John Matshikiza: Poet, actor, journalist and activist

John Matshikiza could typically be found in the watering holes of the non-racial Johannesburg suburb of Melville, drinking red wine (often well before lunch), eating spare ribs and debating issues big and small with his vibrant circle of friends. It could take a while for newcomers to appreciate his status, because bespectacled, beret-wearing "Johnny" showed scant interest in his own reputation. In fact he was an actor and director in film, theatre and television, an award-winning journalist, published poet, university lecturer and political activist. "I'm all these things because I cannot get away from all of them," he said recently.

Matshikiza was born in Johannesburg in 1954, when the apartheid rule was tightening, the African National Congress was growing and the country's black jazz scene flowering. His father, Todd, was at the heart of it as one of the country's leading black journalists, writing for the pioneering Drum magazine (founded by John's godfather, Anthony Sampson), while writing the score and some of the lyrics for the successful all-black musical King Kong, which later toured Britain. Todd was also a jazz musician, a composer, classical pianist, lyricist, journalist and a maths teacher. John was to follow this lead, with a cultural versatility and intellectual curiosity few could match.

John followed his father into exile in London in 1961 and did not see his homeland again for 30 years. The family moved on to Lusaka, Zambia, where John completed his schooling and took a degree in economics and politics before returning to London to train in drama at the Central School.

He worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Glasgow Citizens Theatre company and became active in the ANC, retaining connections with friends from his African past. By the early 1980s his peripatetic inclination and cultural eclecticism were apparent. He developed a love for Francophone Africa – becoming culture director of Senegal's Gorée Institute – but also had spells living in the Netherlands, the United States and other African countries.

Along the way he developed a reputation as a character actor in theatre, radio, and television, as well as taking on film roles which included Mapetla in Cry Freedom and Walter Sisulu in the television film Mandela, both in 1987. He also had two books of poems published. "Acting was a good career," he said, "but I was never comfortable living in England. My upbringing on the African continent has always drawn me back to it."

In 1991, a year after the unbanning of the ANC, he returned to Johannesburg and established himself as a major figure in South Africa's performing-arts scene, acting in television dramas and films (including There's a Zulu on My Stoep, The Air Up There, Hijack Stories, Wah Wah, Beyond Borders), directing for television and theatre, and, when he had time, getting involved in street poetry renditions. "He was an extremely authoritative actor – very experienced," the actress Grethe Fox said. "And he had a great intellect, partly drawn from all his travels. He loved debating and he had a very independent voice, and wrote brilliantly, so he developed a huge following."

His widely quoted column in the Mail & Guardian, "With the Lid Off", was often gently critical of the ANC government and served to distance him from the new political establishment. He later wrote for Business Day and several other South African and foreign publications, presented a BBC radio series and frequently gave guest lectures at the country's universities.

But, despite his convivial side, he had a melancholic streak. As the South African radio host Redi Direko put it, his friend was "not all work, fun and booze", and never felt entirely at home in the city of his birth: "John was a deeply contemplative human being – very complicated and sometimes conflicted – but what a great mind."

Matshikiza's health had declined in the final year of his life. He had contracted malaria during one of his African trips and, earlier this year, was the victim of one of Johannesburg's all-too-frequent carjackings, during which, according to his 25-year-old daughter, the actress Lindiwe Matshikiza, he was "severely assaulted". He never fully recovered from the trauma and had recently complained of feeling disoriented and weak, and had booked an appointment with his GP. He suffered a heart attack while eating and drinking in Melville's Picobella restaurant and, despite the efforts of paramedics, died half an hour later.

Gavin Evans

John Matshikiza, actor, director, poet and journalist: born Johannesburg, South Africa 26 November 1954; twice married (two daughters); died Johannesburg 15 September 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own