SURROUNDED by books, certificates, commendations, paintings and photographs that together form an awesome record of a literary legend’s life in his home in Silvertown on the Cape Flats, I looked at the oldest person I’ve interviewed and asked him, “how would you want to be remembered?”
Since the “dissident” writer turned 94 in May, I thought the question to the sprightly James Matthews on a sunny Thursday morning in November was justified.
With his ubiquitous black beret perched firmly on his head, Matthews answered as frankly and directly as only he could about his legacy.
“That’s a case of being an egoist. If I must be remembered, remember the things I did to help people. But not me, James Matthews. Who the hell is James Matthews? It’s not what I did that’s important; what I did to benefit people is important. I don't want to be known as a black poet: I’m a poet. A dissident poet.”
Clearly the raging creative fire that roars inside him and emerged like hot lead in his writing — starting with Cry Rage, which he published with Gladys Thomas, and which the National Party government banned, making it the first book of poetry to be prohibited in South Africa — still burns fiercely.
Why the title Cry Rage? “We were suffering. Words like cry and rage expressed what I felt. I could not have a title such as ‘Beautiful Roses’.”
Despite the banning of Cry Rage, Matthews does not regard himself as a only a poet. “Poetry is a weapon. When you’re black and oppressed you make use of poetry to get others to understand what is happening to us. I felt very good because Cry Rage really told the apartheid government to piss off.’’ However, he also became a publisher because he wanted to give black writers a platform.
Banning his books was not the only instrument of punishment the state used against him. He was refused a passport for 13 years, detained without trial and monitored by the security police.
The road to writing for Matthews, who was raised close to the historic Bo-Kaap in a part of Cape Town within walking distance of Table Bay Harbour, started in District Six at Trafalgar High, the first high school built for pupils who were not white.
He missed three months of high school because of a head injury. On his return, he struggled with algebra.
However, an inspirational teacher, Mrs Meredith, helped to restore his confidence and self-belief. She gave the class a composition as an assignment. When she returned their scripts she poured praise on James, saying he had not written a composition but a story. She gave him a mark of 21 out of 20.
Apartheid condemned people like James, no matter how bright or talented they were, to the most menial jobs. He became head messenger at the Cape Times.
Did he find it belittling to be a messenger? “You’re thinking of it the way one would see it today. That is not where we were then. A job as a messenger was the only job you could get. So you took it.”
At the Cape Times, he became familiar with some of the ways in which reporters worked and how they wrote news stories. Given South Africa’s race laws, he said, he had no aspirations to become a reporter but he started submitting “rob, skiet en donner” stories to the Johannesburg newspaper, Golden City Post. He earned himself an increase as a freelancer when he deliberately withheld his stories for two weeks. When asked why he was not contributing, he explained that he needed to be paid better.
He graduated to the Muslim News, where activist Imam Abdullah Haroun, later murdered by the security police, was the editor. “With Muslim News I introduced politics to get non-Muslims reading the paper because there was something in the paper for them. As ‘Uncle Habib’, I also introduced a column for kids.”
He and Haroun became good friends. When the imam died in police detention on September 27, 1969, the police claimed he had fallen down some stairs. In October this year, a new inquest ruled that the security police tortured him to death.
Back in 1969, Matthews was sceptical about the official reason given for his friend’s death. “Who would believe that shit?” he said when I asked him how he felt at the time.
Matthews and his generation of activists were influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) headed by Steve Biko. The BCM slogan of “Black is Beautiful” encouraged all black people to be proud of their identity and not to swallow the apartheid propaganda that they were inferior to white people. The philosophy of black consciousness united those whom the government labelled as Africans, coloureds and Indians. Matthews knew Biko well.
I asked him if the black community is as united as it was then or whether the present government has succeeded in getting people to accept and be cemented in their group identity. “Exactly. Unfortunately there’s black racism. They’ve made black an ethnic thing. On top of that there’s also the matter of some coloureds not liking Africans.”
He yearns to see complete equality for all people, regardless of their pigmentation, and an end to the continuous desperation of the poor. “That means job-wise and in education. All should be given an equal chance because of their abilities and not because of their pigmentation.”
He and Peter Jones, the BCM leader arrested with Biko and held in solitary confinement for more than a year, were also comrades. In 1976, Matthews and Jones were among a group of activists who were detained. After they were freed, Matthews published a collection of poems, Pass me a meatball, Jones.
A bedridden Jones died in February. Matthews visited him a few weeks earlier. Jones’s face lit up when he recognised his old friend. When his carer told Matthews it was time to go, Jones firmly shook his head to indicate the visit was not over.
Just about all of his contemporaries, such as the writer Richard Rive and the artist Peter Clarke — people with whom he associated and raised hell — have passed on, so I wondered out loud if he has a secret for longevity. “If I had a secret for longevity, I’d sell it.”
Known as someone who was fond of alcohol, he has been sober for three decades and has found peace and calm in Christianity. “I had a hard life of drinking excessively. I got pissed often. I stopped drinking 30 years ago. The drunkard James Matthews does not exist. I’ve turned religious. My close friend is Jesus Christ. I go to church once a month. I read the Bible daily.”
In 2004, the South African government bestowed the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver on him for “his excellent achievements in literature, contributing to journalism and his inspirational commitment to the struggle for a non-racial South Africa”.
But will he vote next year? “I’ll never vote for the red berets. Thus far the DA is doing a good job. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to vote for them. Patricia de Lille is also doing a good job. The ANC has disappointed a lot of people. Numerically they have people to vote for them. But what did they really produce?” Maar gaan hy volgende jaar stem?
While the new South Africa is not what he hoped it would be, Matthews still has his books, memories, children, grandchildren and the music of Nina Simone, whom he describes as the greatest freedom singer.
We are blessed to have had one of the greatest freedom fighters who used the pen as his weapon. James Matthews is today as passionate about freedom for all as he has always been. His voice in 2023 remains poignantly true:
Freedom's child you have been denied too long
fill your lungs and cry rage
step forward and take your rightful place
you're not going to grow up
knocking at the back door
for you there will be no travelling
third class enforced by law
with segregated schooling
and sitting on the floor
the rivers of our land, mountain tops
and the shore
it is yours, you will not be denied any more
Cry rage, freedom's child
♦ VWB ♦
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