Motsogapele means ‘the one who came first’, and Solomon Plaatje was one of them. He died in June and Sabata-mpho Mokae reflects on his meaning to the current generation.
The Setswana term motsogapele means the one who came first, before others. Being a motsogapele came with the responsibility to think for those who are coming behind him. Motsogapele, often the one with grey hair, is tasked with imparting wisdom to the younger generations. He gives counsel to the young man who is about to ask for a young woman’s hand in a marriage, he sits in the kgotla (king’s court) and advises the king to help reach a fair outcome and he teaches boys going through the rites of passage about the responsibilities of citizenship. A motsogapele is respected, not just because age demands that he be respected but because he commands it. Others see in his counsel wisdom and worth in his example. He is quite aware of the responsibilities that come with being the one who came first. One such motsogapele is a man called Solomon Plaatje, who lived between 1876 and 1932.
June, the month in which he died, seems to be the time to reflect on his meaning to the current generation.
Being a multitalented man with immeasurable legacy, one can only attempt to look at one part of this legacy. This time at his contribution to Setswana literature, which has also become a theme of this author’s own life.
Of particular interest to this Setswana fiction writer is Plaatje’s collection of proverbs, which he did during the World War I while he was living in England, and later in 1928/1929 thanks to the £25 grant from the Bantu Studies Research Committee at Wits University. It is estimated that in total Plaatje compiled over one thousand and one hundred Setswana proverbs, and that at least seven hundred of those he translated into English or paired them with their European equivalents.
According to historian Brian Willan, Plaatje was worried that Setswana was distorted by the missionaries. In his time there were four missionary societies that worked within Batswana and each had its own Setswana orthography, which Plaatje aptly called Seruti – Setswana as spoken by missionaries. He also had his own orthography which he used in his newspapers, Koranta ea Becoana, Tsala ea Becoana and Tsala ea Batho. He was also concerned that Setswana could disappear completely due to decreasing use. Educated blacks, he reasoned, also preferred speaking English and teaching their children “hotch-potch” instead of Setswana.
While living in London during World War I and writing Native Life in South Africa, Plaatje also used the time to write about Setswana and the notable results were Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and Their European Equivalents – Diane Tsa Secoana Le Maele a Sekgooa a a Dumalanang Naco as well as A Sechuana Reader in International Phonetic Orthography (with English Translations) – Padisi Ya Dinaane Tsa Batswana.
Plaatje’s objective with the proverbs was to preserve them as he thought they were no longer in wide use and could disappear completely unless recorded for future generations. With the Sechuana Reader he intended to record the accurate pronunciation of Setswana, correcting what was promoted by the missionaries with their Seruti.
One is tempted to guess the reason for Plaatje to prioritise the collection and translation of proverbs and not songs or stories. If one looks at a proverbs as a form of a metaphor, it is easier to follow Chinua Achebe’s argument, which came much later after Plaatje’s time, in an essay My Home under Imperial Fire when he says: “The extravagant attire which metaphor wears to catch our eye is merely a ploy to engage our hearts and minds”. Perhaps Plaatje recognised that.
In a book Bringing Plaatje Back Home, Sekepe Matjila and Karen Haire write that “Plaatje believed that proverbs, especially, encapsulate the wisdom, culture and identity” of the people.
They go further to use the example of sefalana (the granary) to highlight the importance of Plaatje’s work.
“During spring and summer, they (Batswana) collected fruit and vegetables, which were dried and stored safely in Sefalana for future use. This practice was based on the underlying principle of life, le aramele le sa tlhabile (make hay while the sun shines). This principle was supported by the proverb, phiri o rile ga bo se gangwe (the wolf said: the day breaks more than once), which means people should not eat all their food but should save for the future … Plaatje’s oeuvre is itself sefalana, a granary or treasure store of wisdom which he had the foresight to write down, to record.”
Over a century since Plaatje published Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and Their European Equivalents, Setswana poets and fiction writers like Kabelo Duncan Kgatea and Gomolemo Mokae still find relevance in what has since came to be known as Plaatje’s Proverbs, and even use that as a resource when they write in the post-apartheid South Africa.
Getting Setswana or any African language books published is almost as difficult as going up Mount Kilimanjaro, though it has become better than during Plaatje’s time. Setswana has not died, contrary to Plaatje’s fear. Though South Africa is multilingual, it is generally English-speaking and African languages are still very much “home languages” which borders on stigma in the metropolitan. Literature in these languages is also not yet mainstream as it is to a large extent taught only at school, mostly rural and township.
That said, it is much easier now to write in Setswana and access language resources than a century ago, thanks to sefalana that Plaatje, not forgetting his contemporaries like David Ramoshoana, stored for the current generation of writers and language practitioners. The proverbs he tirelessly went through the trouble to compile and translate, often with cap in hand, are today a valuable resource without which Setswana would be poorer. Many of these proverbs are not in use today, and that is what makes them more valuable as one of the very few granaries in which they can be found is Plaatje’s collection. That is what a motsogapele does, making hay for the future that is always unknown but longed for.
■ Mokae is a creative writing lecturer at the Sol Plaatje University.