends the dwindling rights of African people in post-Union South Africa. He moves from interviewing homeless Africans by the roadside to an audience with the British Prime Minister; he counts among his friends African peasants as well as leading British suffragettes and the editor of The Negro World; he gives talks and shows films at local schools and community centers, and shares a podium with Marcus Garvey. Yet, after his death, this remarkable person remained in obscurity for many years until a few pioneering scholars rescued his work from complete obscurity. Their work spawned a small scholarly industry in which Brian Willan's meticulous and scholarly biography is a standard reference work. Still, Plaatje remains relatively unknown beyond this small circle of dedicated scholars.
Several attempts have been made to make his work more accessible: I published a short critical introduction and John Pampallis published a short popular account of Plaatje's life. There is most certainly a need for a detailed biography that is aimed at a more general popular audience. Maureen Rall, who worked as a curator at the Plaatje Museum in Kimberley, must surely have noticed this need and her biographical study, Peaceable Warrior, is an attempt to provide such a popular account of Plaatje's life.
It is difficult to draw Plaatje's enormous output and varied interests into the confines of a single book. At times, Rall does so admirably and offers a valuable contribution to our understanding of Sol Plaatje. In the parts that deal with Plaatje's life in Kimberley, for instance, we get a real sense of the people who lived there and general concerns that governed their lives. Although Rall tells us more about the times and the people around Plaatje than she does of Plaatje himself, her discussion brings us to a closer understanding of the issues and concerns that urged him to continue his life's work.
Unfortunately, this passion and acute sense of place and period is not apparent throughout the text and, at times, the scholarship becomes sloppy. Large chunks of the book are comprised of verbatim quotes from Willan's biography appended to a brief introductory or concluding statement. Although Rall relies heavily on Willan, she does not interrogate or update his assessments in any way by looking at the wide range of recent scholarship. Peter Limb, for instance, challenges Plaatje's role and position as a moderate and Jane Starfield has written an insightful essay comparing the three editions of Plaatje's diary. Rall's discussion of Mhudi is superficial and seldom extends beyond a plot summary. In some instances, Rall's choice of editions when discussing Plaatje's writing is curious and troubling. She uses the 1973 first edition of Plaatje's diary, which as Jane Starfield notes, has been heavily edited to make it more palatable for a western audience.. Rall is clearly familiar with Andrew Reed's work on Plaatje, as several references in the bibliography indicate; why, then, did she use the 1973 edition warts and all rather than the more carefully and extensively edited Centenary Edition? The text itself is sorely in need of editing and proofreading: unnecessary digressions and convoluted sentences detract from the subject matter. Grammatical errors occur on almost every page and the numerous careless typographical errors become irritating. Even the most rudimentary spell checker would have eliminated some of the errors. Several photograph reproductions are of poor quality--as if they have been copied out of a book rather than from the original.
Although Rall's approach to the narrative is clearly aimed at a more general reading public rather than an academic audience, the book is published only in a limited edition and is printed on glossy paper in a reddish-brown ink. The result is an aesthetically pleasing but impractical book as the combination of glossy pages and ink make reading hard. While this book does cover all the bases, it often does so in a cursory fashion and with little enthusiasm. It is a mixed bag of goodies, and your final experience of this book may well depend on your initial expectations. I was left with an uneasy feeling that, in the end, the poor editing and the lack of critical assessment did not do justice to Sol Plaatje, a person to whom these very things mattered greatly.
. Brian Willan, Sol Plaatje. A Biography (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1984); also Published as Sol Plaatje, South African Nationalist, 1876-1932 (London: Heinemann; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
. Peter Midgley, Sol Plaatje: An Introduction, NELM Introduction Series 3 (Grahamstown: National English Literary Museum, 1997); and John Pampallis, Sol Plaatje (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1992).
. Peter Limb, "Rethinking Sol Plaatje's Attitudes to Empire, Labour and Gender," Critical Arts 16, no. 1 (2002): pp. 23-42; Jane Starfield, "Rethinking Sol Plaatje's Mafeking Diary," Journal of Southern African Studies 27, no. 4 (2001): pp. 855-863.
. Solomon T. Plaatje, Mhudi: An Epic of South African Native Life a Hundred Years Ago, ed. Stephen Gray, 1930 (London: Heinemann, 1978).
. Solomon T. Plaatje, The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje. An African in Mafeking, ed. John L. Comaroff (Johannesburg: MacMillan, 1973).
. Solomon T. Plaatje, The Mafeking Diary of Sol T. Plaatje, Centenary Edition, eds. J. Comaroff and B. Willan, with S. Molema and A. Reed (Cape Town: David Philip, 1999).
Peter Midgley. Review of Rall, Maureen, Peaceable Warrior: The Life and Times of Sol T. Plaatje.
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