Tribute | Don Mattera, poet extraordinaire, we salute you!

Legendary poet Don Mattera during Jazz legend Johnny Mekoa's funeral service at the Music Academy of Gauteng on July 11, 2017 in Benoni, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu

Legendary poet Don Mattera during Jazz legend Johnny Mekoa’s funeral service at the Music Academy of Gauteng on July 11, 2017 in Benoni, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu

Even though he had been sick for a long time, even though he had lived a long and fruitful life, it was still a shock to learn that the great poet, journalist and social activist, Omaruddin ‘Don’ Mattera, had passed away.

According to a statement released by the family, the man known to many as Bra Zinga passed away peacefully this afternoon, July 18.

It is poetic, symbolic and perhaps fitting that he died on Mandela Day, the former president having been his close friend for many years -before Madiba went to prison in the 1960s, and after he came back home to become this country’s first democratically elected president.

They did not see eye to eye politically – Don Mattera being an ardent Black Consciousness activist and Madiba being the Charterist he was. However, they did not allow this to interfere with their friendship.

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The thing with Don Zinga is that, even though he was unapologetically a Zim-Zim, as Black Consciousness followers are referred to, he was tolerant of Charterists to the point that he actually participated in organisations influenced and led by them.

One of these organisations was the Congress of SA Writers. In fact, it was during an event they organised that I first met Don Zinga in 1989.

He lived up to be the man he’d portrayed in his autobiography, Memory is the Weapon, which was published to international acclaim in 1987. He was a fast-talking “klevah” who shuttled with elegance from formal English – very impeccable – to tsotsi taal.

It was in his autobiography that I’d read about him being born in 1935 in Western Native Township (now Westbury), Johannesburg.

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A quintessential South African, Donato Francisco Mattera was the grandson of Paolo Mattera, an Italian immigrant, who was bowled over by a Xhosa woman from the Eastern Cape. His mother was a Motswana.

Though he was born in Western, he hung out a lot in Sophiatown, next door.

In his autobiography, he takes us down memory lane, evoking the legendary ghetto:

Sophiatown also had its beauty; picturesque and intimate like most ghettoes … Mansions and quaint cottages … stood side by side with rusty wood-and-iron shacks, locked in a fraternal embrace of filth and felony … The rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, all knitted together in a colourful fabric that ignored race or class structures.

Having married in the Eastern Cape, Paolo and his wife moved to Johannesburg where Don Mattera’s father was born.

When race classification laws came into effect after the National Party’s ascendance to power, and its promulgation of apartheid laws, young Don Mattera was classified as a “coloured”.

Race classification was both ridiculous and arbitrary.

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In terms of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, people could not marry across the racial divide. If a white man, however, insisted on wanting to marry a non-white, he might, thanks to the stipulations by the Race Classification Board, lose his status as a white person. Race classification also applied when people of a fluid racial status applied to be reclassified or an official deemed that they should be reclassified.

In his seminal book, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, American journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld revealed the ludicrousness of race classification laws:

In my first year back in South Africa, 558 coloureds became Indians, 15 whites became coloureds, eight Chinese became whites, seven whites became Chinese, 40 Indians became coloureds, 20 coloureds became Indians …

After the promulgation of the Group Areas Act, which segregated residential areas according to race, the multicultural neighbourhood of Sophiatown was bulldozed in 1955.

Coloured people, who had lived cheek by jowl with whites, Indians and Africans in Sophiatown were forcibly evicted from this neighbourhood and shunted off to present-day Westbury, Newclare and Bosmont. Mattera lived through it all.

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Unlike many of his coloured-age mates, Mattera got a good solid education. This was because, from an early age, his grandparents adopted him and sent him to a Catholic boarding school in Durban, only returning to the city of gold when he was 14.

He was in his teens when he got sucked up in the maelstrom of gangsterism.

Quick with his knife, he rose to the top leadership of the Vultures, a gang that terrorised the communities of Sophiatown and Western Native Township.

He was stabbed and shot at by rival gang members numerous times. At the age of 20, he was charged with the murder of a rival gang member and spent time in jail as an awaiting trialist before his acquittal.

It was after his acquittal and at the height of protests against the demolition of Sophiatown that he got introduced to Father Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who was active in Sophiatown and surrounding communities.

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It was through this introduction that Mattera’s political consciousness started, and he joined the ANC Youth League. At the same time, and through the encouragement of the cleric, Mattera started writing poems, plays and short stories.

In the 1970s, with the ANC having been banned in 1960, Mattera started getting involved in the politics of the Black Consciousness movement or Black Power, as it was colloquially referred to.

One of the founding members of the Union of Black Journalists, he soon attracted the attention of the apartheid secret police, the Security Branch, who started monitoring his political activities.


The funeral notice for the late poet Don Mattera. Photo: Supplied

Because he was loud and outspoken, he stood out among his colleagues and peers. This earned him a banning order from the apartheid state from 1973 to 1982. Three of these years were spent under house arrest, which meant he could no longer work as a journalist.

It was while he was under house arrest that he started writing serious poems that would later be published under the title Azanian Love Song. This collection of poems was published in 1983.

When the collection was reissued in 1993, the celebrated author, academic and critic, Es’kia Mphahlele, wrote glowingly about the book:

We have here, otherwise, a collection of poems that go directly to the heart. Don falls in the line of poets who created in the momentum of the Black Consciousness decade, its new awareness and self-knowledge. It still finds resonances throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

In the title poem, Mattera wrote evocatively:

Somewhere in the ghetto, a child is weeping … a woman is weeping … a woman writes her legacy on leaves of despair…

After his banning order elapsed, Mattera resumed his political activism. He became active in the National Forum, an umbrella body for Black Consciousness-aligned organisations.

At various stages of his journalistic career, he worked for newspapers, including The Star, The Sunday Times, The Sowetan and the Weekly Mail (now known as the Mail and Guardian).

He was also a director of the black consciousness book publishing house, Skotaville.

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Mattera is the holder of several prestigious literary awards, as well as numerous humanitarian citations, including the Order of Ikhamanga-silver, in 2007, the SA Department of Arts and Culture Literary Lifetime Achievement Award, the Crown of Peace Award (Washington in 2004), The French Human Rights Award. He holds an honorary PhD from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

It is perhaps fitting that we should bid this son of the soil by quoting from his poem A Song for Mandela, it being Mandela Day:

Beside me:

around and beneath mne

Inside this burning self

where impatient drums

beat a martial song

I hear Mandela singing:

Unzima lomtwalo

Ufuna amadoda namakhosikazi.

Vaya grand, ou topie. Don Zinga, a tsotsi with a sharp pen and an even sharper tongue.

You were right: memory is the weapon!