James Matthews (writer)

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James Matthews
Born (1929-05-29) 29 May 1929 (age 89)
Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa
Occupation Poet
Nationality South African

James Matthews (born 29 May 1929) is a South African poet, writer and publisher. During the Apartheid era his poetry was banned, and Matthews was detained by the government in 1976 and for 13 years was denied a passport.


James David Matthews was born to working-class parents in District Six, Cape Town, on 29 May 1929.[1] He attended Prestwich Primary School and then went on to Trafalgar High School in Cape Town. He has said:

"I grew up in a household where there were no shelves filled with books. My father was illiterate and my mother read Oracle and Miracle, two thin paperbacks from the United Kingdom which could hardly be considered as literature....

I was almost 14 and in standard eight (grade 10) when we were asked to write a composition. It is now termed creative writing. I will never forget the name of our English teacher – Miss Meredith. She announced to the class that I had written a short story and not a composition. She marked it 21, one mark above the accepted 20 and informed the class that I was a writer.

My introduction to a library was one of wonderment. I was a messenger at the Cape Times and a reporter asked me to take her books to the library. I was confronted by row upon row of stalls stacked with books. My eyes travelled along the lines of names and titles. None of them were known to me. My reading at that stage was limited to James Hadley Chase. Tentatively I asked the reporter if I could take out a book for myself when I returned her books the following time. She agreed and a new world opened to me because public libraries were then exclusively for the benefit of whites....[2]

After leaving school he had a number of jobs, including as newspaper boy, office messenger, clerk and telephonist, and after publishing his first writings in 1946, when he was aged 17, he found work as a journalist, over the years contributing to various national publications such as the Golden City Post, The Cape Times, and Drum, as well as the independent community newspaper The Muslim News.[1]

Matthews through his poetry became "a leading articulator of the Black Consciousness philosophy".[1] In 1972 his first collection, Cry Rage (co-authored with Gladys Thomas), was published. It was banned by the apartheid regime — the first poetry collection thus targeted — as would also happen to most of his later works.[1] Matthews was detained by the government in 1976, and was denied a passport for 13 years.[3]

He established the first black-founded art gallery in South Africa (Gallery Afrique) in 1972, and the first black-owned publishing house, BLAC (standing for Black Literature Arts and Culture), 1974–91, which closed as a result of constant government harassment.[4][3][5] In 2000, he founded the publishing house Realities.

He is a founding member and the patron of the Congress of South African Writers since its inception in 1987.

Honours and recognition[edit]

Awards that Matthews has received include the Woza Afrika Award (1978), Kwaza Honours List – Black Arts Celebration, Chicago (1979) and the Freeman of the towns of Lehrte and Nienburg, Germany (1982).[3]

He was the recipient of a national honour, the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver), in December 2004,[6] for "His excellent achievements in literature, contributing to journalism and his inspirational commitment to the struggle for a non-racial South Africa."[7][8]

On 11 March 2013 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Western Cape.[9] Rhodes University in Grahamstown also awarded him an honorary doctorate, on 31 March 2016.[10][11]


In 2014, Shelley Barry's documentary Diaries of A Dissident Poet, a film profiling James Matthews,[12] premiered at the Encounters Film Festival in South Africa.[13]


  • Woza Afrika Award (1978)
  • Kwaza Honours List — Black Arts Celebration, Chicago, U.S.A. (1979)
  • Freeman of Lehrte and Nienburg, Germany (1982)
  • National Order of Ikhamanga, South African government (2004)
  • Honorary doctorate, University of the Western Cape (2013)
  • Honorary doctorate, Rhodes University (2016)



  • Cry Rage (1972), Spro-Cas Publications
  • Black Voices Shout (1974)
  • Pass me a Meatball, Jones (1977)
  • No Time for Dreams (1981), BLAC Publications
  • Poisoned Wells and Other Delights (1990), BLAC Publications
  • Flames and Flowers (2000), Realities
  • Poems from a Prison Cell (2002), Realities
  • Age is a Beautiful Phase (2008), Realities
  • Gently Stirs My Soul (2015), Rhodes University

Short stories[edit]

  • The Park and Other Stories (1983), Ravan Press


  • The Party is Over (1997), Kwela


  1. ^ a b c d "James David Matthews", South African History Online.
  2. ^ James Matthews, "How reading can change your life", Mail & Guardian, 15 April 2016.
  3. ^ a b c "About James Matthews", The Poetry Archive.
  4. ^ "James Matthews (South Africa)", Centre for Creative Arts, University of Kwazulu-Natal, 3 November 2014.
  5. ^ Paul Maylam, "Citation for James Matthews" (Honorary graduand, Rhodes University, 31 March 2016).
  6. ^ "The Order of Ikhamanga" Archived 6 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine., The Presidency, Republic of South Africa.
  7. ^ "James Matthews (1929 - ), The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver", The Presidency, Republic of South Africa.
  8. ^ Aziz Matthews,"James Matthews: Struggle poet and laureate of National Honours", Seeking the Soapbox, 15 May 2014.
  9. ^ "UWC honours struggle poet and sports administrator at its Summer Graduation", 2013 March Graduation, University of the Western Cape.
  10. ^ "A Cat Who Got Lucky With Words", Rhodes University, 31 March 2016.
  11. ^ Yazeed Kamaldien, "Cape poet urges universities to teach his work", Studentlife, Rhodes University, 30 March 2016.
  12. ^ Rustum Kozain, "James Matthews being James Matthews", Africa is a Country, 31 July 2014.
  13. ^ http://www.encounters.co.za/

External links[edit]