On the 27th April 2014, President Jacob Zuma awarded National Orders to 54 people for their extraordinary and invaluable contributions to South African society. These honours can be awarded to any South African citizen for civil or military service, or for an act of bravery that is seen to go beyond the call of duty. One such laureate is Cape Town poet, James Matthews, who lives in the Cape Flats suburb of Athlone.
Up until 2002 many of the National Orders were considered remnants of the apartheid era and our colonial past and were therefore revised to the 13 honours we see today. According to the South African Medals Website, there are 7 national civilian honours that can be awarded for achievements in various fields. These range from the Order of the Baobab for service in medicine or science to the Presidential Sports Award. The Order of Ikhamanga is awarded for service in “the arts, culture, literature, journalism and music in the interest of South Africa” and like almost all other national Orders, it has three levels of distinction which are namely: Gold, Silver and Bronze.
On the 29th of May 1929 James Matthews was born in the Bokaap in Cape Town. He left school at a very early age because of societal pressures but thinks back fondly to an English teacher he had who perhaps inspired him to start writing.
He began writing short stories and poetry about the world he experienced around him, both good and bad. As a black South African living under Apartheid, there were many hardships that were faced by not only himself but almost all the people he was surrounded by. This culminated in him being forced to leave the Bokaap with his children and find a new home in the newly declared so-called “coloured” suburb of Athlone where he still lives today. Fuelled by the ideas of Black Consciousness, he wrote Cry Rage (1972), which was immediately banned. This became the first book of poetry ever to be banned in South Africa by the apartheid government. When speaking about this, Matthews’ tone was a sombre one but a mischievous glint in his eye was perhaps suggestive of the fact that, even though banned in South Africa, many of his poems and short stories were translated and published overseas. Matthews continued to write and worked as an editor for the Muslim Views, then Muslim News, which published his poetry under the title Pass Me a Meatball Jones. But because of the subject matter of his work, Matthews was denied a passport for 23 years and was detained in 1976. He was the first black person to establish not only an art gallery, the Gallery Afrique, but also a publishing house, BLAC during the 1970s in South Africa. In 2004 on the 26th of October, James Matthews was awarded the National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his contributions to the fields of journalism and literature while striving for a non-racial South Africa.
A decade later; if you were to pay Mr Matthews a visit, you’d most likely find him sitting in his front garden reading. The first things that are noticed though are the wooden sculptures, a tombstone of someone unknown and the long overgrown grass that surrounds his humble Silvertown home. When questioned about this interesting, and somewhat intimidating, area Matthews simply referred to it as his: “exhibition space”. This idea is carried into his home though which is eccentrically cluttered with all manner and forms of art. The walls are covered with paintings and photographs of family and friends and almost every surface is stacked with books or sculptures.
Soon to be 85 years old, the poet sometimes found it difficult speak clearly and said that he struggled with mental epilepsy but still found the time to get around to the library or post office but made it clear that he could no longer do both. He still manages to work out with dumbbells when he can’t make it to the gym but concedes that he’ll only do one “rep” at a time.
When asked about receiving a National honour, the first thing that was made clear was that Matthews did not want to receive an award from a political party in the hopes of favouring their own ideals. Instead he had to be sure that it was not the ANC as a political party but rather the state that was thanking him. He noted, almost as consolation, that he has been awarded Civic Honours by the City of Cape Town in 2010 which was under DA control. Along with his many notable achievements he was also named Freeman of the towns Nienberg and Lehrte in Germany in 1986. This was like receiving the “Key to the Town”, according to Matthews, and similarly his receiving of provincial and national honours have left him feeling humbled.
In his quiet home, James Matthews mourns the death of his close friend for more than 50 years, South African artist Peter Clarke. He reads literature from the 70s on Cuba he found stored away. His voice and legs at times appear a bit shaky but his mind and spirit are clearly still strong. And when asked if his life had changed in anyway after the honours he received, his answer was simple and direct: “No”.