James Matthews – “We need to stop thinking about ourselves in an exclusive way – as a Xhosa, or a coloured, or an Indian – and start thinking about ourselves as South Africans.”
On 28 September 2014 at 20h27 on SABC 3, the acclaimed series 21 ICONS South Africa will feature the ninth icon of its second season: ‘the Dissident Poet’, James Matthews, a political prisoner who was born in District Six and used literature as a vehicle to oppose the Apartheid regime. He has published several collections of poetry, short stories as well as a novel and has won numerous literary awards for his work.
21 ICONS is a showcase for the South African spirit; a tribute to the men and women who have helped to shape our country and, indeed, our world. The series is part of an annual project which features unique narrative portraits and short films by Adrian Steirn, one of the continent’s pre-eminent photographers and filmmakers.
On Matthews’ selection as an icon, Steirn says, “James Matthews is an inspiration to future generations of South Africa because of his honesty – he is neither politically aligned nor racially aligned – he is a man who is true to himself as well as the people he encounters. There is sincerity in his work that should be protected and valued as it imparts truths about overcoming the adversity of Apartheid and the need to transcend cultural barriers today.”
Steirn’s portrait of Matthews will appear in the weekend paper on the same day as the film is flighted and will be sold at a charity auction next year. The funds raised through the sale will be donated to Mathews’ nominated charity.
There was little about Matthews’ childhood to suggest his would become one of the most important voices in South Africa. Leaving school at the age of 14, he took a job selling newspapers – and acquired his first taste of an unjust society. “My classmates used to leave school and go to their nice houses. I would go stand on a corner selling papers, and my money would go into a pot. It was two different lifestyles.”
In an intimate conversation with Steirn, Matthews says he wasn’t angered by the situation; however, it did open his eyes to the differences between people – more specifically, that white people weren’t subject to the same treatment and injustices as black people. This observation gave rise to the realisation that words could be a weapon, and Matthews penned his first protest pieces, short stories, before he decided that poetry was a more effective way to reach people.
His words certainly had impact; so much so, in fact, that in 1972 the Apartheid government moved to ban his first book, Cry Rage (making it the first collection of poetry to be banned), as well as his second, Black Voices Shout. But in adversity lay opportunity: after Matthews’ publishers explained that, while they agreed with what he was saying, they couldn’t afford to represent him, he took matters into his own hands and published them himself. Although Matthews’ protest poetry led to his imprisonment at the hands of the Apartheid government from September to December 1976, he never saw his banning as anything less than a victory against the system.
Lasting impact is something Matthews is familiar with: He recounts that, recently, he was walking through Athlone when, seeing him, a stranger shouted the words “Cry Rage”. “That book was written 40 years ago. To think that people still recognise what I wrote – it makes me feel very strong.”