By Sarah Rose de Villiers
To the Dissident Poet, on his 86th birthday.
that to be fearful
is to be fear filled
and the fear filled poet
will censor himself
and mute the cries
of pain and rage
he is no minstrel
he loads truth into the gun
a dissident poet
his words cry for a land
that bleeds from unjust laws
and two-faced morality
butterflies know him by name
and freedom reigns in the country today
but can he join in the merriment
or does his heart still drown
in the agony of what
our land has become?
During a time when abominable policies and violent oppression devastated countless lives, South African poet James Matthews turned words into weapons of truth. Through his poetry, Matthews gave a voice to the suffering masses who were oppressed and exploited under the apartheid regime. He exposed the ugly face of racism and the brutality of a system that wrecked lives and crushed souls. His first collection of poems, aptly titled Cry Rage, was the first publication to be banned by the Apartheid regime, and showed both the power, and danger, of words. But who is the dissident poet, and how did his story begin?
Matthews was born 86 years ago in a ghetto of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap. He was 17 years old when his creative writing career was launched, and he went on to work as a journalist for several newspapers. During this time, he witnessed and experienced the injustices of poverty, oppression and racism.
Since then, his short stories and poems have evoked the suffering of his compatriots and stripped bare the immorality of the apartheid state. His Black Consciousness philosophies further inspired other poets, people and movements, and secured his reputation a dissident poet. But it also earned him several months in detention, and he was denied a passport for 23 years.
Despite these experiences, Matthews continued to pour his heart onto the page and paint the pain of a country wrought with racial divisions and immorality at the highest levels of governance. In addition to publishing several volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories and two novels, Matthews has also established an art gallery and a publishing house, BLAC Publishing House. However, the publishing house was shut down after 17 years because of constant battles with the apartheid government.
This past April, Matthews launched his latest volume of poetry, Gently Stirs My Soul, at Rhodes University. The launch was a tribute to his life, his accomplishments, and his ongoing contributions to the world around him. His longtime friend and poetic comrade, Mongane Wally Serote, attended the launch with Matthews, and described to an attentive audience how Matthews had always been, and remains, a man of remarkable integrity, talent and compassion. Matthews chuckled and claimed that, while he remains a dissident poet, his time is now devoted to butterflies and “soft poems”.
The little man in the leather jacket, his feet dangling off the chair without touching the ground, still believes in himself, and the future of South Africa. When asked him to sign the portrait I held out to him, he laughed and said:
“But for goodness sake, don’t hang it on the bathroom wall!”