Dr. Don Mattera passed away on the 18th of July 2022. He was eighty -seven years old. An internationalist, a Pan African and African Renaissance activist, an outstanding poet, writer and journalist, Mattera lived a full life.
Bra Don, as Mattera was known in the streets of his birthplace, Western Native Township and other townships like Sophiatown and Alexandra Township where he socialized, rebelled, as did many young people in those poverty- stricken environments of squalor and crime which were created by the Apartheid system.
He straddled, rejected and lived his life fighting those contradictions, right up to the end of his life.
Born of a Motswana mother and an Italian father, and coming from a maternal line of the Griqua and Khoisan, he was alienated by the Apartheid system whose objective was to implement maximum exploitation of what it called non-whites for the benefit of the whites. The system was used to implement the means to divide and to rule people. The Apartheid system nurtured tribalism, and the separation of people on the basis of color, languages and class. Bra Don was classified colored because of these Apartheid laws.
The Apartheid system imposed very harsh realities upon what it called non-white people: cheap labor, which resulted into rampant poverty, squalor, broken families, hard labor; in other words, severe oppression to implement maximum exploitation for cheap black labor. No wonder that Bra Don and his peers became gangsters; no wonder he was a father at a young age; no wonder that at twenty years old he was already in nine months awaiting trial charged for gang murder. No wonder that Bra Don, became a feared leader of a feared gang. His strong and no-nonsense life as a gangster, was forever told by both men and women, his peers.
If it were that he had not heard of the Movement, the ANC, which was at the height of its political campaigns, activities and confrontation and fight against the Apartheid regime in the fifties, in townships like Sophiatown or Alexandra, at the time, he would have ganged against the community, as he did when he set his gang against the residents of Alexandra to stop them from being involved in the Bus Boycott in 1957. The good storyteller he was, he always related his adventures as a gangster-jungle knives, guns, gang-fights, turf battles, and fights for(‘Cheries”) women, murder and all!
Having been in a Catholic orphanage, Bra Don became an ardent reader also. He did, as he did in politics, and in his life, straddle different political, social formations and religious denominations. He was a Muslim, on the other hand, Father Huddleston of the Anglican Church, had great influence on him, in spite of the fact that he was brought up in the Catholic orphanage.
The linguist he was, depending on social circumstances, Bra Don, whose other name was Monnapula Lebakeng, had a feel and spoke many of the African languages including Tsotsi Taal, a Township lingua franca, which to a large extent was a passport in the gangland. As the Setswana saying states “…kgomo e tswoaroa ka dinaka, motho ka leleme….” (you can identify the breed of cattle by their horns, and who people are by what they say).
He became a member of the ANC youth league. He was a member of the PAC. He was a member of the BCM. That, at different times and stages of his life. That is an almost lifetime engagement and mental battle. It is being engaged so, that Bra Don became a different person. He propagated non-racialism, non-tribalism, non -sexism and democracy fervently and without fear or favor and so was regarded as the enemy of South Africa by the Apartheid regime; but he was also most respected in the communities he came from and rose to become a national political activist figure and a poet.
While on the one hand Bra Don’s role and presence as a Cultural worker and political activist not only grew in influence and stature as he became a teacher, writer and journalist nationally through the organizations which he founded, it did not take long for him to be catapulted into the continental and international arena. He participated in continental and international cultural festivals, symposia, and lecture engagements in universities abroad.
Here goes Bra Don a poem:
i have known silences
long and deep as death
when the mind questioned the logic
in the imminence of my destruction
by men ruled and ravaged by powerlust
i have known deep silences
when thoughts like angry waves
beat against the shores of my mind
revealing the scars of brutal memories
and the murder of my manhood
i cannot hate
try as I want to
I cannot hate…why?
It could become very difficult to identify Bra Don’s political position by what he says when he assumes a colored position, even after the black consciousness movement has pronounced and propagated that even as there is some semblance of concession by the racist state for the condition of being Colored, the fact remained that they are black people; as also, it was possible to know what his position is about the apartheid system from what he says. A very strong non-racialist and democrat, he also swung between what he also suspected that non-racialism does also discriminate against those who were regarded as coloreds because they were not black enough, as also at one time, it was because they were not white enough. He would also take strong positions against some of the BCM positions, if he suspected that the views expressed boarded on being racist against the whites.
Is it the politics of oppression and exploitation which necessarily must challenge us to resolve them but completely; or is it that because we are and must be the creators of history, the Freedoms we found, shape and live must have as their foundation, intact, firm and solid reality in their complexity-that because- ‘…change is constant…’?