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John Matshikiza: Poet, actor, journalist and activist

Saturday 20 September 2008 00:00 BST

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.

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