By Chelsea Haith
At the age of 86 James Matthews, struggle poet and activist against Apartheid, has not mellowed out one bit. “I’m still a dissident poet,” he said, his hand shaking as he held the microphone, speaking at the launch of his latest volume of poetry Gently Stirs My Soul on 28 April.
Wearing a black beret and leather jacket, the young man Matthews once was is still there beneath his grey dreadlocks, making jokes and charming the ladies. Matthews is a “child of the Bokaap” and his voice rings with the high wind of the berg, tempered by age, but is no less strong or self-assured in his delivery. When asked what he believes in, he immediately responded, “Myself.”
Matthews is renowned for his struggle poetry, particularly his volume Cry Rage, which was published in 1972 and subsequently banned by the apartheid government. Now he writes against the ruling party, saying that instead of weapons, he uses the “guns of verse”. His poetry deals with love and aging, and is described as a kind of last will and testament due to the musings on death featured in some of the poems.
Matthews struggles with epilepsy and said that he was very glad that he was able to produce the volume of poetry despite the challenges posed by his health.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out,” he admitted, and then laughed heartily before adding, “I tell you, I am going to live until I am 105! I am a fighter at heart.”
He said that he still has plans to write two novellas and has no intention of slowing down.
Supporting him at the launch was his long-time friend and comrade-in-arms, Mongane Wally Serote, an Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier and noted struggle poet in his own right. Serote started his address by praising the students in the audience for their role in “bringing the issue of transformation onto the national public agenda,” referring to the recent calls for the name change of Rhodes University.
Serote wrote the foreword of Matthews’ latest endeavour and called it “extremely soft”, praising Matthews for the “deep seated optimism” in the work and for the softness of his soul after so many years and so much time spent fighting the racist regime.