On 31 March 2016, Rhodes University is conferring an Honorary Doctorate on internationally acclaimed South African poet and author, Mr James Matthews.
Freedom. We all want it, seek it, demand it, yet poet and author James Matthews is one of the few people who has lived his long life in the pursuit and exploration of freedom.
Perhaps this is why at 86 he remains young at heart, and amusing. He uses words like ‘Cool’ and ‘Cat’ that completely suit him and he wears leather jackets and berets.
On most mornings you will find Matthews sitting on the ledge of a flowerbed at his home in Athlone on the Cape Flats where he has lived for 56 years. He’ll be reading and watching the butterflies exploring his untamed garden.
“Butterflies are my totem,” he explains. “The butterfly’s presence is in my heart and because of this, I face mortality brim-filled with delight.”
In his recent work ‘Gently Stirs My Soul’, published by Rhodes University in 2015, he pays homage to butterflies.
Butterflies, he says, “are independent and free. They are like me. If it’s a nice day I sit outside and read, I do what I like to do.”
With the adding up of the years James has experienced ever-greater freedom and peace, he explains. “I am also not afraid of death, I grew up in the ghetto where death is death, nothing is forever. You just open a door and you go into the next place, where that place is, who cares.”
As for ageing, Matthews refreshingly describes it as “an intoxicant that becomes headier through the years.” He dedicates poems about the beauty of growing old to all the elderly people in his area.
“I want people to know that age is a beautiful phase, it is nothing to fear. That’s why I brought out a volume of poetry called ‘Age is a Beautiful Phase’ in praise of senior citizens. I go and read my poems to senior citizens at homes and at church halls. I recently read them to about thirty five seriously senior citizens at a home in the neighbouring township of Bokmakierie and they appreciated me. So now when I walk in the streets they come up to me and embrace me and say, ‘James thank you very much for writing such beautiful lines for us.’ They make me feel very humble.”
Matthews does not regard his writing success as any big deal: “I’m just a cat who got lucky with words, I’m not into this ego stuff,” he says.
The cat who got lucky with words discovered he could write during his teenage years. While attending Trafalgar High School in District Six in Cape Town, his teacher, Ms Meredith, gave him 21 out of 20 for a story he wrote about a tramp. “She told the class ‘James is a writer,’” he recalls.
The tramp appealed to him as a protagnoist “because the tramp is free.” “He walks around trying to get money from people or scrounging a meal but tramps don’t work like other people; tramps are free.”
Matthews’ writing career developed as an inadvertent gift following an accident at the age of 14 when he fell and hit his head against a cement floor. It ended his schooling as he could not remember what he was studying and he has suffered from lapses ever since.
His first job was selling newspapers in Cape Town, which brought him into contact with the Cape Times and Cape Argus publishing company. He was later promoted to chief messenger for the company when he started writing short stories for the magazine sections of the newspapers. “It is a pity that they stopped publishing short stories because it was an ideal place for new writers to get published,” he says.
In his twenties he became increasingly interested “in the political side of what stories and poetry could mean”. The late poet, author and academic, Mbulelo Mzamane, said James’ writing was not influenced by black consciousness, but rather that it influenced black consciousness.
His messages against apartheid were conveyed through his first book, which he self-published in 1962, called ‘The Park and Other Stories.’
“The Park is a short story about apartheid as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old coloured boy,” James explains. “Every time he walks past the park he sees kids having fun on the swings and see-saws. The park attendant who is also coloured tells him that he cannot enter the park because he is coloured and this haunts him to the degree that one evening he climbs over the iron railing that enclose the park and jumps onto a swing. He swings and swings, but the park attendant who lives in a wooden shed in the park spots him and says ‘I told you that you shouldn’t be here, I will have to get the police.’ But the boy continues swinging with the moon above him. He is swinging as if he is trying to reach the moon and he is shouting for his mother.”
The story ends on this note.
A decade later, in 1972, Matthews was working for a Muslim newspaper in Cape Town, and writing about what was happening in Gugulethu and Langa, when he published his first collection of poetry, Cry Rage, co-authored with another gifted South African poet and writer, Gladys Thomas.
Matthews’ acute vision of social and political conditions in apartheid South Africa, and his rage against injustice, earned him the title of “dissident poet”.
“In protest poetry words are merely words. As a dissident poet, my words were bullets,” is a widely quoted Matthews comment.
The apartheid government banned Cry Rage after two weeks.
“Many people were being harassed and arrested at the time, including a lot of students,” he recalls. “In 1976 I was sent to Pollsmoor Prison for six months because of my writing. I really appreciated solitary confinement. The alternative was to be in a cell with several other people and what if you don’t like each other?” he smiles.
“In prison I wrote my poetry and my daughter would come with my baby grandson to visit me. I would get some of my friends to speak Xhosa to distract the cops and while they were doing that I would take my finished poems and put them in my grandson’s nappy.
“My daughter would keep the poems so that when I got out I could publish them! When you sent out letters they would censor the letters, so I couldn’t send them to her. I named that book ‘Pass Me a Mebos Jones’ and, much later when the book was no longer banned, I renamed it Poems from a Prison Cell.”
Between writing and playing his part in a changing country, Matthews’ personal life included a ten-year marriage, a divorce and a brief second marriage, which he describes as an “in and out situation”.
“You don’t win all games, all marriages are not harmonious, and when people get married they don’t realise that compatibility is better than love,” he says. “But my first wife and I have wonderful children and grandchildren together.”
His children and grandchildren have gone into a wide variety of careers, from journalism to architecture to law.
His grandson, PJ Grove, a researcher, lives with him. “He’s cool,” says Matthews. “Grandchildren often get on well with their grandparents, there’s less tension and no rivalry.”
Matthews says it is up to the younger generation to actively contribute to transformation in South Africa. “It’s your time. You must get together, speak, fight, use your vote to change things and get the problems solved. It’s your time. To put it another way, I have an iPad but when I look at it, it has a blank look.”
For those who want to pursue personal or political transformation through words, he says: “Writing requires three qualities: imagination, creativity and discipline. Use your creativity to make beautiful things with your imagination but then you need discipline to pull it together.
“Don’t be egotistical,” he adds. “I see so many people in the arts with egos that are far, far greater than their creativity. Write because you want to share it with people, not because you want to be great or get published, and always read love poems to women.”
By Heather Dugmore