The Guardian, Wednesday September 17 2008
Actor, journalist, poet and political activist who returned to South Africa in 1991.
John Matshikiza, who has died aged 54 following a heart attack, was one of those polymaths who South Africa has an odd way of throwing up: film and stage actor, poet, journalist, broadcaster and political activist, he seemed equally comfortable in each of these roles. Though he could be critical of the way the country was run, his presence was somehow reassuring, so that in his company it was tempting to focus on the healthier aspects of post-apartheid South Africa. But it remains a violent place, and earlier this year he was assaulted during a carjacking outside his home. According to his family, he never fully recovered.
Matshikiza was born in the Johannesburg township of Sophiatown, which was soon after demolished to make way for the white suburb of Triomf (Triumph). His father, Todd Matshikiza, wrote the music and some of the lyrics for the highly acclaimed King Kong musical, which went on to launch the careers of singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela. He was also a founder writer for Drum, the pioneering, black-led magazine edited by Anthony Sampson, who was John's godfather.
In 1961, soon after the Sharpeville massacre, the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and other political organisations and a state crackdown on the media, Todd went on tour to Britain with King Kong, with his family following. In 1964, they went to Lusaka, Zambia, where Todd became head of broadcasting services for the newly independent country; he died in 1968. John returned to London to study at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, Swiss Cottage, and, after training with the Royal Shakespeare Company, worked for the Glasgow Citizens Theatre company.
He then combined stage acting in London with activism for the ANC: in the early 1970s he helped form Mayibuye, its cultural arm. He also lived in the US, Amsterdam and various African countries including Senegal, where he was culture director of the Gorée Institute. In the 1980s he began to develop a reputation both as a film actor - notably in Cry Freedom (1987), Mandela (also 1987, a film for television in which he played Walter Sisulu), Leon Schuster's There's a Zulu on My Stoep (1993) and Hijack Stories (2000) - and as a lyrical poet. One of his earliest published poems, And I Watch It in Mandela (1974), was recently republished in a Nelson Mandela anthology:
It is not for the safety of silence
That this man has opened his arms to lead
The strength of his words hangs in the air
As the strength in his eyes remains on the sky;
And the years of impatient waiting draw on
While this man burns to clear the smoke in the air.
There is fire here,
Which no prison
Can kill in this man;
And I watch it in Mandela.
But his poetry went well beyond the laudatory, and achieved critical acclaim. Published works include South Where Her Feet Cool on Ice (1981) and Prophets in the Black Sky (1986).
When Mandela was released in 1990, Matshikiza decided to return to the country he had not seen for 30 years. "I was in London, with my mother and my daughter and my partner and we were all just bowled over by what was happening," he said afterwards. "We'd been waiting all of our lives for this. That is all I can say. It was the whole of my life."
By 1991 he was back in Johannesburg, where he soon won several prizes for journalism - he was a columnist for the Mail & Guardian newspaper, wrote for Business Day and The Weekender, presented a BBC radio series and contributed to several British and American publications. His occasional returns to film included Wah-Wah (2005), Richard E Grant's exploration of the pre-independence Swaziland of his youth.
Matshikiza's friend Ronald Suresh Roberts described him as "the gentle ex-columnist", because he tended to avoid the most pressing debates within the South African media, taking a left-field approach. In one Mail & Guardian column, he wrote of the irony of South Africa becoming "the great white hope of the black diaspora". He went on: "People speak comprehensible English here. Telephones work. There's a black president, a largely black cabinet, black empowerment and a black economic elite which, even though they may show signs of moral confusion and fallibility, nevertheless symbolise a significant advance in the worldwide profile of the black world."
His great strength as a journalist was that he was never seduced by offers of power or patronage and was never afraid to poke barbs at the new elite. Another friend, Ismail Mahomed, said: "John was betrayed in many ways by our new democracy simply because he refused to fall into the comfort zone of being a 'returned exile'. John was unafraid to speak out against a new breed of African opportunists just as much as he was unafraid to challenge old-style racists. I'll sorely miss his brilliance."
Matshikiza is survived by his mother Esme, who lives in Cape Town, his ex-wife Eva Kavuma, and his two daughters Lindiwe and Fubi.
John Matshikiza, actor, poet and journalist, born 1954; died September 15 2008
The Guardian, Wednesday September 17 2008