Don Mattera, 1935—2022, RIP

Renowned poet, author and anti-apartheid activist Don Mattera has died at the age of eighty-seven.

Mattera’s family confirmed that he passed away peacefully at his home in Protea Glen, Johannesburg, today, Monday 18 July—which is celebrated in South Africa as Mandela Day. Mattera will be buried according to Muslim rites.

Mattera was born in 1935 in Western Native Township (now Westbury), Johannesburg, and grew up in Sophiatown and Westbury, also attending boarding school in Durban.

He inherited a rich cultural tradition from his family, especially his Italian grandfather, Khoi and Xhosa grandmother and Tswana mother.

Mattera became politically active in the nineteen-fifties, after seeing a number of forced removals from Sophiatown, and became a founding member of the Black Consciousness movement and joined the ANC Youth League. As a result, he was banned from 1973 to 1982, and spent three years under house arrest. He was also detained and tortured on more than one occasion.

He worked as a journalist for the Sunday Times, The Sowetan and the Weekly Mail, helping to form the Union of Black Journalists, and was also a director of the Black Consciousness publishing imprint Skotaville.

Mattera’s memoir, Memory is the Weapon, was published in 1987 by Ravan Press, and became a seminal work in the literary canon of Sophiatown. He also published a volume of poetry Azanian Love Song (1983), and the plays One time Brother (1983, banned in 1984) and Kagiso Sechaba (1983). He contributed to the poetry volume Exiles Within (1984), and wrote two collections of children’s stories, The Story Teller (1991) and Five Magic Pebbles (1992), which won the Noma Children’s Book Award.

Several years ago, Mattera sat down to chat with The JRB’s Photo Editor, Victor Dlamini, who recorded the conversation for his podcast. Listen to Victor Dlamini in conversation with Don Mattera here:

Mattera’s numerous awards include the Steve Biko Prize from Sweden, the Kurt Tucholsky Award (given by the World PEN Association), the South African Order of the Baobab (Gold) for his significant contributions to South African Literature, a South African Literary Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, the World Health Organisation’s Peace Prize, and honorary doctorates from Wits University, Unisa and the University of Natal.

The chairperson of the Don Mattera Foundation, Jenny Jeftha, said Mattera’s death would be felt locally and globally:

‘We have lost an icon in the literary and arts fraternity. Don’s passing will leave a literary void—not just here at home, but globally. We are still celebrating Dr Mattera’s receipt and the unveiling of the star at the entrance of The Joburg Theatre, which celebrated sixty years, over the weekend, and now he is gone.’

President Cyril Ramaphosa also paid tribute to Mattera, saying:

‘As a nation, we are saddened by the loss of Don Mattera’s eloquent, rousing and revolutionary voice for justice.

‘As we observe International Nelson Mandela Day, we remember Bra Don as a patriot, who in the spirit of this commemorative day, did what he could, with what he had, where he was.’

The JRB extends its condolences to Mattera’s friends and family. He will be sorely missed. Hamba kahle.

Author photo: Victor Dlamini

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