This sharp-tongued poet isn’t going to quit



James Matthews just won’t quit. At the age of 87, the dissident poet’s pugnacious temperament hasn’t changed. His hair is grey, his voice has a quaver, but the old fire is still there.  

Matthews is a South African icon because of his ability to turn poetry into protest. Born in the Bo Kaap, the venerable wordsmith was published at the age of 17. He went on to work as a contributor for the Golden City Post, Muslim News, Drum Magazine and the Cape Times. In 1972, Matthews released Cry Rage, co-written by Gladys Thomas. It was the first collection of poetry that the apartheid government saw fit to ban. Four years later Matthews was imprisoned at Victor Verster for two months. In addition to his writing, Matthews became the first black person in the country to open an art gallery and a publishing house, which was shut down due to police harassment. For his contributions, Matthews has received top honours both locally and internationally, most recently receiving an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University this year.

Today Matthews still has the same incorrigible spirit. Age hasn’t softened him, but it has helped him calm down. Notorious for excessive party habits in his younger days, he turned away from alcohol in his later years. Sober and unconstrained, he isn’t going anywhere.