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Farewell Don Mattera, my mentor, my inspiration and the...

South Africa


Farewell Don Mattera, my mentor, my inspiration and the man who taught me the value of life

South African poet, journalist and activist Dr Don Mattera on 26 April 2005 (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Antonio Muchave)

Don Mattera has died. He fired my imagination at the start of a difficult and fractured career as a journalist, and helped me remake myself over and again — never in the image of others.

This week started in quite an absurd way. On Monday morning, delirious and drugged because of illness and disorientation, I touched the day and pulled away in horror. I sat down to write on a topic I should know about with some measure of confidence, but barely managed to let it hang together. I sit here, now; I cannot remember a single thing I wrote early on Monday morning. After writing, I took pills and passed out. I awoke at some point; it was dark and I did not know the time, and I read that Jessie Duarte had died.  

I never knew Jessie Duarte personally. I knew her brother Achmat Dangor many years ago, and more recently got to know her other brother Zane Dangor. I have nothing to say about Jessie Duarte. I knew her only as part of the ANC… I took more pills and passed out again. When I woke from another miserable slumber, I heard that Don Mattera had died. It was only Monday. I pulled back from the day again. It was no longer the day on which we celebrated the life and wisdom of Nelson Mandela. It was the day that Don Mattera died. 

I knew Don Mattera. In fact, I knew him well. Everything I have achieved as a journalist goes back to the days when Mattera began to mentor me, and saved me, as he did many kids from the streets. Like so many coloured kids, I was his laaitie. His kid. His son. His protégé. His underling. He followed my passage as a journalist from afar, never commented on my academic dalliances, but would call, sometimes, to tell me how I made him proud.  

He is dead now. His body is returned to the earth where it is nourishing the little creatures that we, ourselves, feast on in many ways. 

Death thrives at times of dying. With death dies wisdom, and we have only memories. Memories that bring other memories back to life. Some memories may last and can become weapons, or they can become keys to understanding times past, and we can better deal with the present and whatever times may yet come. Without memories we are lost; more lost than those who have replaced intentionality with wilful forgetting…  

Ask any one of the young Economic Freedom Fighters about their memories of the times, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when South Africa was burning, and they will give you a blank stare, or at best raise a string of non sequiturs and logical fallacies that tug at the emotions and present themselves with the exhilaration of philistine vulgarity. They cannot fully understand the past and know not what to do today beyond the performativity that satisfies only their most base instincts. They have yet to understand, fully, the relationship between subjectivity, the past and intentionality. 

During the 1980s and early 1990s, I would periodically climb into my battered car and visit Mattera to listen to him speak. We would walk through the streets and across the fields of Eldorado Park. He always reminded me that I had to find what it was that I wanted to make of myself, make myself over and again, and let this never end. 

It is those memories that linger and have a place beside the memories of violence from Crossroads to Boipatong, Bisho to Bophuthatswana, that I treasure, and that make me tremble now. Away from the clatter of keyboards or the clicks of cameras, I would always find a stillness with Don Mattera. I listened more than said anything. He tried to convince me that life made sense. As time went by, I lost that inspired optimism he left me with after every visit, especially when I returned to tear gas, rocks, bodies burned with flaming tyres and the noises of protest, violence, mayhem and death.  

Life sometimes seems like a meaningless sequence or arrangement of events, until we lift ourselves above it, and try to make sense of it. A man so singularly principled, and so dedicated, it was Mattera, and much later TAM, in an entirely different time and place, who would teach me the value discipline of ethics. He too, TAM, was Mattera’s laaitie — we were all his laaities. I hold on to my memories of Mattera with greater emphasis than I do the mundane, and the monotony, the absurdity of life.   

Memory can be approached with indifference and abuse, or it can fire up the imagination with intentional consequences; you know what you do and know what to do next because of memory… And so memory has the power to weave the present, the past and the future into something meaningful — something less absurd than life. Like death. 

Don Mattera inspired my intellect and urge to write. When I began to drift away from all that tied me to family, faith and everything that was made of me, Mattera helped me loosen those ties. He helped me realise that the rhythm and cadence, and the biological predictability — your heart that beats, your lungs that suck in, then expel air — were not life. In some ways, I learnt from Mattera, before he became a Muslim, that life really was a series of works that together provide meaning. It helped, then, to look back at the past to understand the present, and make more — something else — of what has been, or what has been determined. I have learned very late in life how ageing provides meaning to my own childhood and adolescence, that period that Mattera started.  

Because of Mattera, I broke, over several years, each link in the chain of society that conspired to cast me into an eternal disposition in which I would be expected to behave, feel and think (act) in ways that made me fit into this wretched society.

When I look around, today, at this generation of thinkers and leaders, I cannot imagine Don Mattera in their pantheon. He stands, even in death, a man alone, unaffected, unperturbed, always sincere and walking softly on this earth.

We were meant to remember Nelson Mandela on Monday. I remembered Don Mattera. Through his wisdom, I came to believe that I am that which I made of myself. Although I never told him, it was because of his earliest inspiration that Don Mattera forced me to always remake myself, over and again, driven, as I always am, by my greatest fear. The fear of mediocrity.  

Don Mattera is dead now. I can’t thank him again. But his silence is consequential. DM


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