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Living in a Compromised Reality


The late John Matshikiza, famous for his newspaper column, 'With The Lid Off', was in Durban for The Time of the Writer festival. I spoke to him about languages, literacy and writing in a post-apartheid South Africa


Like thousands of others, I have read John Matshikizaís With The Lid Off columns in the Mail&Guardian over the last few years. In that time, he has become one of my favourite columnists, someone to take seriously despite, or because of, the fact that he has never taken himself too seriously. Although the things he says are often quite revolutionary, his voice is one of honesty, not of forthrightness.


And the grace and simple, sometimes clumsy humanity contained in his journalistic voice creates a non-confrontational springboard from which we may jump into his world, which is also our world. At all times, he is remarkably balanced and maintains an extraordinary pragmatism, whether he is discussing crime, race, language, the Congo or the sprawling smorgasboard of life that calls itself Johannesburg.

Matshikiza was born in Jo'burg in 1954 and grew up in exile in Lusaka and London. In London he trained in drama and worked in theatre, television and film as an actor, director and writer. In 1991, as liberation seemed to be approaching, he returned to South Africa where he worked as a writer and occasional director.

With The Lid Off is also the title of a collection of writings from Matshikiza and his father, Todd Matshikiza, whose columns, also of the same name, appeared in Drum magazine in the late 1950s. The older Matshikiza, who died in 1968, was also a seminal figure on the South African cultural landscape. His irreverent, densely sprawling Drum pieces became a benchmark for free-spirited South African writing. He also composed the music for King Kong, the stage musical, which chronicled, in faux operatic style, the rise and fall of boxer Ezekiel 'King Kong' Dlamini.

It is this closeness to history and historic figures that is part of the fuel for Matshikizaís literary fire. But this political and social viscerality would be of little use without his substantial skills. But only as I started reading With The Lid Off did I realise the true extent of his talents, his genius in fact. Compiled back-to-back in a single book, his short columns make compulsive reading material, each a delicate short story, the best of them as gripping and strangely elevating as Raymond Carver donning Hunter S Thompson's political hat.


Reading the book, despite all the violent and contradictory contexts in which they are written and in which we all live, brought a sweet smile to my face at the end of each piece, a small joyous wink at the things that make us human here in South Africa. This is the gift that was passed down from father to son. And it contains a wisdom that is a gift to us all.


Interviewing Matshikiza is not such an easy task, however. For one thing, he has written so much about his own consciousness that in a sense, all questions have already been answered. And at one point, when I asked him how he felt about the amalgamation of Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika with Die Stem, I realised as I asked the question, that not only did he write a piece on it late last year, but that my very phrasing was taken almost straight from his column. It is a slightly uncomfortable moment and for a second it feels like I am brown-nosing my subject. But the fact that I can osmose it into my own consciousness is an example of how crisp and persuasive his arguments are.


Peter Machen: This whole question of literacy is a huge question in this country. Do you think that events like Time of the Writer can have any impact on broader literacy?


John Matshikiza: I don't think they possibly can. During the last one I attended, which was last year, I was most disappointed that there were not more university students attending the main events. I was very disturbed by that. And there were a range of excuses given for that, which I think are plausible.


I did one or two school talks, and what is disturbing about that, is how few facilities the secondary school students in the townships, in KwaMashu and so on, have to access literacy. And at the same time, how interested the students are in having more access, but the infrastructure is just not there.


PM: Apart from the very obvious solution of providing resources and infrastructure, what else do you think we can do as individuals, as a country, to try to improve literacy levels?


JM: I can only refer you to examples in other parts of the world where there have been massive literacy programmes which have been part of the post-revolutionary obligation. And I don't think that we have that. China, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Chekoslovakia, these are all countries that had very poor infrastructure and very poor education - at the level that we are at now - and which placed education at a very high priority. And achieved that, I think.

PM: That's a great phrase "post-revolutionary obligation". Do you think that those obligations have been met in South Africa?


JM: Well, I think that the terrible problem we have in South Africa is that we don't know if we are post-revolutionary or not. And we aren't. We've had a compromise imposed on us. And I think it's that compromise that has obliged the new ruling party to be cautious rather than adventurous.


To go back to the place I grew up in - you can't really call this a revolution. Zambia achieved its independence but there was a clear change, a clear transformation, and a clear transition from one system of government to another. Along with that – with a lot of international support – came a detailed educational policy. The same happened in Zimbabwe, for all we might say about Zimbabwe now. Zimbabweans are very educated people across a broad spectrum, compared to where we are at now in South Africa. The same is true of Tanzania, The same would be true of Kenya, for all of its faults, etc. etc. So, I really feel that we are kind of stuck in a limbo of not daring to go as far as we need to go.


PM: I remember in 1990, I very naively presumed that we would get a new police force, and a new defence force, and a new education department.


JM: Ja, ja.


PM: And nothing.


JM: We still have to fight for them. It's very hard.


PM: Can you speak or write any African languages?


JM: Uh, no.


PM: I presumed not. You left South Africa when you were 10, is that right?


JM: Five.


PM: And do you think you will ever learn Zulu, or Sotho, or Xhosa?


JM: I learn all of them every day in the street all of the time. So I can communicate to a certain degree in all of them, in some of them more than in others, because that is the nature of things. But writing is a different story, because language is very complex and very subtle. And, you know, the mere process of returning to the land of your birth 32 years later, having left at the age of five, imposes a lot of things. And my main issue has been survival, literally. And understanding the environment, and finding my own voice within that environment and dropping other voices.


African languages are very important. I think part of the compromise of the Kempton Park negotiations has been to accept that we should have 11 official languages. Which has given us a lot of question marks. I don't think there's any country in the world that has a situation like this. And, as I think I keep on saying in my pieces, we are not a unique country, but we choose unique solutions which are quite bizarre. I don't know of any country in the world which has 11 official languages. And it confuses issues. It's a very long discussion, Peter.


PM: Sure.


JM: It's true that in the urban areas, let's say in the Rand and the Johannesburg area, most people speak four, five, six languages. In KwaZulu-Natal, it's not the case, and in the Eastern Cape, it's not the case, and in the Western Cape, it's not the case. So, partially because of our political compromise, there's no clear decision about what should be an official language and what the official profile of South Africa should be.


For someone like myself, yes - I live in Johannesburg and I have to try and operate in at least four different languages every day. I couldn't possibly write in all of them. Which is a problem.  But that also means that there is no written material that goes across all of those languages. So, you know, there are no multilingual newspapers or magazines. Publishing in vernacular languages has pretty much died since 1994, apart from goodwill from publishers. And that is for a number of reasons? Where is the reading public? The reading public is in one language, probably in English.


PM: And Afrikaans.


JM: And Afrikaans. But particularly English, across all racial groups. A country like Zambia has 72 diverse languages. I just came from Burkina Faso. There are 44 very distinct language groups. But the official language, is French. Now what are the choices? Do you reject the formerly colonial language or do you accept it as a unifying force? I don't know what to say, but I think as long as you try and give equal weight to all languages in a country, you can't really focus on what unifying the public is all about.


PM: Can I ask you about how you feel about Die Stem being tacked onto Nkosi?


JM: I'm appalled by that. Nkosi Sikilel' was composed by someone who we have belatedly come to recognise as a national hero, and named streets after him and so on; Enoch Sontonga. It's a beautiful anthem. It might not be the right anthem for South Africa, but since 1912, it has been the anthem of the African National Congress and all of those who support it, and it articulates in a very broad way what we stand for, what we have stood for.


First of all, as the son of a composer, I'm appalled that a composer's work can be tampered with in that way. I just fundamentally feel that this is wrong. Perhaps more importantly, I think the emotion and musicality of Nkosi Sikilel' with Morena Boloko has a long political history.


And why are we prepared to compromise that political history in order to speed a transition and a historical compromise with Afrikaans power? Die Stem might have its merit, but I don't know any black person who knows Die Stem. And again, it's a question about the country - what identity do we want to have?


I think there are so many huge compromises that have been made that there can't be a compromise regarding the importance of Nkosi Sikilel'.





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