In Todd Matshikiza’s autobiography, Chocolates for My Wife (1961), which describes the exiled South African writer and musician’s first two years in London, he recounts being interviewed by a “man from the newspapers” (Matshikiza 1961a, 38) about his role as composer of King Kong, the South African jazz musical that was about to hit the West End stage. He recalls being warned about the voracious British media by a well-meaning friend, who tells him:
You have just arrived and they will be summing you up for news value. They will have murdered their grandmothers, taken their fathers-in-law to court, cut their heads off for a story. You come from down there! Careful what you say to them. They will murder you if it’s juicy. (Matshikiza 1961a, 38)
His friend’s comment about the “news value” of arrivals from “down there” is prescient of the interest that the King Kongers such as Matshikiza would hold for the British media, and his injunction to be “careful” highlights the powerful role the media played in determining the success or failure of the musical. He also recounts a “legally-minded friend” telling him, on his departure from South Africa, not to “say anything that will damage the chances of the show” (38) and insisting, “Do be careful what you say. Do represent us well” (39). Matshikiza’s anxiety about acting as a representative not only of the “show” but of black South Africans in general (“us”) leads him to blurt out his worries to the “newspaperman”:
Then I said to him, “May I ask a favour of you? I am anxious that I do not give too strong a picture of my homeland. I know that you will not misrepresent me in your paper … Somehow I have taken a liking to you, and think you are reliable … ” That was when he stood up and thanked me for the interview. Later I was to learn that I should never have “taken a liking to a man”. Parliament was debating the matter. (Matshikiza 1961a, 39)
This anecdote, about a homophobic journalist who apparently mistakes Matshikiza’s intentions amidst fraught debates about homosexuality in Britain, reveals the misunderstandings that travel to a different national context entails. Matshikiza’s reference to Parliament “debating the matter” references the political response to the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which proposed reforming the criminalisation and medicalisation of homosexuality in Britain. (Houlbrook 2005, 262) Moreover, although couched in this facetious double entendre, Matshikiza’s fear of giving “too strong a picture of [his] homeland” chimes with other incidents in Chocolates for My Wife in which Matshikiza reflects on how the surveillance he experienced as a black South African involved with political activists like Harry Bloom and Arthur Goldreich (who both spearheaded King Kong’s production) follows him to London. This sense of being observed or marked is expressed through racism he experiences from British landlords and potential employers, and also through paranoia about continuing to be surveilled by apartheid spies in London; at one point he suspects a London barman of being a Special Branch policeman (Matshikiza 1961a, 12). Thus, Matshikiza veils his own complex fears of being marked as radical or unassimilable into British society by invoking queer sexual identities, an equivalence whose potentialities are smoothed over by the nervous, throwaway humour of the anecdote.
Matshikiza (1961a, 39) concludes the incident with the British journalist by noting that “The newspapers quickly heard there was a black rather well-known South African recently arrived in London”. Although the “newspapers” spread the news of his arrival in London, Matshikiza is significantly already “rather well-known”. His celebrity, as a musician, composer and journalist in South Africa preceded King Kong’s staging in London, but was re-configured and re-presented by the British media, in ways that are revealing of attitudes towards “race”, apartheid and the role of the arts in Britain in the early 1960s. Although the passage above deals with Matshikiza’s fame in relation to King Kong, I will offer a different perspective on his public image by exploring the development and reception of Chocolates for My Wife. The critical response to Matshikiza’s only full-length literary text coalesces around some of the same broad themes mentioned by the writer concerning his King Kong-related news coverage: a potentially exoticised focus on his “coming from down there”; a sense that he “represents” black South Africa, and anxieties about providing “too strong a picture” of South Africa or alternatively not providing a sufficiently “strong” image of apartheid. By examining the construction of Matshikiza as a public figure, through an analysis of critical responses to his autobiography, I aim to contribute to broader histories of South Africa literary celebrities whose exile and banning necessitated being published and read beyond their homeland’s borders, and whose transnational visibility enlivened international expressions of protest against apartheid.
Matshikiza’s Chocolates for My Wife is a pertinent text to study in terms of its intervention into the British literary market, because of its publication in 1961, the year during which the exile-led international cultural boycott gained momentum in Britain, especially following the Sharpeville shootings in March 1960. The Boycott Movement changed its name to the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) that year; this London-based organisation started with South African exiles and a few British supporters and grew to become one of the “most important organizations in the transnational [anti-apartheid] solidarity network” (Thörn 2006, 20). Thus, Matshikiza’s autobiography was published on the cusp of this key moment in the history of anti-apartheid solidarity in Britain. While international and South African celebrities, particularly sports figures and pop musicians, became strategic allies in the global resistance to apartheid from the 1970s onwards, public figures such as musicians and journalists were already invoked in rhetoric against and about apartheid during the 1960s. Furthermore, critics used their responses to Matshikiza’s autobiography to engage in contemporary debates about literariness and the role of literature as a vehicle for political protest. Such debates foreshadowed the questions around “culture” as a “weapon” in the struggle against apartheid which became more prominent in the 1980s and early 1990s.1 I will add a further perspective to this narrative about the evolving meanings of South African texts and public figures by briefly discussing the unbanning of Matshikiza’s autobiography in the late 1980s.
A “very public figure” in search of an audience
As Graeme Turner (2004, 6) observes, modernity has seen the celebrity become “one of the key places where cultural meanings are negotiated and organised”, and thus well-known figures like Matshikiza become sites of contestation onto which the cultural debates and questions of the time are projected. Turner draws on the approach spearheaded by Richard Dyer (1979, 3), who proposed that celebrities operate as “signs”, embodying a “finite multiplicity of meanings and affects” in which “some meanings are foregrounded and others are masked or displaced”. When studying Matshikiza as a “place” where “cultural meanings” and the meanings of culture were constructed and contested, it is important to pinpoint how those meanings, however multiplicious, were delimited, by Matshikiza himself, by his publisher and by the news media.
Todd Matshikiza was a remarkably polymathic celebrity. In an interview about a proposed biography of his father, which he did not complete before his death in 2008, John Matshikiza observed that:
Todd Matshikiza was a very public figure in his times, foremost as a composer and musician, but also importantly as a writer on the famous Drum magazine. However, like many others of his generation, his departure into exile meant that he lost his immediate contact with his audience in both media. Which means that, forty years down the line, he is remembered by his own generation, and even some of the younger generation, as famous—although few can remember in detail what he was famous for. (John Matshikiza as quoted in Nuttall 2003, 4)
John Matshikiza highlights both his father’s diversity of careers in the public eye—Drum journalist, choral and jazz composer, musician and satirist—as well as the rift that occurred between him and his “audience” due to his exile. While his fame in South Africa became more nebulous over the years due to his exile, he gained a new audience and a different kind of modest celebrity in Britain. Born in 1921 in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, Matshikiza, like Peter Abrahams and Ezekiel Mphahlele, received his secondary education at St Peter’s School in Rosettenville, going to on study music and teaching at Adam’s College and Lovedale Institute, respectively. In addition to composing and playing in the burgeoning South African jazz idiom, Matshikiza is well known in South Africa as a composer of choral music. He moved to Johannesburg in the late 1940s, where he met his wife, Esmé, and where he began working as a writer for Drum magazine in 1952; this was his first foray into journalistic writing (Nicol 1991, 82). While writing for Drum and becoming well-loved for his satirical columns, Matshikiza continued to compose choral music and play with popular jazz groups. Through his friendship with lawyer and novelist Harry Bloom, Matshikiza was asked to compose music and some lyrics for the musical King Kong, which was staged in South Africa in 1959 and was taken to London’s West End in 1961. Arriving with his wife and children in August 1960, Matshikiza and his family, like many of King Kong’s other cast members and musicians, stayed in London after King Kong ended its run. While in London, Matshikiza continued to write monthly columns for Drum magazine about his life in Britain, and Chocolates for My Wife is about his first two years in London, with some notable flashbacks to his life in South Africa.
Although I will focus on the literary aspects of Matshikiza’s fame, I will briefly sketch how the British media represented Matshikiza in his role as the composer of King Kong. The musical was based (somewhat loosely) on the life story of South African heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, nicknamed “King Kong” for his physical prowess, who achieved short-lived sporting glory before becoming involved in gangsterism. He was convicted of murdering his girlfriend (Matshikiza covered the boxer’s 1957 trial for Drum magazine) and allegedly committed suicide in prison.2 Written by novelist and lawyer Harry Bloom and directed by Leon Gluckman, the production, which was well-received following its opening night at the University of the Witwatersrand in February 1959, featured South African musicians who would go on to have successful careers, including saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and singer Miriam Makeba. King Kong, as a project of interracial collaboration, flouted apartheid laws that aimed to prevent black and white South Africans from mixing socially and professionally. The title of Matshikiza’s autobiography refers to an incident in which he was stopped by policemen on his way home from King Kong rehearsals in Johannesburg; they demand to see his pass and mock him for carrying a box of chocolates, a gift from the musical’s lyricist, Pat Williams, for Esmé Matshikiza (Matshikiza 1961a, 125–126). This moment testifies to the tense, highly policed environment in which King Kong was produced, in which it represented what South African Drum editor Tom Hopkinson called a “triumph of black and white co-operation” (1961, 21).
Matshikiza himself somewhat qualifies this idealistic characterisation of the production, in his autobiography and in a 1961 article published in the New Statesman. In Chocolates for my Wife, Matshikiza writes about the development of the show for the West End stage, and describes his dismay and watching his South African jazz-inflected music being watered-down considerably by Stanley Glasser and British impresario Jack Hylton’s re-orchestrations; it went “from black to white and now purple” (Matshikiza 1961a, 125), and he recounts asking King Kong’s producers to stop writing his name “in the register from the bottom” (123), reflecting how he saw himself sidelined as composer by his white collaborators. In the New Statesman article, Matshikiza similarly focuses on the westernisation of the music as it was developed for the London stage, explaining the value of the marabi and mbaqanga styles he tried to incorporate, and suggesting that the music “slipped out of [his] hands” (Matshikiza 1961b, 316). This was hardly the “triumph” of “co-operation” many envisioned. His incisive New Statesman article belies his supposed anxieties expressed to the journalist in the afore-quoted passage from Chocolates to My Wife that he might jeopardise the success of King Kong by speaking injudiciously. In fact, the New Statesman article could be seen as an avenue for Matshikiza to assert control over his public image, and the meanings made of King Kong in Britain; in it he writes, in response to a Telegraph article about the musical,
Someone suggests […] that the British public should see and support as far as possible the all-native South African Jazz Opera, King Kong, for it would be sad for the poor Natives if they were to travel the whole distance to flop in London after the opening night, to return to the misery of the land of their birth.
He counters this view, suggesting “King Kong must stand or fall by his own strength or weakness, in London or anywhere else in the world” (Matshikiza 1961b, 315).
Certainly many of the media responses to King Kong took on the patronising attitude that Matshikiza describes here. Lindelwa Dalamba has traced how King Kong exposed “the tensions of postcolonial Englishness” when it travelled to London. Dalamba (2013b, 99) argues that, “[w]ith South Africa no longer one of its marvellous possessions, older codes of colonial England were easily displaced as problems of ‘race relations’ peculiar to South Africa”. In the same way, British media representations of Matshikiza evince ambivalent attitudes towards race, apartheid and South Africa. A reviewer for The London Times Weekly Review, for instance, described King Kong as “a piece of naïve but vital indigenous art” (as quoted in Titlestad 2004, 98).
On the other hand, some liberal London audiences accused King Kong of not accurately reflecting the inequalities of South African society and wished that the production had taken a more overt anti-apartheid stance. David B. Coplan (2007, 216) suggests that “international attitudes towards Africa had left South Africa behind” as in 1960 “African nationalism, independence and cultural resurgence were already dominant movements” so that “a liberating ‘anything goes’ shocker in South Africa was in England simply an advertisement for the social status quo”. For instance, English theatre critic Robert Muller (as quoted in Coplan 2007, 216) wrote that King Kong was “[p]olitically … about as dynamic as a bag of laundry … One swallow of black and white collaboration doesn’t make a summer of South Africa’s bleak shame.” Coplan argues, however, that these critics were “blind to the situation in South Africa” (216) as they misunderstood how the staging or development of an overtly political production would have been thwarted by the apartheid authorities. Dalamba substantiates this point with archival research into the negotiations over the apartheid government’s travel allowances for the King Kong cast, concluding that the conscious framing of the production by its white producers as a liberal “exercise in race relations that would uplift a black folk” (Dalamba 2013a, 64) caused the government to give King Kong’s cast members slightly more licence than if its content was more overtly “radical”.3 This deliberate softening of the production’s politics in South Africa is also subtly evident in the Chocolates for My Wife passage recounting a meeting with a British journalist.
Throughout the press coverage of King Kong, Todd Matshikiza was an important figure alongside the actors and musicians, and was frequently called upon for commentary by the British press, as suggested by the initial passage discussed. To mark King Kong’s opening at the Prince’s Theatre in London, Matshikiza appeared on the BBC Home Service to discuss his compositions, according to the Radio Times (February 1961, 54). Matshikiza’s brief biography in the radio programme’s preview calls him a “little firefly of a man” and describes him as a “self-taught composer who learned to write music so that he could record the mass of songs and tunes that kept coming into his head”, and “the most gifted exponent of the type of jazz that flourishes among the black population of South Africa” (Radio Times February 1961, 54). Besides the obvious paternalism in the description of Matshikiza’s stature, the idea that he was a “self-taught composer” is patently a fabrication, whether by the Radio Times writer or Matshikiza himself, as Matshikiza not only came from a very musical family but also took a diploma in music at Adams College in Natal (Matshikiza 1999). This myth of auto-didactism constructs Matshikiza as outside of western musical traditions based on formal training. Such suggestions of an authentically “African” vibrancy and talent hover, similarly, around the edges of some British responses to his autobiography. In another report on King Kong from Newsweek, Matshikiza is described as a “diminutive composer” who “used to be a razor-blade salesman” and whose “great-grandfather was a Fingo tribal witch-doctor” (Newsweek March 1961, 34). While these biographical miscellanies might be true (Matshikiza worked briefly as a travelling salesman for Gillette razors before joining Drum), the writer’s focus on Matshikiza’s one-time proletarian job, and his mystical “tribal” forebears over his background as a journalist or his renown as a choral composer in South Africa foreground how the British media’s interest in Matshikiza lay partly in his exoticised appeal as an unusual figure whose role as King Kong’s composer was presented as a remarkable fluke. Such patronising overtones co-existed in many cases with a stated opposition to apartheid and with a recognition of the political and artistic contributions of Matshikiza’s works.
In important ways, the reception of King Kong was interwoven with the anti-apartheid struggle in Britain: Lindelwa Dalamba (2013a, 78) argues, that despite the South African government’s best, “Sharpeville was the dominant frame through which King Kong was received in London”, so that “black King Kongers like Todd Matshikiza … became the focus of 1961 anti-apartheid sentiment in Britain”. The response to both King Kong and Matshikiza in Britain participates in the deferred reception Louise Bethlehem (2018, 50) observes when she asserts that apartheid “moves things” since, “[a]t determinate stops along the grid of their reception elsewhere, South African texts, images, and works of music were channelled through local paradigms of reception in taut negotiation with aesthetic, institutional, linguistic, and political considerations”. The migration of South African cultural products to places such as Britain played a role in the raising of cultural consciousness about apartheid while putting into relief debates and ideas about race and (post-) colonialism in the places to which they were transported. South African literature operated within this complex “grid of reception” in multiple ways, not only due to the exile or expatriation of many of its key figures, but also because of their banning in their own country and their publication and readership beyond South Africa’s borders; as John Matshikiza (as quoted in Nuttall 2003, 4) suggests, his father lost “immediate contact with his audience”. Andrew van der Vlies (2007, 7), in his study of South African textual cultures, argues that South African writers who “looked elsewhere for publication, for ideological or economic reasons, or because their publication in apartheid-era South Africa was actively prevented” participated in both “actual and imaginary” border-crossings. Matshikiza’s autobiography contributed to this transnational nexus of South African literature’s publication and reception, and furthermore built on the border-crossing he had already undertaken through his physical move from South Africa to London, and through his very public and prominent role in the importation of King Kong to the West End.
“The claims of the King Kong connection”: publishing Chocolates for My Wife
The records of Hodder and Stoughton, who published Chocolates for My Wife, reveal that the publication of Matshikiza’s autobiography was designed to capitalise on his fame as King Kong’s composer. Furthermore, Hodder and Stoughton’s editorial director, Robin Denniston, was friendly with anti-apartheid clergyman and significant Sophiatown figure Trevor Huddleston and with former Drum editor Anthony Sampson, whose 1956 book Drum: A Venture into the New Africa he had published while working at Collins. Matshikiza’s publication was envisioned as building on the popularity of these works by prominent white, British figures associated with anti-apartheid resistance. This is evident in a letter from Denniston to artist Ken Farnhill, dated 21 June 1961, in which he requests a cover design for Chocolates for My Wife, and suggests that he “envisage[s] something with really rather jazz and exciting lettering, possibly with either a music or negro symbol”, adding that Farnhill did “a particularly nice jacket for Drum by Anthony Sampson and there are, in a way, affinities between the two books” (Hodder and Stoughton Collection). Denniston thus hoped that Matshikiza’s autobiography would appeal to British readers because of the interest that Sampson’s book and King Kong had raised about the lives of urban black South Africans under apartheid in general, and South African jazz and Drum magazine circles in particular.
Denniston’s report on the market for Chocolates for My Wife, written on 20 June 1961, highlights five key readerships, including the “large circle of people in Africa and England who know Todd as a friend or enemy”, “the people who went to and enjoyed King Kong”, and the “South African market”, to which he adds the caveat: “if we can get it into the country, and this is a big if” (Hodder and Stoughton Collection). The likelihood of Chocolates for My Wife being banned in South Africa for being politically provocative explains why Denniston focuses on the British market. The fourth market that Denniston mentions is “an appreciable African market”:
Now most books on Africa tend to be worthy but dull indictments of apartheid. This book is not very worthy and is certainly not dull and it tells very straight what apartheid feels like from the other side. It may lead some of the more old-fashioned liberals to think again, but this is no bad thing. (Hodder and Stoughton Collection)
By “African market”, Denniston means British readers with an interest in anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles in Africa. While Denniston emphasises the potential profitability of the memoir, he also expresses a more altruistic motive behind publishing Matshikiza’s work, as he acknowledges the subversive, awareness-raising potential of Chocolates for My Wife, which he links to Matshikiza’s lively and straight-talking tone. Denniston’s understanding of the satirical bent of the text is also evident in the last market he mentions: “the general market for third programme satirical books” (Hodder and Stoughton Collection). Thus, Denniston viewed Chocolates for My Wife as building on Matshikiza’s celebrity and links to other well-known anti-apartheid figures, while also having intrinsic value as a satirical and unusual work of protest. One of the readers’ reports submitted to the publisher similarly twinned his popularity with the anti-apartheid themes of the memoir: Elsie Heron suggests, in a report written on 19 June 1961, that the book has the “claims of the King Kong connection, and, behind these, the interest and sympathy of a much wider sort which should get this attention”, since “people do want to know how White strikes Black, and Matshikiza is forceful and vocal to an uncommon extent” (Hodder and Stoughton Collection).
These considerations of intended readership and the writer’s public identity were writ large on the book’s cover jacket when it was published in November 1961. The cover design does indeed bear “jazzy lettering” in vibrant yellow against a red background, above a silhouette of a nattily-dressed Matshikiza holding the eponymous box of chocolates. The stylised figure is reminiscent of a black-faced minstrel, with its white mouth in an otherwise featureless black face. The biography on the front cover flap describes Matshikiza as “an African from Johannesburg, now residing in London” who was “educated in what has been called the Eton of black Africa, St Peter’s, Rosettenville (where Father Trevor Huddleston was at one time Superintendent) and at a teacher’s training college”. After listing his eclectic careers, including the “razor blade salesman” job, the blurb ends by describing his musical achievements: “He has composed many choral and orchestral works, notably the score of the record-breaking musical King Kong (see back flap for press notices) and Mkumbane a musical for unaccompanied voices, to the book by Alan Paton.”
The name-dropping within this brief biography is overt and clearly targeted at British readers. First, Trevor Huddleston’s name is invoked with reference to the “Eton of black Africa”. As Tal Zalmanovich (2018, 52) observes, “Huddleston’s clear voice of protest … made him a ubiquitous political presence”. Zalmanovich quotes Huddleston’s biographer—who was Denniston himself—observing, hyperbolically, that Huddleston’s face was “the most photographed of any Christian except the Pope, his stand on racial equality admired by millions” (Denniston as quoted in Zalmanovich 2018, 53). Denniston therefore understood the value of invoking Huddleston’s name to frame Matshikiza’s work. The blurb’s reference to Alan Paton’s musical likewise positions Matshikiza as part of the burgeoning anti-apartheid cultural matrix, since Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (1948) had gained considerable popularity in Britain, as Andrew van der Vlies (2007, 79) notes, especially follow the publication of a paperback edition in 1958. Thus Matshikiza is associated with established anti-apartheid figures, and made readable in relation to liberal literary stalwarts such as Paton. Furthermore, the reference to King Kong and the accompanying reviews of his compositions on the back cover’s flap foreground the key reason for his fame in Britain, thereby appealing to King Kong’s admirers to buy the book.
Protest and “the problem of an audience” in critical responses to Chocolates for My Wife
Similarly, reviews of Chocolates for My Wife frequently foreground Matshikiza’s association with King Kong. In his Daily Mail article, Kenneth Allsop (1961) introduces Matshikiza as the composer of the “blazing, rainbow score for the musical King Kong”; Time & Tide’s Jim Hunter (1961) starts his review with: “Todd Matshikiza, who composed the music of the South African show King Kong, is now living in London”; Nadine Gordimer’s (1961, 30) Observer review begins with “Todd Matshikiza is the composer of the African musical, ‘King Kong’”; Sandy Wilson’s (1961, 6) Sunday Telegraph article calls Matshikiza “the composer of the first African Musical”, and Ezekiel Mphahlele’s (1962, 24) review in Transition opens with an anecdote from Matshikiza’s autobiography about a King Kong rehearsal, “the stage show for which he composed the music”. Thus all five of the reviews which I will discuss assume the reader’s familiarity with King Kong, which brings home the popularity of the musical in early 1960s Britain and confirms his publishers’ assumption that the “King Kong connection” would drive interest in Matshikiza’s writing. What many of the reviews have in common, furthermore, is their shared focus on assessing the strengths or weaknesses of Matshikiza’s protest against apartheid.
Kenneth Allsop’s Daily Mail article about Matshikiza’s autobiography combines a description of the book’s subject matter with an interview of Matshikiza. Like several other reviewers, Allsop (1961) suggests that a striking aspect of the book is its satirical tone, noting that its “remarkable qualities are its gaiety and banter about murderously inhuman experiences. Mr Matshikiza has turned the branding iron into a jester’s bladder”. Allsop’s seeming surprise at Matshikiza’s satirical approach to apartheid may uphold Denniston’s opinion that previous well-known non-fiction works about apartheid were “worthy but dull indictments”, and thus Matshikiza stands out because of his jaunty tone. Such an ironic and humorous style, though perhaps unfamiliar to Allsop in his reading about apartheid, is not unique amongst his Drum cohorts and is a defining characteristic of much Drum journalism, as any reading of the works of Can Temba or Ezekiel Mphahlele will attest. Fellow Drum writer, novelist and essayist Lewis Nkosi (1983, 254) noted that “[f]or a black man to live in South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century and at the same time preserve his sanity, he requires an enormous sense of humour and a surrealistic kind of brutal wit” and suggests that black South Africans identified with Langston Hughes’s description of African Americans who “laugh to keep from crying” (28).
Much of Allsop’s article contains lengthy quotations from his interview with Matshikiza. For instance, Allsop reports Matshikiza’s expectations that his exile would be “temporary” until a “revolution of a physical kind” inevitably occurred in South Africa, after which he envisioned that, “[w]e shall pour back into our country, a big river of the experience and knowledge that was kept from us there” (Allsop 1961). Matshikiza’s words are prescient about the contribution of returning exiles following the advent of democracy in South Africa, and profoundly tragic and poignant, since he died in exile in Zambia in 1968. He also speaks of the cultural poverty that South Africa suffered due to the expulsion and emigration of major South African artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals.
Allsop clearly sympathised with Matshikiza’s optimism and determination, since he chose to report his ideas at length. As with King Kong, it would be inaccurate to paint all interest in Matshikiza’s writing as evincing either patronising exoticism or the scapegoating of British racism onto South Africa. As Allsop’s article shows, for many, interest in Matshikiza’s life, works and presence in Britain sprung out of and fed into solidarity with the struggle against apartheid. British critics such as Allsop read Chocolates for My Wife as a markedly humorous, but nonetheless pointed work of protest against apartheid, and presented Matshikiza as an anti-apartheid intellectual with special insight into the past, present and future of his homeland. Furthermore, Allsop’s authorship of this review is significant in itself, since he was a well-known broadcaster, journalist and literary critic, whose study of 1950s British poets, The Angry Decade (Allsop 1958), had established him as an important commentator on contemporary literature. Since Allsop wrote at such length, and with such sympathy, about Matshikiza’s life and writing, it is evident that his autobiography was viewed as an important and interesting work amongst at least some members of the British literary establishment.
Equally, a review of Chocolates for My Wife in the political and literary review magazine, Time and Tide, underscores the broad interest taken in Matshikiza’s work by both mainstream media and more elite literary publications. Founded as a left-wing and feminist publication, Time and Tide later took on a right-leaning editorial tone, though it remained an important space to publish and discuss new writing throughout the post-war years (Simkin 1997). The approach taken by the reviewer, Jim Hunter, towards Matshikiza’s representation of apartheid attests to the conservative slant of the publication. After introducing Matshikiza as the composer of “the South African show King Kong”, Hunter (1961) immediately explains that this role is mostly irrelevant to the autobiography’s contents: since “the book scarcely mentions music and stands quite happily in its own right”. After invoking the writer’s celebrity, Hunter insists on the literary integrity of the work “in its own right”, as a sophisticated and remarkable work about apartheid:
Very quickly one wants to meet Mr Matshikiza; he isn’t buffeting us with our indirect responsibility for the condition of his native country, he isn’t shaking a collecting box, he doesn’t argue or plead. Yet one can fairly sure that the writer means us to be disturbed, and he achieves this in subtler ways; his apparently casual accounts, his vivid thumbnail sketches, the good humour with which he seems to underplay his descriptions, make one more sincerely sympathetic and embarrassed than many impassioned appeals. (Hunter 1961)
Such a commendation of “subtler ways” of raising readers’ awareness about apartheid infers a critique of more overtly “impassioned” works which might “argue and plead” with less “good humour”. Hunter expresses relief that Matshikiza is not “buffeting us with our indirect responsibility for the condition of his native country”; he commends Matshikiza for not forging links between Britain’s colonisation of South Africa with the emergence of a racist Afrikaner nationalism. As Dalamba observes in relation to King Kong, in many cases conservative and even liberal Britons in the 1960s were keen to dissociate British colonial history and present racism from South Africa’s “peculiar” race relations (Dalamba 2013b, 99). That Hunter reads Matshikiza as acquitting Britain of any “indirect” role in South African racism is particularly notable since Chocolates for My Wife describes several instances of racism that Matshikiza experiences in London at the hands of white Londoners, which certainly suggests continuities between South African and British society. For instance, Matshikiza writes of searching for accommodation and encountering “a Fascist organization painting swastikas and sending Coloured people walking all over London on useless errands” (Matshikiza 1961a, 69).
Despite downplaying the “impassioned” tone of the book, Hunter admits that Matshikiza “means us to be disturbed” and therefore upholds the book’s purpose as a work aimed at raising awareness amongst British readers. While reflecting and quelling the anxieties which British readers and critics might have had about the potential radicalism of anti-apartheid works by black South Africans, Hunter is also concerned with the literary value of the text, deriving from its supposedly “subtle” critique. As Andrew van der Vlies (2007, 127) discusses in relation to the publication history and reception of Alex La Guma’s early works, the “lives of books in (proto-) postcolonial societies” are frequently complex due to debates around the “contingency of literariness” in relation to the political. Furthermore, since it is read through the prism of British attitudes towards race, colonialism and literariness itself, the South African text is conferred with distorted new meanings, such as exculpating Britain of any role in the rise of apartheid.
In a less sophisticated way, Sandy Wilson (1961, 6) of the Sunday Telegraph similarly praises Chocolates for My Wife for its lack of bitterness, writing: “In spite of the ugly things of which he writes, Mr Matshikiza’s book is not plaintive or vindictive. It is written with the same gaiety and bounce that inform his music.” Wilson suggests a correlation between the music Matshikiza composed for King Kong and his writing, a common trope in descriptions of his prose (Thorpe 2019, 290). While Matshikiza’s writing is definitely humorous, there are also several instances of anger, sadness and cynicism, as in the passage about searching for accommodation mentioned above, and particularly in its conclusion with its deceptively optimistic wish that he will find “a nice London home” (Matshikiza 1961a, 127). By over-associating Matshikiza with his buoyant musical compositions, some critics might miss the more “plaintive” tone that is often evident in amongst the “gaiety” of his prose.
This simplification of Matshikiza’s tone and intent is included in a review that drips with exoticism, echoing the tone of many media responses to King Kong. A review of the production in the Financial Times, for instance, remarks that it offers a “modest” pleasure of a “coloured and exotic people with a natural sense of rhythm in every part of their bodies thoroughly enjoying showing off their skill” (Worsley 1961, 61). Wilson’s review begins by pointing out the strangeness of the writer’s surname: “Todd Matshikiza (his surname has often caused spelling difficulties—a South African policeman once added “yo-yo” to it for a joke) is the composer of the first African Musical” (Wilson 1961, 6). She goes on to remark on the other anomalies of the text, from its “unusual” analeptic structures to his writing style: “In a manner that one feels must be peculiarly African, he presents pictures of places and people, using language as an inexperienced but talented painter might use his colours.” Wilson continues: “Sometimes the effect is startlingly vivid, sometimes a little mystifying, but always full of life” (1961, 6) Wilson’s assumptions about Matshikiza’s “inexperience” and her suggestion that Matshikiza’s prose is “peculiarly African” reveals the same essentialisation of “natural”, untaught “African” talent as contained in many reviews of King Kong.
While it makes sense that Wilson’s condescending review was published in the conservative Sunday Telegraph, the historically liberal publication, The Observer, chose South African novelist Nadine Gordimer as the reviewer of Chocolates for My Wife. In Gordimer’s review, she immediately foregrounds how Matshikiza does not rest on the laurels of his King Kong celebrity:
Todd Matshikiza is the composer of the African musical, “King Kong” but his book touches upon the experience in the theatre only in passing, and upon his work as a composer not at all. He writes music, and does not need write about it; and being at the beginning of what looks like a tough but very promising career, he has the unusual good sense not to cling to the thought of his first success until it grows stale, but to get on with something new. (Gordimer 1961, 30)
Thus Gordimer acknowledges how Matshikiza might have leveraged his musical celebrity, but also how he displays artistic and personal integrity and dynamism by moving past his initial fame. The idea of what she calls “the impression of a personality in movement” is central to Gordimer’s (1961, 30) assessment of Matshikiza’s autobiography which she sees as coming “leaping out of the middle” of the “narrator’s life”. Gordimer, as a South African writer, is also well placed to observe how Matshikiza’s writing differs from other exilic autobiographies. Unlike the “standard ‘escape’ autobiography written by nearly every journalist, teacher or political refugee from that country”, Chocolates for My Wife
is not about his life in Johannesburg, but about his life and in London and the dovetail and divergence of the immediate happenings in street, pub, party, club and tube, and the experiences, expectations and attitudes that he carries alive, inside himself, of Africa. (Gordimer 1961, 30)
Here Gordimer touches on a reason that Matshikiza’s autobiography might be considered less “plaintive” and “vindictive” than some other works of non-fiction about South Africa, since Matshikiza refracts his commentary about apartheid through his observations of London. As I have already suggested, such a dual vision frequently offers critiques of 1960s Britain as well as describing the oppressive conditions of apartheid South Africa.
In contrast, a contemporary review by another major South African writer and literary critic, Ezekiel Mphahele, presented Matshikiza’s focus on the London scene not as a welcome diversion from the ubiquitous “escape” memoir but as an unfortunate consequence of the necessity of appealing to British readers and publishers. In a review published in the journal Transition, Mphahlele (1962, 24) observes that: “One could have wished that he had written a whole book as a skit on South African life, even as fiction; this would have given him a wider range for the full display of his whip-cracks and literary acrobatics.” Mphahlele (1962, 24) argues that “[t]his change of idiom reminds us rudely that the problem of an audience is going to bedevil African writing for a long time to come”. He suggests that the toned-down prose of the work must be “because he is trying to be respectable, because he had to be published in England” whereas “[w]hen he was writing for an African audience, he was free (even in a country of turmoil) to be as expressive as he cared to be, short of sedition and libel” (1962, 24). There is little evidence in the correspondence between Matshikiza and his publisher of heavy-handed editorial intervention, however. One of the readers, Elsie Heron, advises against “tampering” with the style since “it is Matshikiza and unlike anyone else” (Hodder and Stoughton Collection), and Robin Denniston appeared to agree. In a response to a critical report by a reader for US publisher Harper Brothers, Denniston wrote of Matshikiza on 7 November 1961:
I myself worked with him with the greatest care over the book, but felt that is was wrong not to let him write in the way in which he wanted to, and indeed he is very reluctant to accept editorial advice except on small matters. (Hodder and Stoughton Collection)
Yet this hands-off approach on the part of Hodder and Stoughton does not preclude self-censorship. Matshikiza may indeed have focused on life in Britain in order to appeal to British readers, and likewise might have censored his “expressive” writing style, with his potential readers in mind.
Moreover, Mphahlele’s comments about “the problem of an audience” for South African writers must be read in the context of his activities at the time. In 1961, Mphahlele became head of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s Africa programme, which raised funds for Nigeria-based publisher Mbari, and he also served on Mbari’s board (Van der Vlies 2007, 108). Mphahlele thus had a vested interest in encouraging African writers to be published by African publishers, and had a strong belief in the necessity of growing an African audience and in building African literary institutions. Transition, the magazine in which this review was published, was founded with funding from the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1961 and was initially based in Uganda. Because of his own strong opinions about advocating for Africa-based publishing, Mphahlele chooses to segue from a review of Matshikiza’s autobiography to a broad manifesto on African literature, writing:
Only when Africans are published in Africa, speak primarily to their own people, and are not always having to meet some of the unreasonable demands of big publishing and erratic public tastes in the other world—only then can individual idioms develop unhindered. (Mphahlele 1962, 24)
As Peter McDonald (2009) notes, the early 1960s saw a change in the “structure and dynamics” of the African book market, due to the development of Seven Seas Books and the Heinemann African Writers Series, as well as the rise of Mbari, which attracted many new young black writers. This meant that “the key group of independent literary publishers in London came to be associated almost exclusively with white writers after 1960” (McDonald 2009, 106), with a few exceptions, and Matshikiza’s work was thus published at the outset of this change in publishing dynamics. While there is little evidence that Matshikiza actively changed either his idiom or content in line with “erratic public tastes”, he was nevertheless invoked in contemporary debates about moving African publishing away from the British metropolis. Like many works written in exile or by diasporic writers, the transnational nature of the writer and the text raise questions about how the intended readership influences the text’s content, evoking anxieties about external or self-imposed limits placed on the writer’s freedom of expression.
Although there is little evidence of Mphahlele’s assumption that “erratic public tastes” in Britain prevented Matshikiza’s “individual idiom” from being developed, his framing of Matshikiza’s potentially position in Britain, reliant on the whims of British publishers and readers, is reminiscent of Matshikiza’s own, jokingly expressed anxieties about his arrival in London, his concerns about being “summed up” by the British media and his cognisance of the need to be “careful” (Matshikiza 1961a, 38). And it is possible that Matshikiza’s career was indeed shaped at some levels by the perceptions of the British media and public, and by his relationship to the increasingly radical ANC in the early 1960s; Esmé Matshikiza has recounted how Todd was let go from a prospective BBC job because he performed in Algeria at the ANC celebrations of Algeria’s independence celebrations in 1962, which was a “bitter blow, from which he did not recover” (as quoted in Bernstein 1994, 326). Possibly, the BBC’s disapproval of Matshikiza’s visit to Algeria was due to a cooling of the relationship between British governmental institutions and the ANC after the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, which as Håkan Thörn (2006, 54) explains, meant “the end of the carefully built international image of the ANC as the ‘the moderate alternative’” to the Pan African Congress. Despite Matshikiza’s early popularity in Britain as an appealing anti-apartheid icon, assimilable and legible within liberal literary, theatrical, musical and media milieux, as soon as his politics became more unpalatable, he was all but cast out, leading him to seek further exile in Zambia, where he died in 1968.
Coda: “On the unbanning of the banned”
The questions of intended readership raised by Mphahlele in his review were particularly pertinent because Chocolates for My Wife was banned by the South African censors upon its publication in 1961. After the state of emergency following the atrocities committed by police in Sharpeville and Langa, the Nationalist government introduced “an especially repressive bill” mandating the censorship of literature, that involved “even stricter forms of pre-publication scrutiny” than provided by previous legislation (McDonald 2009, 32). In his Transition review, Mphahlele speculates about the reasons for the banning of Chocolates for My Wife, and surmises that a passage mocking South African policemen might have done the trick, since “Matshikiza laughs at the policeman even while he fears him; and the danger is that he may provoke laughter in several quarters, which is much worse” (Mphahlele 1962, 24). Matshikiza was included amongst a group of “listed” writers under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1966, which meant that all future works would also be banned (McDonald 2009, 48). South African readers thus only gained access to Chocolates for My Wife in 1982, when it was amongst a selection of African and South African titles which were unbanned and published by David Philip, which also included Petals of Blood, by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Can Themba’s The Will to Die and Harry Bloom’s Transvaal Episode.
The selection of Matshikiza’s work by David Philip amongst only a few other works for unbanning shows how the text was read as a significant marker in the development of South African literature. David Maughan Brown (1983, 16) remarks, in an article published in the liberal journal Reality, that the unbanning of these four works “provide[d] appropriate occasion for a fresh appraisal of them as literary works”. Maughan Brown furthermore echoes some of Mphahlele’s ideas about the arrested development of South African writing and publishing, since
[b]anning and exile invariably came before these writers had had the chance to develop their literary abilities to the full … or to produce much in the way of substantial works, so what they have left behind tends to be a very fragmentary, if exceptionally vivid, account of township life, and the political tensions, of the fifties. (Maughan Brown 1983, 16)
Interestingly, Maughan Brown casts doubt upon the radical potential of Temba and Matshikiza’s works, claiming that they show up the “the paranoically sensitive” nature of “the South African state” since even though
both books satirize the South African Police pretty vehemently and expose the exploitative economic and social relations of this country pretty uncompromisingly … neither could by the remotest stretch of the imagination be regarded as having been likely, even during the tension-filled days of the State of Emergency, to move even a small portion of its very limited black readership in the direction of active resistance to the apartheid law. (Maughan Brown 1983, 16–17)
While one could read Maughan Brown’s doubt in the book’s political efficacy as echoing British critics’ insistence on the mildness of its critique, he acknowledges that it aimed to “expose” oppression and exploitation in apartheid South Africa, even if it did not incite violent revolution. Furthermore, Maughan Brown’s comments were written from the retrospective position of the early 1980s, after writers inspired by Black Consciousness ideology became more prominent, and whose radical voices of protest may have made Matshikiza’s and Temba’s anti-racist writing seem comparatively quiescent. In Chocolates for My Wife, Matshikiza (1961a, 39) expressed his anxiety that journalists would “misrepresent” him, yet his autobiography itself, with its initially transnational and later delayed South African readership, was itself implicated in misreadings, or re-readings, that revealed as much about the critics and their own historical-social contexts as about the text, or Matshikiza himself.
By examining the media discourse around Todd Matshikiza, a “rather well-known South African” (Matshikiza 1961a, 39) in exile in the early 1960s, I have aimed to contribute to this special issue’s exploration of the role of celebrities as “signs” embodying, intentionally or not, a “multiplicity of meanings” (Dyer 1979, 3) and values in relation to apartheid and the global anti-apartheid movement. Matshikiza’s public image intersects with the critical responses to his literary work and brings into relief British and South African attitudes towards literature and protest. I have thus treated Matshikiza as a text himself, into which publishers, critics and the public read their own narratives about South Africa. Exile and banning created a fragmented, deferred audience for South African literature, as works such as Matshikiza’s perforce addressed a metropolitan readership and were only read by South Africans years after their publication. Such a dislocated history of writing, publishing and reception demands fresh re-examination and reconstruction as we remember what made exiled South African intellectuals such as Matshikiza so contested, so influential and so famous.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
1 See, for instance, Sachs 1991; Ndebele 1986.
2 Jazz trombonist Jonas Gwangwa suggested that the plot of the musical did not tell the whole story: “The problems that arose were … you cannot really tell the truth, you know? It was alleged that [Ezekiel Dlamini] committed suicide, but we believed that he was killed in prison and thrown into a dam that was being built. […] That was just the whole apartheid South Africa … that couldn’t allow people to tell the real story” (quoted in Ansell 2004, 103).
3 Nevertheless, Matshikiza’s lyrics, in the opening number, “Sad Times, Bad Times”, were perceived to include coded messages of support to the Treason Triallists, as the trial was just beginning when the production premiered. Nelson Mandela apparently expressed his appreciation to Matshikiza for this message of solidarity at the musical’s opening night in Johannesburg (Matshikiza 1999, 96).
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