A Pariah in the Land of one’s Birth: Sol Plaatje and Reflections on Higher Education in South Africa in the 21st Century.



Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native

found himself, not actually  slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.

Sol Plaatje: Native Life in South Africa (1916).


The end of the 19th Century Victorian England produced societal contradictions of such magnitude that it could only be described as a society in utter confusion where nihilism was the mental state that many people rooted their minds. The 19th Century offered much but delivered little. It was a time of rapid advances in the industrial revolution but with it came misery and contradictions. With the rise of prosperity came class contradictions as capitalism became a selfish pursuit. It was a time when slavery was abolished, but with it the appetite for extension of the empire and the colonies increased and with much dislocation of the mind of the ordinary English folk. Charles Dickens captured this societal mood in an epic poem that became the opening lines of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, as were going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its nosiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or ill, in the superlative degree of comparison.

Somehow, for sanity to prevail, change and transformation must occur with whatever pain it brings forth. Out of pain could then come a new hope.

In this address, I propose to explore aspects of Sol Tshekisho Plaatje’s ouvre especially on Language, Literature, and outlook on justice for the people of South Africa. I had begun to think that I would explore as vehemently as I could his campaigns especially on the effects of the Native Lands Act, 1913 but decided against that on account of that being a subject on its own. The paper uses Plaatje as a handle on which to hang some thoughts on intellectual life in South Africa and the role of the higher education system as we have received it. I propose to “think aloud” about a possible reform of the higher education system in our times. In this work, no doubt, I have been assisted by the work of Brain Willan on Sol Plaatje whom I acknowledge with gratitude.


If Charles Dickens’ peroration was on the contrasting fortunes of Victorian England, down South there was as much uncertainty about the possibilities of England holding on to its colonies and the empire as there was a determination among those colonized to resist land dispossession and the entrenchment of the colony that had been a whittling away of values and the confidence of the Empire in England. Having done so with much brutality and largescale plunder of the land of the people of Africa and enriching the colonial capital with minerals and economic resources from Africa, England had to endure many years of wars of resistance in the Cape Frontier and elsewhere. There was much loss of human capital to the extent that by the 1870s there was debate in England about the wisdom of entrenching colonies and the empire, and the economic and the reputational cost of doing so. The greatest humiliation was England’s defeat at Isandlwana in a war against the Zulus in 1879. Was it not now time to rethink?

No, instead, the colonists were finding new and even more brutal ways of entrenching the sovereignty of the Crown. Cecil John Rhodes had established a company, that emulate the Belgian King Leopold in the Congo, and established Rhodesia. In Berlin 1884-5 colonial powers met to establish their various claims and control of African territory. It was to institutionalise the scramble for Africa. In the process boundaries of African nation states were created, peoples were brought under foreign control, many cultures, religions and languages were affected, and land dispossession was entrenched. In a sense, in the 1880s European Power was riding the crest of the wave.

In the Cape, in a feat of arrogance and bravado, Cecil John Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, enacted the Glen Grey Act 1894. Of course, I have not lost sight of the fact that it was here in Kimberly that  a certain Cecil John Rhodes made his fortune as founder of DeBeers Diamond Company and launched his political career with the British South Africa Company (1889) with its grandiose plan of claiming much of Central and Southern Africa as British territory. He was the architect of the late colonial scramble for Africa. In a speech to the Cape Parliament, Rhodes characterized African people as “like children recently emerged from barbarism.” They needed to be under the control of the white people, made to undertake labour, pay taxes (what Rhodes called a gentle stimulus!) and their movements controlled. In a real fact Cecil John Rhodes was the instigator of apartheid even before such a word existed. Rhodes’ concern was that the missionary institutions were bringing about a class of Natives learned in Greek and Latin “who will turn out to be a dangerous class – agitators against the government.” The Act had a purpose. It was “to find land for the people; we have to find them some employment; we have to remove liquor from them; and we have to stimulate them to work. In a flamboyant peroration Rhodes nails his colours on the mast without shame:

… this is a native bill for Africa. You are sitting in judgment on Africa at the moment…. It is a proposition submitted to employ their minds on simple questions in connection with local affairs; it is proposition to remove the liquor pest; and last but not least, by the gentle stimulant of the labour tax to remove them from a life of sloth and laziness; you will thus teach them the dignity of labour and make them contribute to the prosperity of the state, and give some return for our wise and good government

But that was not all there was to it. Just as Rhodes was seeking to legislate the destruction of the African mind, anchoring the proletarisation of the African peasant, with its attendant dislocation from their land, culture, religion and language, the response of the indigenous people to the further encroachment of empire, the continuing land dispossession, and the realisation that the colonial powers had defeated African people, caused even further disunity and disempowerment, was creative and deep in resentment and even determination to resist. The Ethiopian Movement brought about a new consciousness among black people from Nehemia Tile and the Thembu Church to Mokone and the Ethiopians new forms of resistance were emerging. The Millenarian Movement had died with Nongqawuse but the African people never saw that their final destiny as subject people. Some had gone to the United States and learnt self-development from the Negro communities, the Black Church, spirituality and educational institutions like Tuskegee; and yet more became involved in the Pan African Conferences in London, Paris and ultimately in Manchester in 1945.

The Boer War was simply a war of dispossession among European settlers by the exclusion of the other. The British sought to entrench their power against the Boer Republics, and the Boers resisted. Both were fighting over land and minerals that did not belong to them. Africans were reduced to spectators in this war. The South African War (1899-1902) was in more than one way “a white man’s war”. Boer and Brit had agreed that only white people would bear arms and fight.

In his magisterial work, The Boer War, Thomas Packham described the siege of Mafikeng where Plaatje saw service in support of the British colonial forces, Baden-Powell, the commander of the British Forces, dealt brutally and with utmost disregard with the Barolong and the Fingoes (this is put as it was in the book!) who were resident in Mafikeng. He dismissed the Barolong Chief Wessels, executed by firing squad some starving Africans caught stealing food, had others flogged for minor misdemeanours. “With such ‘little encouragements’, says Packham, “he persuaded the Africans to play an important part he had designed for them in the siege.” (1979:402). In a departure from the norm, Baden Powell, however, armed about 300 Africans with rifles and christened them “The Black Watch”. How much of this experience “persuaded” Sol Plaatje to throw his weight behind the struggles of the Barolong and ultimately in the struggle of the African people to unite and fight discrimination and land dispossession, is hard to tell.

Ultimately, the combatants settled their conflict at Vereeniging by declaring common cause against the rights of the indigenous African people. That pact is what led to the Union of South Africa in 1910. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”


Sol Plaatje was a product of these developments, a child of the time when the colonists were celebrating the total dispossession of the African people. However, he was also the product of a resurgence in the mood of resistance among African peoples. Plaatje had left school early, worked at the Post Office, and later found a job as a Court Interpreter in Mafikeng. Plaatje was largely self-taught. His formal education was only confined to the primary classes. In his address at the Pan African Congress in Paris in 1921 he confided that “I for one never saw the inside of a high school until I went as author and lecturer to Europe and North America…” (Willan 1996:270).

Plaatje was a polyglot, proficient in many languages both African and European. He could hold his own in any company of intellectuals at home or abroad. He had confidence in his abilities, trusted his ideas and articulate in expressing himself. He had the courage of conviction. He became a journalist and as editor founded a newspaper in the Setswana language. He recognized that the policy of successive colonial governments and that of South Africa, which meanwhile had achieved status as a dominion within the Commonwealth alongside other British colonies, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, was to undermine the intelligence of the African people, keep them in a status of subjects, and treat them like children, as Rhodes taught. He observed:

… the intellectual suffocation of the Natives and the systematic withholding of wages due to them, have contrived to render the Native so inarticulate that these administrative wrongs and cruelties have never received the publicity they deserved (Willan: op cit).

A public intellectual is one who exercises his/her mind and intellectual capital in a critical manner and seeks solutions to public issues. A public intellectual is not confined  or constrained by the formalities of discipline but expresses thoughts and ideas freely. A public intellectual may stand against the trend, make others think about matters they might have ignored or remained unaware of, challenged about new responsibilities and moved to action to put right the wrongs of society. A public intellectual has a passion for society and its public good. Sol Plaatje was a public intellectual in every sense of that word. However, I prefer to see Plaatje in Gramscian terms as an organic intellectual, one who is not neutral, but speaks and observes and acts within the commitment of the people about values he/she shares with them and undertakes commentary from the perspective of a people in the midst of a struggle for value and for humanity. An organic intellectual in my view is a participant-observer in the struggles of the people.

His love for literature and the written word is best expressed not just in his own writing but also in his love of the spoken word as a speaker and orator. Plaatje was a man of letters. Not only was he an avid letter writer who commented on public affairs and used the written word to bring matters of concern to the attention of his readers. He was a self-trained journalist and columnist. Above all he was an author of books and translator of Shakespeare, among others. His columns and commentary were as much a denunciation of the oppressive state in which Black people found themselves, he also used those columns and books to address the Black Condition: disunity, failure to support their leaders as well as organisations dedicated to the wellbeing of Black people, disinterest in the socio-political condition that should be resisted, as much as Black people’s complicity in their oppression either by their silence or by being uncritical or even colluding with an oppressive system. He reserved his harshest condemnation for such like John Tengo Jabavu, editor of the Xhosa newspaper, Imvo ZabaNtsundu in King Williams’ Town. Jabavu, supported by liberal establishment in the Cape Tradition made it known that he would not support the campaigns of the Native Congress, nor was he opposed to the Natives Land Act, 1913.



Plaatje was relentless in his campaigning for justice and human dignity following the establishment of the Union of South Africa. He was consumed by the relentless indignity that African people suffered under the colonial, Boer Republic and South African regimes. The families evicted from their small holdings, and robbed of their livestock and grazing lands, the homelessness of whole people brought about his outrage. His articles and petitions, his books and manuscripts, were about the human suffering that this caused. He marshalled his arguments to point out both the scale of human suffering, and the betrayal by the Imperial authorities, including those from both the  Cape and Natal colonies who made common cause with the Boer Republics and betrayed the Imperial legacy. He appealed to the conscience of Imperial England.

The Native Lands Act 1913 was particularly atrocious. He mentioned not only that “The Native should be made to feel that unless he is a servant in the employ of a master, he has no place for the hollow of his foot” (Willan:244), it was dehumanizing, cruel and had to be resisted. He had choice words to decry the state to which African people were being subjected: they were pariah in the land of their birth;  “the South African Native today  finds himself an exile and a helot in the land of his ancestors” (265) and elsewhere that “The Native is not only ostracized but outlawed from the land of his fathers”. Plaatje truly believed that the African people were no better than slaves in the manner in which they were treated. He proudly claimed that the Africans were loyal to the British Crown for which they derived no benefit. The bitter truth, however, was that British justice was not available to Her Majesty’s most loyal subjects. At times Plaatje is bitter but one never has the sense that his feelings and emotions get the better of him. One can only glean his sense of outrage and frustration in the tone of his voice, for example:

Again, in the ‘Free’ State, ordained Native ministers are no longer allowed to solemnize marriages. Members of their congregations and Christians with their own minister on the spot are subjected to the indignity of being married by a magistrate’s clerk. That rude excommunication of religious ministers in the ‘Free’ State on the ground of colour is a wholly illegal business (Willan; 2016;166).

He seemed  to be acting as the spokesperson of the delegation that went to England to appeal against the Native Lands Act, 1913. They were treated, frankly, with a studied indifference by David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister. Plaatje had called for a constitutional protection for the people African of South Africa but all they got from Lloyd George was damning with faint praise:

You have presented your case with very great power and I shall feel it my duty to communicate directly with the Prime Minister of the Cape (sic!) and to inform him of the character of the deputation and the way you have presented your case and all the facts that you have brought before me” (263).

He then gave them a lecture about the constitutional position with regard to  the Dominions within the British Crown.

Plaatje made full use of his visit to England. He became a very effective public speaker and advocate who was in demand. He appealed to the ordinary British public to great effect. He published pamphlets, wrote extensively on the situation in South Africa, debated issues with those who would not understand but always, he made friends. He was, if you like, the precursor to the Anti-Apartheid Movement of more recent times.

My grandfather SEK Mqhayi (1975-1945) was the exact contemporary of Sol Plaatje. In a poem Abatunywa (Nxusa) Bethu (1914) he extols these ambassadors of the people of South Africa and celebrates the ‘success’ of their visit. He says that nothing more was required of them except to take summons to the British Imperial Government about the plight of the people of South Africa. Mission accomplished he assures them:

Buyani bathunywa nifezile!

Beningase tyala, benis’injombe,

Benis’umsila wengwe kuphela

Bekuyimfanelo’uku wugxumeka nibuye,

Besinithume lonto yodwa thina,

Noka-Dube ubengasaputume lutho;

Ityala lona kudala lithethiwe,

Oka Sawa kudala waya kuqanana.

Buyani ma-Nxusa nifezile!

(SEK Mqhayi: Iziganeko Zesizwe; Edited and Translated by Jeff Opland and Peter T Mtuze, UKZN Press, 2017).


On Unity and Language:

Plaatje was very proud of his Morolong heritage. Not only that but he expressed this care with which he spoke his language, published in his native language, translated Shakespeare into Setswana and thus opened a world out there to his own people. He did so, however, by interpreting and re-interpreting Shakespeare for his contemporary readers, and he opened Shakespeare to the world of the Barolong by testing not just comprehension but also ways in which Setswana could be accommodated in new language and cultural expressions.

I also like to think that  mild as Plaatje often came across as in all situations, he was also as capable of becoming a fiery proponent of the cause of his people. Language was also a weapon. Chinua Achebe puts it plainly:

But strong language is in the very nature of dialogue between dispossession and its rebuttal. The two sides never see the world in the same light.

                                    (Home and Exile:75)

Ngugi waThiong’o puts it in direct language when he says that

A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character (2006:30).

The late Mazisi Kunene once told me bluntly that one can never fully express the depth of one’s feelings and dreams in a foreign language.

I suspect that even to Plaatje, to put it this way would have been something of a surprise. I suspect that he never thought of himself as a revolutionary, let alone a subversive.

During his extended visit to England in 1915, Plaatje made friends with academics from King’s College London, my alma mater, and at the University College, University of London. He contributed to the compilation of Setswana proverbs, and in collaboration with Daniel Jones, an academic at University College London and with Mary Warner at King’s College London he helped develop a Setswana morphology and phonetics. He was very concerned about how various missionary societies had twisted the speaking of the language according to their doctrinal preoccupations which had nothing to do with the native speakers of the language. Through the language he developed a window into Tswana culture, and through his loyalty and pride in the Barolong chieftainship he became a keen observer of native customs. “… from a word, a group of words, a sentence and even a name in any African language, one can glean the social norms, attitudes and values of a people”, says Ngugi (2006:8).

Nonetheless, for Plaatje, none of this took away from his ideological commitment to the unity of all African people, a mantra that Isaka ka Pixley Seme had ingrained into the DNA of the South African Native Congress of which Plaatje became the founding General Secretary. By the way this extended to solidarity and unity with the aspirations of the Coloured people as is evident from his association with the APO and the audiences he addressed across the spectrum of race categories. For many of that generation tribal or ethnic identity did not signify less of a commitment to the project of unity and freedom. I sometimes think, however, that the vision that was embraced those early days was something like a tribal confederacy. With the new Union of South Africa it was important that the native land claimants spoke with one voice.

As a literary actor, Plaatje made true the adage that a writer is a scholar of his/her times whose locus and themes are the life of the people, the struggles they experience, the ambitions they have in life. More than simply a mirror of that society a writer equally serves to point to a transcendent and transformative vision. The community is the audience and the consumers of the work, but also the critics of the material that has been produced in their name. It is conceivable that the writer is a subversive actor who reads the sociology of her/his time in order to point to a vision beyond the present. Writing is never neutral. It is committed, has a purpose and a vision but it remains an art form with the beauty of language, vision and insight. In all of those respects Plaatje was a man of letters.


I have endeavoured to sketch Sol Tshekisho Plaatje as an African intellectual who was rooted in the affairs of his people, and who embraced causes that meant both feeling the pain of land dispossession, advocates for a just dispensation for the people and yet countenancing a reasonable accommodation with the ambitions of the settler community. Ultimately the two objectives were incompatible. Primarily my task is to present Plaatje as a critical exemplar of what intellectual life could be. By so doing I hope to look at contemporary issues in higher education.

Notwithstanding the fact that Sol Plaatje had no tertiary education, it is beyond dispute that he had a deep and rounded education. Not only did he master many languages, he was rooted in his own culture and valued the cultures and histories of others. Above all, he had the confidence and stature to engage with ideas, debate matters and concepts and he held his own among the educated classes. As a journalist and editor he engaged in public affairs, valued the beauty of language, popularized Shakespeare for his own people and contributed to ideas and in many respects to the development of knowledge. His experience with Ms Mary Warner and Daniel Jones, Mrs Unwin and the Colensos placed him at the heart of the development of culture and learning. In the United States, likewise, he had the benefit of the Black Colleges that sought to meet the developmental needs of the Black Americans. His literary output is remarkably prodigious that he became a teacher and originator of ideas in the world of the academe.

What are the lessons that we can learn from Plaatje about higher education? It is not, I submit, that higher education is of no value. It does. The educated classes are people of influence in society. Their influence, I submit, does not just stem from their privileged status in society but from their affinity and articulation of the causes of the people, in engaging to promote societal good, and in becoming an example of the good life and of a civilized human being. It is as Steve Biko would say, about being and becoming truly human.

The higher education regime we currently operate under is a creature of the Commission on Higher Education 1995. The Higher Education Act itself is a product of that Commission Report. A White paper was also published that sought to give further effect to the provisions of the Commission Report.

The higher education system since 1995 was imbued with the optimism of its time. It was meant to serve as an instrument of change and to challenge the prescripts of apartheid. It was to restructure and transform what was taught and practiced at higher education institutions as apartheid practice of the time. It was to redress past discrimination and it was to ensure equality, and it was to assure standards, serving the developmental needs of society, but also serving as the laboratory for new ideas, advancing knowledge and innovation. And it was to provide opportunities for learning and the creation of knowledge, and it was to be the modicum of a society founded on the values of equality, human dignity and social justice.

Not only did this overburden higher education under the weight of a utilitarian ideal of higher education, it also tended to reduce higher education proper to become merely one among many social and political concerns. This is a reductionism that ultimately fails the true idea of higher education. In other words, higher education was there to serve a plethora of matters that it was never designed to do: equality, justice, even social welfarism etc. And yet the primary purpose of higher education is the production and advancement of knowledge, enhancing scholarship and learning. It was also, as the Preamble to the Constitution puts it,  to unleash the potential of every citizen. Naturally higher education has a duty to contribute to the self-knowledge and ambition of society about itself. But higher education is more than what society’s view of itself is. Higher education is particularly also about what society can become. It is a means of realizing what can be and what it will take to realise its ambitions for itself. In other words, higher education also, of necessity, is forward looking, or it leads society into the future. It is an insidious trap to think that higher education institutions are doomed to be a replica of the conditions and mindsets in the communities they serve. No, they must both correct and uplift to a higher value.


It is fair to say that since #FeesMustFall universities are required to take on more and more of society’s burdens. Universities are required to become the answer to all society’s problems:  an employment bureau, a welfare system, a parking lot for the young people that society has not plan or purpose for so they hang around universities for the longest possible time, or even a housing corporation. As a part of the welfare system universities are expected to provide free meals to students, free accommodation to the indigent and others who do not have the means to support themselves at university while they are studying. But above all, it seems to me that universities are expected to tolerate and accommodate mediocrity, to temper standards in order to satisfy the political challenges that society faces.

Since #FeesMustFall not only do universities attempt to accommodate every deserving student with the result that institutions are bursting at the seams, and so far, at least, about 50% of the intake never complete their studies within the period prescribed. That may be because the class sizes undermine any possibility of quality teaching, and the burden of technology-driven learning is hardly possible with the unscientific class sizes, for example. But there is more to it, the elephant in the room that we never acknowledge. This is that there have been especially in recent times an anti-intellectual, counter-success and achievement culture that has enveloped many of our institutions. It seems to me that there are far too many students who do not seem to be interested in working hard enough or to take pride in academic success. This is a counter intellectual culture that must be resisted at all costs.

On top of that universities rightly embrace the obligation of transformation. Up till now since 1994, the idea of transformation has been singularly interpreted in terms of numbers that are representative of society’s demographics: race, gender and disability. Worryingly, in order to do so, universities must now engage in race essentialism, characteristics that scholars know bear no meaning or relationship to the substance of being human. And yet it is true that true learning in a university and academic accomplishment can best be achieved if students are open to idea and experiences that are drawn from all of life. Even more worrying, in many instances this race-determinism that some of us consider to be necessary in order to transform the historical imbalances and inequalities of the past, can also so easily become an articulation of entitlement. As is the case in many institutions, this gives rise to forms of Blackness that have no radical or political content, or “de-colonisation” that could be interpreted as isolationism or bias in favour of… instead of a system of rigorous and critical engagement with scholarship. De-colonisation, I submit, must be used with caution not just as a slogan or as a swear-word. Ngugi refers to the ‘decolonization of the mind’, to assert the right and duty of African people to self-definition. To Ngugi revolutionary literature is about a search for relevance, that is, “ a search for a liberating perspective within which to ourselves clearly I relationship to ourselves and to other selves in the universe” (2006:87). The problem then is not decolonization as such but the fact that we may have taken the intellectual and critical sting out of the concept of de-colonization. It is such laziness of thought that poses a danger to academic accomplishment.

All that I seek to demonstrate is not that these efforts are without value in themselves, but that in order to derive value from them more is required. In other words there is no point in throwing the baby out with the bath-water. The crass politicization of these matters may have produced a culture of lazy demands, in the expectation that what you demand is simply given. It is not about taking responsibility, interrogating systems and resources, and engaging in a thought process that could result in a balanced or beneficial view of the world that advances knowledge in the search for the truth.

Like so many of us, one is deeply concerned about the prevailing culture at many of our universities. It is frightening to observe that students kill one another, if not, the culture of violence has become so deeply embedded at out institutions. Students are prone to violence if they cannot get what they want. They barely debate and engage in a contestation of ideas – and let the best argument win! Rape and theft are not uncommon; university residences are so dirty that they resemble a pig-sty (with due apologies to pigs!) and for some of us may recall, the conditions that prevailed at apartheid single men’s hostels, eNkomponi. Such conditions are not only dehumanizing but that they will not help shape a whole and self-respecting character in the students who emerge from out universities.

What I find most disconcerting is the culture of non-payment of whatever may be due and payable. Many students owe fees to universities so much so that universities are being bankrupted by bad debt and non-payment, at times by former students who could pay what they owe if they wanted to. A culture of materialism and selfish individualism means that young people today indulge in flagrant life of spend-spend-spend more is nog ‘n dag.  With the advent of NSFAS students have money to indulge in a life of spending. Instead, one would think that it is important that we also teach our students to care for the other and the more needy, to take part in community projects as part of their process of learning and development, and to hold each other, especially those they have entrusted with leadership, to account. Students of today must be thought leaders and moral agents of society tomorrow.

I just want finally to put a provocative idea out there. I do so by raising a series of questions. Is it not true that by its nature universities students and graduates constitute the privileged classes of society? The answer is not simply to deny that that is but rather what is our responsibility as leaders of tomorrow. Is it not true that to gain a place at a university is both by dint of one’s intellectual ability but also a product of privilege? Think about so many other children who do not get to enter the doors of a university, who drop out of school prematurely, or who are destined to a life of crime and penury? Those of us who are university students and graduates are the privileged classes of our society and we better own up to it. In fact there a view, popularized by Nelson Mandela, that education is the surest way of getting yourself out of poverty. That is true in large measure because even today in an economic climate such as we are experiencing one stands a better chance of employment with a university degree than without.

None of what I have stated above is intended to mask the enormous achievements of our higher education institutions in improving pass rates, granted from a very low start, watch the joy of families when one of their own graduates. We may not be aware that South African scholars are among the best in the world in research and publications, and that South African universities compete with the best in the world in teaching and learning and in the facilities for teaching and learning. Until recently, it was unheard of that there could be universities where university executives were accused of corruption. Alas, that is now history.

What is in my mind though is this. How come that in South Africa universities are so without  advocates in the public sphere. Why is it that communities that benefit from universities do not take such pride in their institutions that they become their natural protectors? Why is it that those who benefit from these institutions are among the first to burn libraries, laboratories, to plunder and destroy? Recently, I asked members of a trade union why is it that knowing as they do that their jobs depend on the university they seem to make demands that they know are unaffordable and will simply bring the university to bankruptcy? The answer was: because we can. Government does not respond to gentle demands. It only responds to radical protests. I asked: why is it that trade unions insist on universities in-sourcing workers knowing as they do that that is a sure way of making sure that some of these workers will sooner or later be without jobs? South Africa needs to examine afresh our relationship with the university.

With all that in mind therefore is it not time that we recognize that the landscape of higher education that we inherited from apartheid is not going to change anytime soon. Instead what is happening by the simple laws of sociology is that more black students are moving into the places previously occupied by white people. In other words they have become the de novo whites – enjoying the privileges not available to others. I am talking about the de facto situation that black universities are not simply black because the majority are black. They are black because they are marked by instability, mismanagement, a culture of grievance and alienation. They have become the targets of dissatisfaction with the social conditions of Black people. Meanwhile those who are at privileged institutions by and large continue with their education barely interrupted. Is it not about time that this phenomenon be closely examined?

This is all to say that I am now advocating for a new Commission on Higher Education. We need to re-examine and re-visit our ideas about higher education in order to give new life to the societal ideal that we hold dear about higher education. Since #FeesMustFall do we any longer believe the same about higher education that is evidenced in the Act as we have it?

If there is one thing I believe to be true, it is that universities and the intellectual class have the ability to drive the fortunes and character of society. We need to assure the nation of the caliber of students and graduates we produce, of the civilizing nature of education. We should be proud to produce graduates who are modicums of civility, gentleness, moral conscience, gentility and good manners; to soft skills of love and empathy and appreciate beauty. We owe it to our parents and our communities that the mind of a South African graduate must show forth in their manners, however argumentative, but who are tolerant and civil, who listen to the other, formulate their responses accordingly and make informed decisions. We should not be ashamed to say that we seek to cultivate a liberated mind, a caring and committed person, and one who in every sense of the word is a gentleman or woman who has the means to embrace change and to become a change agent for the betterment of society. I often ask myself what kind of graduates are we unleashing into an unsuspecting public? I look at many of the student leaders and I ask myself what kind of leaders will they ever become?


In conclusion, allow me to say that for any university that bears his name, Sol Plaatje must provide to the students and community that is served by this university an enormous and pleasant incentive. Sol Plaatje must live daily in your hearts and minds. Sol Plaatje must inform your activism and your critical thoughts and learning. Sol Plaatje must guide your intellectual pursuits. Above all, this is the generation that must build on what Plaatje achieved. We must allow Sol Plaatje to sit in judgment on our generation that we may see where we fail and where we might be. I have the honour to count the late Prof ZK Matthews, a native of this city and a former Acting Vice Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, indeed himself much influenced by Sol Plaatje, as my intellectual hero. Each generation must create its own Sol Plaatjes out of its own conditions and contexts. This university is destined to carve out its name and its prestige, reputation and honour in mining and polishing the many-sided brilliance of the diamond that is Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje.

Thank you.


Sol Plaatje University

Kimberley, 16 October 2019.





Achebe Chinua: HOME AND EXILE, 2000, OUP, Oxford.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: DECOLONISING THE MIND: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 2006, James Currey, Oxford.


Pakenham Thomas: THE BOER WAR; 2007, Abacus, London.


Wellek René and Warren Austin: THEORY OF LITERATURE; 1976, Penguin Books, Middlesex, UK.


Willan Brian: SOL PLAATJE: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje 1876-1932; 2018, Jacana, Johannesburg.

                        SOL PLAATJE: Selected Writings; 2016, Wits University Press, Johannesburg.


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