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Siege of Mafeking: A young court interpreter December 6, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Sol Plaatje as interpreter. Source: "Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War"

Sol Plaatje (in suspenders, leaning against wall). Source: “Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War”*

This post is dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, July 7, 1918 – December 5, 2013.

The story of the siege starts here. For background on the causes and major events of the war, go here. To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

When Sol Plaatje came to Mafeking in October 1898, exactly a year before the siege began, he was a newly married man starting a career as a clerk and court interpreter. He would go on to play an important role as an advocate for African rights. In 1912, he became the first secretary of the South African Native National Congress, forerunner of the African National Congress.

He was born 1876 at Doornfontein in the Orange Free State, where his parents were active in a Missionary Society. The family moved to Pniel, near Kimberley, and Plaatje was educated at mission schools. A bright young man, he took a job at 17 as a messenger with the Post Office—but his goal was to eventually become an interpreter. He belonged to a community of church-goers with progressive ideals.

Most of that community were of Xhosa or Mfengu descent; Plaatje was descended from the Baralong of Modiboa. During his time in Kimberley, he became proficent in English, Dutch, Xhosa, Sesotho, and German in addition to his native Tswana. He developed a liking for Shakespeare and attended performances at the Kimberley Theatre. Later in life, he translated several Shakespeare plays into Tswana.

The place name “Mafeking” was a corruption of the name “Mafikeng,” or “Place of Rocks,” established by  the family of Montshiwa, the chief in the Malopo region. Montshiwa was in conflict with the Transvaal Boers for many years and received aid from the British imperial government, which created the Bechuanaland Protectorate to stave off the Boers’ territorial incursions. In 1885 the British settlement of Mafeking was established a mile from Montshiwa’s court. The whites referred to the black settlement as the “Stadt.”

At the time the war started, the majority of blacks in the area were Tshidi-Baralongs—Montshiwa’s people. But there were also Shangan (Tsonga) refugees—workers from British-owned gold mines on the Rand who’d been run off by the Boers as the war approached—as well as Fingos (Fengu) and mixed-race “Cape coloured boys.” The differences between the groups—who “belonged” there and who didn’t—would become an issue in latter days of the siege when food ran short.

Sol Plaatje

Plaatje had plenty of work to keep himself busy. In addition to his interpreting work, he provided translation and transcription services to several newspaper reporters in Mafeking. But he also found time to keep a diary. And a most interesting diary it was, full of humor and observant of detail.

His first entry, for October 29, describes the experience of hearing the Boer guns firing on the town and listening to the response of the British Maxims. No music is as thrilling and as immensely captivating as to listen to the firing of the guns on your own side. It is like enjoying supernatural melodies in a paradise to hear one or two shots fired off the armoured train; but no words can suitably depict the fascination of the music produced by the action of a Maxim, which to Boer ears, I am sure, is an exasperation…

He goes on to tell of a moment as he walked along the street with Mauser bullets making a “screech” and a “whizz” all around him. He felt something hit him behind his ear and decided that he must be in the act of dying. Dead! To rise no more. A few seconds elapsed after which I found myself scanning the bullet between my finger and thumb, to realise it was but a horsefly.

(To be continued)

*Sol Plaatje, Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War. Edited by John Comaroff with Brian Willan and Andrew Reed. Cambridge, UK: Meridor Books, 1990. All quotes from Plaatje come from this edition of his diary. I am indebted to the book for historical background as well, particularly about the history of African peoples. The subject is complex; the names used have invariably changed over the years; any errors are my own.