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Protest, politics and love: An evening with James Matthews

When asked “What do you believe in?”, he quickly responded, with absolutely no hesitation, “Myself”. James Matthews, legendary poet and publisher, waged a struggle against the Apartheid agenda with the one weapon his jailers couldn’t take away from him – his ability to turn words into poems. Luyanda Mahlinza reports on his visit to Rhodes University and the public talk held in tribute to the remarkable dissident poet.

In a celebration of the valuable life of South African struggle poet James Matthews, the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA), the English Department, the School of Journalism and Media Studies as well as the History Department joined forces to pay tribute to the famed dissident poet on Tuesday, 28 April.

The event featured an inspiring engagement and discussion session with Matthews, poetry reading and short presentations from the likes of Professor Monica Hendricks, Director of ISEA, and Prof Robert van Niekerk, Director of the ISER as well as a book launch of Matthews’ latest volume of poetry, “Gently Stir my Soul”. But perhaps the most prominent feature of the evening was the special guest appearance of Matthews’ good friend and fellow poetry comrade, Mongane Serote; another significant poet in the Black Conscious Era.

James Matthews signs copies of his latest volume of poetry, "Gently Stirs My Soul". Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

James Matthews signs copies of his latest volume of poetry, “Gently Stirs My Soul”. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

Prof Hendricks opened up the discussion by reminiscing about her time of being a lecturer in the Cape Flats.  Prof Hendricks emphasized the relevance and the powerful role Matthews’ poem, ‘Cry Rage’ played in the shaping and liberation of, not only the nation but, the minds of those once oppressed by the system. She also critically pointed out that in these current unequal and unjust times, we need to pose some poignant questions. In reference to recent incidents of inequality and marginalization, she asked, “How do we measure our successes and failures? How free are our born frees?”

Prof van Niekerk expressed his appreciation of the work of James Matthews and the relationship he shares with him by sharing a poem, ‘A Change in Seasons’ [hyperlink] inspired by the poet. Prof van Niekerk told the story of Comrade Ashley Kriel, South African guerrilla activist killed by the police in Cape Town in 1987 for his role in advocating anti-Apartheid actions but, most importantly, Kriel was a friend of van Niekerk.  “A Change in Seasons” is a poem written by Prof Niekerk during his time of giref and dedicated to the death of Kriel. The strong, powerful instruments of poetry employed by Matthews are what aided the development of this heartfelt poem. “Comrade Ashley Kriel was a man with the heart of a lion”, said Niekerk.

James Matthews and Mongane Serote, who are described as the poets of the people, engaged in an evocative discussion on some of the sources of their poetic inspiration, their understanding of art and the continuing struggle to create a new democratic society where the people shall govern. The pair met 35 years ago and the strong companionship they share is undeniable. Matthews quickly distinguished himself as a dissident poet rather than protest poet. “In protest poetry words are merely words. As a dissident poet, my words were bullets,” said Matthews.

Matthews critically engaged with the crowd with sentiments that were profound and at times humourous. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

Matthews critically engaged with the crowd with sentiments that were profound and at times humourous. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

The gravity of the sentiments shared by both Matthews and Serote lay in their very honest yet critical discussion of ideas. In their understanding of the current struggle of South Africa, both recognize the very detrimental state of our supposedly liberated nation. The efforts and struggles of the activists, revolutionists and freedom fighters that fought for our democracy weigh heavily on today’s society, “I often think to myself, what do those who laid their lives down think about these times,” said Serote. Without being pathological, he questioned and challenged the young students in the crowd, “Where is the problem? What must we do?”

Serote engaging in a critical discussion with Rhodes students. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

Serote engaging in a critical discussion with Rhodes students. Photo credit: Luyanda Mahlinza

Matthews proclaimed that society, and most specifically artists, should not stand back and retreat. “When one censors their work, they become mute,” he said.

Matthews, a descendent of the Khoi-san, is 86 years old and currently lives with mental epilepsy. But as Serote beautifully described, James Matthews is a fighter at heart, both through his writing and lifestyle. Writing has given him strength and he proclaims he will carry on writing, no matter how old he gets. “I am going to live and write until I’m 105, and I assure you, what I write will be nothing like the shit I made before,” said Matthews.

The participation and engagement on the part of the students and lecturers that attended was astounding and emphasized how necessary and vital this level of participation is. Serote congratulated the crowd for actively being a part of historical transformation.  Matthews assertively challenged the youth to carry on their efforts to actively contribute to transformation.

“You must no longer look at us [the likes of Matthews and Serote] for leadership and change. It’s your time. You must get together, speak, fight and get the problems solved. It’s your time.”

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