Fly Away Bra Johnny

John Matshikiza with Alan Kolski Howitz at the Cape Town Book Fair

John Matshikiza (54), though overly successful never found any reason to come across to ordinary people as intense. It might be because his generation made an informed decision not to take itself too seriously, much to the detriment of losing useful potential contacts but they found comfort in being referred to as Bra So and So without taking any offence.

Johnny was unlike the uptight celebrity intellectuals of our times who when you address them as ‘Bra Xolela’ they are quick to remind you that they are ‘Dr Mangcu’. They will cut you down to size even when you were not meeting behind the hallowed corridors of academia where they are kings but egalitarian networking sessions. Johnny stood out and was able to humble himself to suit the moment.

That is why Johnny is missed by ordinary folks who loved SABC3’s Hard Copy and were captivated by his wit and professionalism. I miss Johnny too because Johnny was my fellow though I never really bragged about it – I learnt it from him not to brag.

I met Johnny once and for all at the Cape Town Book Fair some time ago where we were both billed to recite our poetry. The small crowd loved him as he took us through his life story and journeys, from Johannesburg to London to America to Senegal and various exotic locations all over the world. I felt it was a little over-indulgent but the thought that the man was just sharing his travels with ordinary folks convinced me that there was no malice behind his actions.

Quite honestly I felt that his poetic musings were weak and I still do. I felt that his travel poetry was only potent to the extent of his unintentionally expressed nostalgia for exile. I felt that he was more of an accomplished playwright than a poet, something London’s Shakespeare Theatre induced in him over many monologues and plays.

People loved to judge him by his father’s standards but since I never knew Bra Todd I was critiquing him objectively. I should confess that I was neither a fan of his column in Mail&Guardian because half the time I had difficulty understanding what he was trying to say. I preferred Max du Preez to him.

I knew he was fond of his family as he was with two members at his readings in Cape Town and that was the reason why their picture was used in one of his Vodacom award-winning With The Lid Off column.

For me Johnny should be school curriculum material, especially South Where Her Feet Cool on Ice. I can’t proclaim on Prophets in the Black Sky or the plethora of plays he brought to life.

Bob Marley had a song ‘Johnny was a Good Man’, and today I have a feeling he was referring to our Johnny.

There’s a story that when DRUM the movie relegated Todd Matshikiza’s role in Sophiatown and Drum magazine’s life to that of a mere sidekick he questioned the factualness of the screenplay and the research that went into it. The story goes on to say that when his enquiries reached Zola Maseko who gave DRUM its direction he responded, ‘if people want to celebrate their fathers they should make their own films’.

Maybe Maseko was right, maybe plain arrogant. Maybe it’s time for Maseko to make a film about John Matshikiza, since nobody will question the factualness of such a screenplay. Johnny died on Monday night from a heart attack and he will be dearly missed. Kasiekulture salutes this genius.

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