Don Mattera: man of pain and struggle, love and hope

Born in Westbury in 1935, Don Mattera was destined to lead a life of significance. His grandfather was an Italian immigrant who married a Xhosa woman, back when it was a crime to have children of mixed race. As one of the founding members of the Black Consciousness Movement, he was detained, banned and tortured for his political stance. A poet, writer, political activist and mentor to many, Mattera never shied away from speaking truth to power. He was an author and journalist who also served as the first arts editor for the Mail & Guardian (The Weekly Mail at the time). When great trees fall, the effects are immeasurable. Here, writers and poets Kojo Baffoe and Lebo Mashile pay tribute to the man known by many names across generations. 

We honour this national icon for being a pathfinder, a

warrior for justice and a truth teller. We are, because you were. Rest among the stars, Bra Don. 

In an essay titled The I in Writing in Listen To Your Footsteps (Pan Macmillan), I wrote about how, many moons ago (some time in the early 2000s), I ended up on the receiving end of a mini, impromptu lecture by Don Mattera where he lamented the tendency of young poets and writers to centre ourselves in our writing with “I” repeated ad nauseam. 

This truth, especially when it comes to my own writing, has hovered over my shoulder incessantly as I have tried, unsuccessfully, to change my ways and, today, the irony is not lost on me that I am writing about that very same person, in relation to the impact he has had on my life.

Anyway, on reflecting on Don Mattera — I have never known what to call him, because for the various people around me, he is Papa Don, Bra Don or, simply, Toppie — I realise, while they overlap, there are three versions of Ntate Mattera that loomed, each in their own way, large in my life has a young — to him — writer.

I first came across the name, growing up in Maseru. My father was a collector of books from the continent and the world and my school was wonderfully diverse in its reading subject matter. For an essay for English, I wrote about “writers in times of oppression” and referenced South African writers, of which, if memory serves me correctly, Don Mattera was one.

The first version of him was this larger-than-life poet and writer, who wrote poems of pain and struggle, and love and hope.

In moving to Joburg in the late 1990s and finding myself in a burgeoning poetry scene trying to define itself in a country that was changing, where poets no longer had the injustice of apartheid and the struggle for liberation as a central point, I found myself in a couple of situations where Don Mattera was present. He was always extremely forthcoming about what he felt were the missteps by us young poets, but also willing to share his wisdom and knowledge.

I would often sit on the edges, listening, absorbing. He was the accessible — relatively — elder at whose feet many aspiring writers sat. Version two. To Gerrard, a close friend of mine, Don Mattera was family. Seeing Papa Don through his eyes, I saw a man who, was father to a community, whose own children had to share him with countless other children. A man who cared deeply for these many children. Having met and got to know some of these children, including his “biological” children, version three was looking through a lens tinged by their perspective.

These are just three versions of a man who was made up of so much more. For example, I didn’t know he was arts editor at The Weekly Mail’s shortlived daily iteration the Daily Mail and trained journalists at The Weekly Mail.

What I do know is Don Mattera manifested his truest self, always. He spoke truth to power regardless of the consequences, didn’t mince his words, refused to fade quietly into the background, and never allowed those distracted by the trappings to get too comfortable. He was compassionate and passionate.

Don Mattera was not perfect in the way that none of us are but was exceptional in ways that some of us hope to be, one day. I, for one, am better for having been able to linger on the fringes of his orbit. RIP Don Mattera.

Kojo Baffoe is a writer, editor, content strategist, author of Listen To Your Footsteps — Reflections and Essays and the host of the Listen To Your Footsteps podcast. — Kojo Baffoe

A poet, writer and editor, Don Mattera was a towering figure for many creatives

Dr Donato Francisco Monnapula Mohamed Omarrudin Mattera — Don Mattera — was as layered and multifaceted as his names. 

How befitting for a master and lover of language? To move through this world bearing a poem as his name. It is no wonder his prodigious talent for poetry was discovered at the tender age of eight by nuns at the Kwa-Zulu Natal Catholic boarding school he attended. 

His son Giovanni Mattera attested to this at Mattera’s memorial. “Toppie [Mattera] told everyone that story over and over again. How he stood on the train platform in Durban 

with a sign around his neck for the nuns to find him.”

“My religion is compassion” is a phrase Don Mattera, aka Bra Don, aka Bra Zinga, aka Ntate Don, often repeated. A devout Muslim, his spiritual philosophy moved fluidly between his commitment to Islam, his reverence for the Catholic Church, inspired by his primary school years, and his connection 

to his ancestors grounded in indigenous African spirituality.

Born of Italian, Xhosa, Khoi and Tswana heritage, listening to Don Mattera effortlessly switch from English, to Tsotsitaal, to Tsonga, Zulu, Afrikaans and Setswana was like watching a continuum of identities in motion, bending and swaying, without breaking. He embodied a template of hybridity, rooted in pan-Africanism, that showed what a South African identity at peace with itself could possibly look like.

With his love of Florsheim shoes, and statesman like aura, his presence evoked an era of gentlemen — where even the most macho of men creased their pants and carried handkerchiefs. At the same time, he conjured a futuristic sense of what it means to be human and to be African; of a world where the distinct elements of one’s heritage do not have to live in conflict with one another. 

He defied the unnatural divisions created by apartheid, which persist in our polarised, xenophobic society today, by boldly and proudly asserting himself.

Bra Don was a founding member of the Black Consciousness Movement and an ardent pan-Africanist. In his poem Child, from the iconic collection Azanian Love Song, he writes:

I am not influencing you to hate whites

I could not ask such a thing

For it would negate my own humanity

The enmity I feel is for the denial of black dignity

For the sacred right to love unhindered

Bra Don often spoke about his need to challenge oppressive authoritarianism, which expressed itself through the gangsterism of his early adulthood in Sophiatown and later in his role as a seminal anti-apartheid leader. There was the ferocious side of Mattera embodied by the fearless truth-teller and fighter in him. This was balanced by his immense heart which saw humanity in all beings of all colours, abilities, ages, races and genders. This was his yin/yang, the apparent contradiction that was not a contradiction at all. For how can you love something if you are not willing to fight for it?

He writes further in Child:

But as there are evil white people

So are there Black ones

Who have become the tools

With which we are fooled and indoctrinated

Black men and women who crawl

For the colonial crumbs of comfort

Selling their souls for money

Erasure is a South African pastime. Bra Don’s insistence on memory as an act of love and resistance shines through his works Memory is the Weapon and Gone with the Twilight. 

His memory was singular, a sword cutting through clouds of deliberate amnesia, evoking the decimation of Sophiatown as quickly as he could rattle off the lineage of one of the members of his beloved community. He was a walking archive, an encyclopaedia of our nation’s consciousness.

He saw into the past as readily as his heart reached into the future. As I mourn him, I am joined, in the ether, by legions of writers, thinkers and artists across generations who saw him as a mentor and as a father. 

“You became a present father healing the wounds of our absent fathers.” These are the words of poet and imbhongi Jessica Mbangeni in a Facebook tribute, where she acknowledged the role he played in supporting our 

generation of poets. How many of our elders can say that they have such a palpable connection with younger people?

I see you Don Mattera. I see you shining in a country that erased Robert Sobukwe, a country that attempts to reduce Steve Biko to a brand, and that evokes Chris Hani only when the truth of his death is weaponised by those in power against one another. You died on the day of Nelson Mandela’s birth. In your death, as in life, you defy silencing.

I will miss you, to quote your masterful poem, This Land, The Whole Land, “with all the love it takes to pump one heart and fill it with a dream.” — Lebo Mashile

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Kojo Baffoe
Kojo Baffoe is a writer, editor, content strategist, author of Listen To Your Footsteps – reflections and essays – and host of the Listen To Your Footsteps podcast. He spends his days being a father, writing for his site, newsletter, publications and corporate clients, consulting in the editorial/content space through Zebra Culture and following his whim with creative projects that appeal to him.

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