Literary critic, author and activist, Professor HEIN WILLEMSE, paid tribute at a 94th birthday celebration for poet-activist James Matthews on May 24 at Bertha House in Mowbray, Cape Town.
THE next time you are around in Kewtown, Athlone [on the Cape Flats, Cape Town], look out for the Kannablast Close Flats between Joseph Stone Auditorium. Alongside several murals depicting sport, the promise of youth and the Gatsby sandwich, on the walls facing Lower Klipfontein Road is one quoting James Matthews, ‘I’m a child of liberation’.
The setting of the mural should tell you all you need to know about the man, the writer, the poet and the legend. James is depicted bearded with his customary beret, dressed in a t-shirt with a hint of a man bag. The figure with a strongly veined neck looks ahead directly. In the background are elements of Cape floral and social culture – proteas, the mountain, the city, township housing and a mosque. In the foreground, features of township culture, the minstrels and music complete the depiction.
The poet and his poetry have become part of popular culture. It is remarkable. This mural, as part of a city project to liven up living spaces through the work of street artists, captured one of the city’s most prominent poets in a setting that tells us a lot about the person, his writing, and his enduring relationships.
We cannot divorce James form his Capetonian setting, and neither should we. He was born on the slopes of Table Mountain in 1929. He was born into hardship. As with all black underclass Capetonians he grew up in institutionalised racial segregation, enduring discrimination at every level of existence. These experiences in the inner city of Bo-Kaap and District Six, and later other township environs, would greatly influence his approach to creative writing. It is through his early prose writing that he gives vent to these experiences of individuals and budding artists like himself. Most importantly, his writing put him in contact with other writers locally and in the north of the country, allowing him to break out of the enforced racial enclaves that were imposed from the cradle upon him and all of us.
It was the increased repression and censorship of the 1960s that led James to become a poet of protest, capturing the mood of the youth at the time. His early collections of poetry from Cry Rage! (1972); Black voices shout! (1974); Pass me a meatball, Jones (1977); and No time for dreams (1981) bear the imprint of resistance writing. These texts are impassioned portrayals of the black experience in our country. Yet, this was not only writing of protest as flashes of resistance but also acts of solidarity in galvanising the human spirit.
James spoke for all of us; for his neighbours around him in Silvertown where they still call him ‘Mr Matthews’; for workers on the factory floor where he gave voice to their militancy against exploitation, and their yearnings; for the youth at schools, colleges and on university campuses where his words captured their quests for positive identity redefinition; and for a general public where he stood tall in the face of racial domination and subjugation.
James was no longer only a Cape Town poet. I wrote elsewhere that ‘it is hard to think of South African political poetry with the name of James Matthews… he occupies the same space as a revolutionary poet as Latin American poets such as Nicolás Guillén of Cuba, or Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua.’
Censorship curtailed his writing; several of his collections were banned. As a consequence, it should be no surprise that for much of his early career James was better known outside the country than in South Africa.
For the past thirty years of our democracy James constantly reminds us of the shortcomings in our national make-up. His latest works should be celebrated for their honest portrayal of the current South African experience. In a country where we yearned for liberation, he realised that we had to stand up against widespread corruption, violence and the new forms of social marginalisation that are visited upon us as citizens. In his latest volumes these matters have become recurring themes.
In his writings over the latter part of his career he moved most firmly towards an exploration and understanding of the individual experiences of love and humanness. In his immediate past collections the theme of old age recurs, and again he puts into beautiful words the experiences of those privileged to live well into their senior years.
In Age is a Beautiful Phase (2008), he writes:
I continued my passage
to find myself positioned
polishing my string of
beads reflecting the
stops in my travels
assured that age is a cause for celebration
Indeed James, ‘age is a cause for celebration’. Those of us gathered here today share in celebrating your life; one that is well-lived. The mural on Klipfontein Road and indigenous garden sponsored by Kirstenbosch [Botanical Gardens] and planted by school kids and friends are poignant reminders of the esteem in which you are held in the city, across the country and in the literary world.
On behalf of all of us: happy birthday!