James Matthews: ‘teach youth about apartheid’

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on March 27 2016.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Universities are bestowing honours on Cape Town poet James Matthews but he says these institutions fail to teach students about his anti-apartheid writing.

This comes after Rhodes University in Grahamstown said it would award Matthews an honourary doctorate this week.

The University of the Western Cape has previously done the same.


Cape Town poet James Matthews at his home in Athlone. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

In an interview with Weekend Argus yesterday, Matthews, 86, said he was not “flippant” about his various awards from universities, governments and others.

But he wanted to see anti-apartheid writing taught at high schools and universities.

“I am grateful for awards. It means a lot to me,” he said.

“None of our youth read our stuff (writing). If our stuff is not accessible how will they know what happened?

“Our stuff is not on the curriculum. It should be on shelves at schools. It should be at universities. Schools should teach anti-apartheid writing.”

He added: “There are people who are well remembered in their countries for fighting injustice. We seem to be the only country where we suffered so badly but our writing is not available.”

Matthews was detained in 1976 for his protest poetry that was banned for many years. He was also denied a passport after his release from prison.

While jailed, Matthews wrote a collection of poetry, Pass me a Meatball, Jones. It was published in 1977.

Matthews said he still regarded himself to be a dissident poet, as he was referred to in a 2014 documentary film Diaries of A Dissident Poet by Cape Town-based filmmaker Shelley Barry.

“I am still a dissident poet. That is someone who is against the present state,” he said.

“All my earlier stuff was extremely critical towards the apartheid government… I should now go back to writing dissident poetry attacking corruption in certain sectors of our government.”

Matthews said under apartheid he could not “write art for art’s sake” but he has explored other topics beyond protest and pain since then.

“I refused to write about the flight of a bird or growing of a flower (during apartheid). I could not write about that when people are being killed by the system. I looked at people who are jailed or maimed,” he said.

“I am now a poet concerned about myself and people my age. You respond to different things at different times.

“You find yourself growing and writing poetry of a far different nature.”

Matthews has published a number of poetry collections, starting with his first book Cry Rage in 1972. Last year he published Gently Stirs My Soul.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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