John Matshikiza was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to Todd Matshikiza - renowned jazz pianist, composer and journalist - and Esme Matshikiza. Due to apartheid, the Matshikiza family went into exile in London in 1961. John was only seven at the time he boarded the ship for London. Later the family moved to Lusaka, Zambia, where John completed his schooling and took a degree in economics and politics. He returned to London to the Central School of Speech and Drama to train in drama. While in the United Kingdom, he worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Glasgow's Citizens Theatre company and also worked in television and film. He became active in the exiled African National Congress, joining Mayibuye, the Cultural Unit of the ANC (he can be heard performing on their album 'Spear of the Nation', a collection of poems and songs in Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, and English). John also lived in the United States, Netherlands and various African countries including Senegal, where he was director of the department of culture of the Gorée Institute. While in exile John had two books published: South Where Her Feet Cool on Ice (1981) and Prophets in the Black Sky (1986).