James Matthew’s 90th Birthday Celebrations!

Today we gather to celebrate the 90th birthday of a remarkable person. It is our privilege to
honour one of Cape Town’s most independent creative spirits. From the vantage point of
South African Literature we recognize one of the more persistent voices for social and
political liberation and freedom of expression in the second half of the 20th century. It is
our honour to share in this celebration.

Since James’ birth on the 24th May 1929 in Bo-Kaap much has changed  in the country,
in the city and naturally, in his personal life. His life spans some of the more significant
periods of our lives. Imagine when he was born, the newly created Union of South Africa
was less than twenty years old. He was on the cusp of adulthood when the Nationalists
came to power in 1948. People lived in tenement housing in District Six and elsewhere
without indoor plumbing or electricity. The Cape Town Power station was only built in 1936.
When he was born, the city’s name was still spelt as one word, the current spelling only
came about in the 1930s. He was ten when, as he recalls in his short story “Tribute to a
Humble Man”, when he witnessed the funeral of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman in February
1940 with 30 000 people or more lining the streets of Cape Town.

There were cars called Oldsmobile, Packards and Grossleys but they could not drive
around the Foreshore area, because all of it was under water. In any case, the ordinary
folk of the city went about their business by foot, by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage,
creating the ambience of people selling and buying, people making their lives. James was
almost forty when the National Party declared District Six white, ripping open its colourful,
but maddeningly impoverished heart.

When James was born, there were only two high schools for those termed “non-Europeans”: Trafalgar High in District Six, and Livingstone High established only three
years earlier. The possibility of university study was virtually unthinkable. In 1929 the
Council of the University of Cape Town adopted a resolution, saying that “it would not be in
the interest of the university to admit native or coloured students in any numbers, if at all”.
James left school midway through standard eight, not an uncommon occurrence at a time
when standard six was considered boerematriek.

At the age of 17, just after the Second World War, he published his first story in The Sun, a
newspaper edited by George Golding. Stories and contributions followed in the Golden
City Post, The Cape Times Magazine and The Cape Argus. Under the pseudonym S. Matt
he published Westerns in the journal Hi-Note, as well as in Drum. By the 1960s he had
publish several short stories in anthologies, among them Quartet, and his debut collection
Azikwelwa. I remember James telling me once that on receiving the expected overseas
package, he sat down on the pavement outside the Post Office, opened his copy of
zikwelwa, smelling every page of it, almost devouring the printed words. Publishing, at
the best of times is difficult, local publishing for a black writer was extremely difficult, and
often overseas based mission-directed publishers stepped into the breach.

In his early writing we witness the reverberations of the then new policy of institutionalized
racism. Matthews explores the impact of centuries of material deprivation, limited
opportunity and quite simply, unchecked exploitation, but he also underscores the innate
humanity of people. Few of us will forget the story of the young boy who ventures into a
white playground at night to ride the swings only to be chased off by an attendant who
 shares his social background.

In his early writing we witness the reverberations of the then new policy of institutionalized
racism. Matthews explores the impact of centuries of material deprivation, limited
opportunity and quite simply, unchecked exploitation, but he also underscores the innate
humanity of people. Few of us will forget the story of the young boy who ventures into a
white playground at night to ride the swings only to be chased off by an attendant who
ironically shares his social background.

Matthews’ autobiographical novel, The Party is Over, initially published in German as Die
Träume des David Pattersons (1986) tells us a lot of the social strictures that defined
James’ world in mid-century. The immanently recognizable main character is most
obnoxious at social occasions, raging against pretence, pomposity, and hedonistic upper
class gatherings across the colour bar. Here, we have a striking portrayal of an aspirant
writer in an alienated space, searching to become himself.

I would be amiss if I do not on this occasion remind ourselves of those pioneering writers
and artists whose lives intersected with that of James, and who severally and collectively,
enriched our lives: in Cape Town: Lionel Davis, Alex la Guma, Bessie Head, Richard Rive,
Gladys Thomas, Alf Wannenburg and Peter Clarke; elsewhere: Mafika Gwala, Keoropetse
Willy” Kgotsitsile, Don Mattera, Essop Patel, and Mongane Wally Serote.

Illustrative of their co-operation in Cape Town is a charming experiment in Drum in 1954
when Clarke, Matthews and Rive each published a story set in Cape Town with a main
character named Willy-boy!, the three stories being published along side one another on
the same page. By the way: Alex la Guma later published A Walk in the Night with a
similarly named character, Willy-boy. These artists came up through or experienced the
slums of Cape Town and often found themselves on the city’s social margins. Through
their work, they became activists, independent artists, men and women of integrity,
compassion and creativity.

Twenty years ago, I wrote in More than brothers that James and Peter formed a firm
friendship in the relatively small artistic world that was Cape Town in the 1950s. I wrote
that they were polar opposites: “Clarke was characterised by his dignified reserve and
meticulous order, Matthews by his forthrightness and bohemian disorder.” James would
admit to being at times a dreaded party guest while Peter’s self-control “could never have
been more complete”. Clarke through his painting and writing and Matthews through his
prose and poetry became the beacons of what it meant to be black artists in apartheid
South Africa. By honouring James we also honour these stalwarts and especially
remember Peter who would have turned 90 in nine days’ time.

When James left school he went on to hold down all sorts of odd jobs: as a messenger
running errands, a chief editorial clerk and night telephonist at the Cape Times, and as a
reporter at the Golden City Post. Later he was responsible for turning a rather a-political
paper like Muslim News into a powerful anti-apartheid vehicle, even turning dyed in the
wool atheists into regular readers.

Many of us got our sense of the role and place of the artist in society from our association
with James Matthews. Here was a writer whose natural creative talent burst forth and
spoke to us with clarity about our social and political circumstances, and even the
apartheid state agreed. They refused him a passport. They detained him, without charge,
and they banned his poetry. We must mark the importance of collections like Cry Rage,
Black Voices Shout!, Pass me a meatball, Jones and No Time for Dreams to our national
literary development. We would not be alone: Matthews was recognized for his writing in
Europe, in the USA, in South Africa, among his awards the country’s highest civil order, the
Order of Ikhamanga. These were well-deserved accolades.

Indeed, it is hard to think of South African political poetry without the name of James
Matthews. He turned to poetry when writing political short stories became, in his words, “a
daunting challenge”. This turn in his creative output coincides with a shift in our social and
political environment. It became harsher than ever before.

In his early poetry we hear the militancy, and a sense of foresight, and solidarity with the
oppressed across the country, and indeed across the African diaspora:

i share the pain of my black brother
and a mother in a harlem ghetto
with that of a soul brother in notting hill
as i am removed from the land that I own
because of the colour of my skin

our pain has linked us
from manenberg to soweto
to the land of the not so free
and britannia across the sea

[…] our pain unites us
into burning brands of rage
that will melt our fetters
and sear the flesh of the mockers
of our blackness and our heritage

Matthews was firmly identified with local expressions of Black Consciousness in the early
1970s, and his poetry shaped our generation’s understanding of the injustices, the
brutality and inhumanity that apartheid visited upon our communities across the country.
Indeed he gave us a voice, and with him we said: “… freedom’s cry will / not be stilled”. In
Pass me a meatball, Jones his records his incarceration in Victor Verster Prison with its
alienating greyness, the soul-destroying loneliness, the torment of hearing birds in
mocking serenade”, and disconcertingly, the experience of naked fear:

fear a snake
wrapped around my throat
makes my eyes cockroach
at the blockage of breath

In his 2005 anthology of collected poems Cry Rage — Odyssey of a Dissident Poet we
race the evolvement of the poet as individual, as lover, as dissident, we come to
understand that his identity formation was never parochial, and that there was always a
sense of outreach towards a greater humanity, whether it is in Palestine or Chile or the
death of a young American student in Nyanga, CapeTown. But Matthews, the chronicler of
our times, cannot avoid registering displeasure at what his present experience has
become, the sense of marginalization that he and people like him experience in the
post-1994 South Africa:

I scorn the arrows of marginalization showered upon
My being
Of the blacker-than thou arrogance displayed by the
Proudly, I accept my beginning born of
Mixed parentage
I am a reflection of the colours of the
Rainbow nation

It is time to conclude: James, thank you for being one of the shiniest beacons in our
literary firmament, for giving us a voice and for showing us the depths of solidarity,
humaneness and an unremitting independence of spirit. Yesterday you turned 90, well
beyond any expectations that you may have had, I am sure. In your collection Age is a
Beautiful Phase you express a sense of utter contentment and that gives us comfort.

age is a beautiful phase
i am at peace with my journey
moving with contentment to its
where I will be at ease and
reflect upon the treasure gathered
sharing with those that have

age is not an omen of fear
[…] it is the realization that
winter’s sun has a vestige of
warmth that will pleasure my


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