Gifted writer and actor

Pallo Jordan

Pallo Jordan

I learnt with deep sorrow of the sudden and untimely death of film, television and stage actor John Matshikiza in Johannesburg on Monday night.

John, or Johnny as he was known to his friends, was born into the extremely gifted Matshikiza family 55 years ago.

He was the son of Todd and Esme Matshikiza, both of whom were deeply involved in the arts.

As a young boy he emigrated to Britain with his parents in 1961 when the musicalKing Kong hit the stage in London's West End.

He moved to Zambia when his father was appointed head of the Zambia Broadcasting Services when that country attained independence in 1965.

Matshikiza grew up in an environment rich in artistic creativity and displayed a talent for the stage during his high school days.

After completing his studies in Zambia, he enrolled at the North London Academy of Speech and Drama.

As a youth in Zambia, he joined the ANC Youth and Student Section and formed part of the delegation to the World Youth Festival in 1972.

While a student in London he became actively involved in the work of the ANC, throwing himself body and soul into mobilising international solidarity through Mayibuye, the movement's cultural troupe.

He served on the editorial board of Sechaba, the ANC's official organ, from 1974 until 1978 when his exceptional writing skills were recognised.

Matshikiza was so impressive an actor that on graduation he was recruited by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Serving his stage apprenticeship among the UK's leading young actors and directors he was, by the mid-1980s, a well-known figure in theatre circles in Britain.

With these credentials he soon moved on to television and film.

He was cast as Walter Sisulu in Danny Glover's movie Mandela in 1985. He also found intermittent work in radio plays, television and on the stage.

A skilled actor and gifted writer, Matshikiza placed his talents at the disposal of the movement until he was able to return to South Africa in 1991.

As an African actor at home, work in the theatre was not easy to come by. In addition to a few movie parts, such as in There's a Zulu on My Stoep, he found work in TV.

He tried his hand at directing, working in Joburg's Market Theatre and Windybrow Theatre.

Following in the footsteps of his father, he became a regular columnist for the Mail & Guardian in 1996, borrowing the title of Todd's column in Drum magazine, With the Lid Off.

He was later taken on by the Weekender, the Saturday edition of Business Day.

Matshikiza's tragic demise represents an extremely heart-rending loss for the South African arts, especially theatre. It beggars the term ironic that an actor who attracted the talent scouts of the Royal Shakespeare Company found it so difficult to secure regular employment in South Africa.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to the family, especially his mother Esme sister Marion and his two daughters.

He is survived by his first wife, Tanya Abrahamse, to whom I also extend my deepest commiserations.

Matshikiza will be sorely missed for his wit, his sense of humour and his gifts as an actor and a writer.

He will be cremated in Braamfontein this morning and the memorial service will follow at noon at the Bassline in Newtown.