John Matshikiza was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Todd Matshikiza - renowned jazz pianist, composer and journalist - and Esme Matshikiza. Due to apartheid, the Matshikiza family went into exile in London in 1961. John was only seven at the time he boarded the ship for London. Later the family moved to Lusaka, Zambia, where John completed his schooling and took a degree in economics and politics. He returned to London to the Central School of Speech and Drama to train in drama. While in the United Kingdom, he worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Glasgow's Citizens Theatre company and also worked in television and film. He became active in the exiled African National Congress, joining Mayibuye, the Cultural Unit of the ANC (he can be heard performing on their album 'Spear of the Nation', a collection of poems and songs in Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, and English). John also lived in the United States, Netherlands and various African countries including Senegal, where he was director of the department of culture of the Gorée Institute. While in exile John had two books published: South Where Her Feet Cool on Ice (1981) and Prophets in the Black Sky (1986).
When the African National Congress was unbanned in South Africa in 1991, John returned there and directed plays at the Market and Windybrow theatres, wrote and directed documentaries and dramas for television and appeared in various films.
Among others, he was seen in Hijack Stories, Leon Schuster's There's a Zulu On My Stoep, Cry Freedom and 1987's Mandela, in which he played the role of Walter Sisulu. One of John's last acting roles was the villain in the third series of the television series Hard Copy. John wrote for several South African and foreign publications including the Mail & Guardian, where his "With the Lid Off" column ran from several years from the mid-1990s and was gently critical of the government. In 2002, he won the regional and national Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award in the specialist category for his column, which appeared in a collection of his and his father Todd's works entitled With the Lid Off: South African Insights from Home and Abroad, published in 2000.
In December 2007, John was violently hijacked and became more critical of the government's failure to curb the high crime rate. Due to the hijacking and malaria, which he contracted on one of his trips in Africa, his health started to decline.
- "John Matshikiza dies in Jo'burg", Mail & Guardian, 16 September 2008.
- John Matshikiza: Poet, actor, journalist and activist The Independent, 20 September 2008.