“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” That’s what Forrest Gump told us in that memorable movie of the same name. For me, John Matshikiza, the late columnist extraordinaire for The Weekender, Mail & Guardian and, before that, The Sunday Independent, was like a box of chocolates – full of surprises… and disappointments.
My first disappointment was when I met the bespectacled one back in the mid-1990’s. We bumped into each other in a toilet – fate has a way of playing jokes on us sometimes! – at one of the watering holes in Yeoville, when that suburb of Johannesburg was still a bit salubrious. I was in the middle of my natural act in front of a urinal when I suddenly realised that the man standing next to me was Matshikiza. In my excitement at seeing the man in person, him of “There’s a Zulu on my Stoep”, I shouted “Laduma!”, quoting Matshikiza’s character in the movie.
Matshikiza did a very slow-motion turn in my direction, looked squarely into my eyes while I beamed a wide smile. Then he turned his attention back to what he was doing, zipped up, walked to the tap, washed his hands, and looked back at me again, shaking his head sadly. I was so embarrassed.
As fate would have it, we met properly a few months later at the offices of the TV production house I was working for at the time. We were introduced to each other, and I couldn’t hide my excitement once again, and I started blubbering about the movies he’d been in, and all the characters who worked with Todd Matshikiza, his father, at Drum magazine. Again, instead of reciprocating my excitement, or, at the very least, acknowledging my presence, Matshikiza got down to the business at hand: He had come to our production house to work with me, in particular, on a TV documentary on the life and times of Drum magazine itself, and the journalists who made it tick.
We started working at a furious pace on the project: Matshikiza was inscrutable, it seemed. Later, I realised that my approach had been improper. He couldn’t handle his movie fans and would-be writers who held him in high esteem. If you approached him as an equal, a professional, you tended to get along with him just fine.
Anyway, this is not supposed to be an obituary of the man as I know him; I’ve read enough obits on the man already. What I am trying to assess here is Matshikiza’s contribution to the business of column writing in this country. Column writing in this country seems to be an afterthought on the part of those in the higher editorial echelons: “Little Fred, how about filling this space? Write about whatever tickles your fancy.” As a result, many columns tend to be a writer’s convoluted ego-trip. The writer becomes the story, no matter how uninteresting his or her life is. Bah!
Yes, Matshikiza could be self-deprecating, in the best tradition of the likes of A.A. Gill, placing himself at the centre of the narrative. But that was only a device: He used his self-deprecating humour only as a springboard from which he launched his observations – on politics, social mores, racism, sexism and other isms as they impacted on society.
Self-deprecation was, for Matshikiza, not an end in itself, but a means to an end.
Not only do many columns tend to be arbitrary, they are also directionless and inconsistent, and the reader is bound to wonder in irritation: What the hell is this about? When you read Matshikiza’s columns – even in retrospect – there is a thread running through them; a narrative flow. They are about a man, who, although born here in South Africa, grew up in exile – Zambia and London mainly.
His columns, therefore, are in a way a reconstruction of his long journey – from being born in Jozi, going into exile, and coming back to this crazy city that he thought was going to embrace him. But when the desired embrace was not forthcoming, Matshikiza, dejected and disappointed, fled back into exile – the exile of the soul, the exile of the mind. That palpable sense of alienation is there at the heart of the column. Although they are boisterously funny, they are a study in sadness and bewilderment. Bewilderment at being treated coldly by his fatherland.
So, when he wrote about how Chinese businessmen were treating him, a black man of South Africa in his own land, you can sense the depth of his disappointment at the unfairness of it all. But he still laughed.
At the height of his much-publicised spat with Ronald Suresh Roberts, Matshikiza turned the former’s insults into what, on the face of it, appears to be a joke. But, actually, it is an assessment of our recent history: “I am sure the noble RSR wishes us to understand that when he accuses certain people who are beneath his dignity of merely ‘dancing’ through life (‘singing for his supper’, he calls it) he actually means ‘jiving’, as in ‘jiving around’ – or fiddling while Rome burns. Or something like that. But once again, I am sure that we will never be enlightened as to his obscure (but highly regarded, in some eminent quarters), superbly intellectual way of seeing the world as he sees it, and sashays expensively through it.
“Anyway, this ‘jiving’ thing brings to mind many moments of what some dubbed ‘jiving for liberation’. The various forms of cultural activity that we celebrated and proudly indulged in included dance, music, poetry and all the other written arts, painting, sculpture, photography, filmmaking, creating murals and tapestries, talking witty garbage to a serious end, engaging in other people’s cultures, and just generally using culture as a tool for liberation.”
And so those of us still learning to write serious yet entertaining columns, have to give a nod to the passing on of a person who changed the manner in which columns are written. So, as Matshikiza continues his jive in the world yonder, we are following in his footsteps. We have to keep jiving on.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist.
This column first appeared in The Media magazine (November 2008).