This week I got an sms from Vonani Bila that one of the most prolific poets that I looked forward to working with in any capacity, Mzwandile Matiwana (42) has passed away on the 11th of June and was buried on the 12th, probably in line with his Muslim beliefs. He wrote the poem I quoted above as a title of his first poetry collection
I felt sad because for me Mzwandile has always been a troubled soul that deserved all the peace that should come with aging. “At fifteen I left school and started to write poetry and plays, but later went to pursue a career in crime, of which I was later convicted to a twelve year term for the armed-robbery and possession of a firearm”, he wrote in his autobiography. He tried to justify it years later with a poem Robber’s Confession when he wrote, “it was the empty cupboard at home/ that made me do it - /I would not allow my sister/ to peddle her greasy hole/ to put food on the table/ to humiliate my manhood (my family’s pride)/ the blood I bled”
The first time I met him was through his writings in the Timbila anthology. He wrote beautiful poetry about being incarcerated and yearning for freedom. He fantasized about women and was nostalgic about his never-existed relationship with his estranged daughter. “My writing as an art is sort of self-discovery, almost like a discovery and revelation of the mystery and wonder of life”, he continued.
Matiwana yearned for that day that he could hold his daughter in his arms and hear her call him ‘papa’. It was a yearning he had developed and harboured while he was serving one of his many prison terms. “I try to record every detail of my life as a lover, convict or a free person”, he went on. He converted most of his unrequited love to love poetry that, like him stood very little chance of being accepted. His poetry is spruced by lyrics to Legal Aid Board representatives and prison officials he coined names for. For example he referred to one of them as “Dear Brown Sugar live/ sweet gift from up above - / there is no one like you I can find/ who can fill your space in my mind” – a letter to Elita.
By his own admission Mzwandile has been a jailbird since the age of 15. His excellent English and comprehension of English prose he credited to Buyelwa Sonjica, former Minister of Minerals. To him writing was all there was, he said I his bio, “I suggest we first as writers work on solving the problem of opposition between art and life and that will be achieved should we live for writing not write for a living”.
I then met Matiwana on a working visit to Port Elizabeth many years ago. At the time he had just walked out of prison and was supposed to be the star attraction of the workshop I was attending. I and another comrade, Victor shared accommodation with him and he was nice even though we harboured all these thoughts of fresh-out-of-jail people being horny beings. He read us his poetry including the seminal Culture Checker, “I am the CultureCheckingChapter/ and I speak no lies/ like the FREEDOM CHARTER/ and if I die I will always rise?...now you maggots in convulsion/ fire the bullets and silence me/ or hire the assassin for your solution/ and let the truth win and set me free”. He spoke at length about jail and the opportunities it denies you when you are in there. He protested that anyone can actually be creative without marijuana induced hallucinations when incarcerated saying people need inspiration to write and that jail offers none.
I was to meet him again one night while walking the streets of Cape Town in a trance. That was many years later and out of the blue he abruptly pulled my hand. I was shit scared since this was around 23:43 until I discovered it’s him. He was a vagrant at this time, living on the streets of the Mother City with other ‘streetkids’. He was high and deranged, demanding money for cigarettes, lacking patience and really out of this world.
Me and Vonani took him to our hotel at Victoria Street where he messed up our television set by insisting on changing channels as if there we favourite TV programmes on the empty streets. He couldn’t accept any rebuke and had a hidden tenacity for violence though he was good at containing himself around us. He exposed to us an ugly scar across his under-nourished torso which he claimed was inflicted one night when someone tried to kill him by slicing through his belly. “They took me to hospital and I refused anesthetic since as a Muslim I shall not be found using drugs”, he proudly told us. And now we asked him that what reasoning was that given that he was using marijuana to fight the cold and fear on the same streets.
What we didn’t understand was that Mzwandile needed hallucinations to stay intact. He often carried the cross of ordinary people who had better luxuries than him and would share in their pain through his poetry. Like in a poem titled Last Swing which was dedicated to all the families and friends who lost their loved ones during the times of Capital punishment, “they weighed him/ and measured his neck/ took his pulse - /…they took off the blindfold/ the mouth was open/ and the face pale/ his eyes flared wide open/ in a death stare - / he took his last swing”
We spent some good time with him in Cape Town, very adventurous while he kept insisting that I should do a documentary on his life as a troubled man and streetkid and award-winning (NICRO Arts & Crafts Awards) poet. He wanted me to follow him every step, even when he went into the belly of the beast. I said, ‘no, but thanks’. Mzwandile believed that writing was not a part of his life “but my life”.
The story of the never-happened documentary is one Mzwandile carried all along and kept telling people that I am going to do a doccie about him. It’s a story he proudly shared with some dudes in Newtown when I met him again two years ago. However this time he was not fine, he was on multiple TB medication, had lost weight and still as deranged as ever, demanding to be borrowed my cellphone to make a call to ‘this white man who wants to take me to England to exhibit my works’. Not that I had issues with Mzwandile but I had serious ones with borrowing my cellphone to a ‘streetkid’. I said I didn’t have enough airtime and he insisted on sending a PLEASE CALL using my phone. I said the ‘white man’ will not call because he does not know my number and he insisted that he will. I refused.
He was heartbroken when a fellow poet couldn’t recognise him at Kaldis. He kept saying “it’s me, don’t you recognise me, Mzwandile?” They however chatted for some time and laughed briefly.
That was the last time I saw Mzwandile in the physical form. I read his latest poetry in Timbila 6. Mzi Mahola provided a heartwarming, piercing but honest ‘eulogy’ of the man he had known for a long time. Mahola wrote like the father of a son he couldn’t reach regardless of his various attempts. He said it like a god who has given up on humanity’s chance to do good. It wasn’t a final nail on a coffin but it was the truth as it should have been told to Mzwandile many years ago.
There had always been rumours about Mzwandile’s medical condition. It’s an ace he held close to his chest to the very end. He might have tried to drop hints though even though very few people critiqued his work. In a poem titled I Wanted to Die Last Night he wrote, “I wanted to die last night/ after the morning call/ after you cried - / I took a sheet tore it into strips/ made a noose/ like the ‘Laksman’ did/ wenzani?/ that voice broke the silence of my demise”, then he wrote in another poem titled Suicide Blues in Prison (The HIV memories inside), “I lost all the shape/ and found the rope - /but I could not do it/ I wanted it to be a secret/ for the warder kept on watching me/ I wanted to write/ my last chapter/ and finish it smiling/ but the watcher kept looking on/ and the bomb in my blood ticked slowly”.
I got the news that he passed away, and I felt relief because Mzwandile didn’t look too well the last time I saw him. He had finally been blessed.