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Don Mattera – Leaving behind an untouchable legacy

by Luqmaan Rawat
Omaruddin “Don” Mattera – A star that shone so bright it lit up the pathway for many

Johannesburg – The pen is mightier than the sword and no one knew that better than Omaruddin “Don” Mattera. A legend, a struggle icon and a literacy giant, his words brought the struggles of many to the eyes and ears of the world. Even though he was sick for a very long time, his passing away shocked the country and has left a hole in it that cannot be filled.

After living a long and fruitful life it is perhaps poetic and fitting that he passed away on Mandela Day. He and the former president shared a close bond even though they did not see eye to eye politically. Bra Zinga or Bra Don, as he was known to many, was a passionate Black Consciousness activist while Mandela was a Charterist.

Don Mattera in his early days

Don Mattera was born in 1935 in Western Native Township (now Westbury), Johannesburg, South Africa. He was born to a Tswana mother, Italian grandfather and Khoisan and Xhosa grandmother. He spent most of his childhood in Sophiatown, a town he held close to his heart. At the time it was a vibrant centre of South African culture and Don Mattera expressed eloquently in his autobiography Memory Is the Weapon.

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

Unlike many of his peers, Don Mattera had an exceptional education. His grandparents adopted him and sent him to a Catholic boarding school in Durban. He only returned to his beautiful beginnings when he was forteen and continued his education in Pageview.

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Becoming the man, we know and love

Before he became the struggle activist and poet that we know and love today, Don Mattera was part of the Vultures. A notorious gang that operated in Sophiatown and Western Native Township. He quickly formed part of the top leadership.

In his own words ‘he became the king of the streets’ when he joined the Vultures. He was shot three times and survived nine stabbings by a rival gang. At twenty he was charged with murder of a rival gang member. It was only after he spent time in jail awaiting trial and finally being acquitted that he met Father Trevor who would lead him on the path he was destined to travel.

It was after this introduction he became involved in politics which led to him joining the African National Congress Youth League. Father Trevor encouraged him to use his words to tell his stories and pains through poems, plays and short stories.

His work in politics and as a journalist

In 1960 the ANC was banned, and Don Mattera had to find a new outlet to continue his fight for freedom. In the 1970’s he found that outlet in the Black Consciousness movement.  He went on to become a founding member of the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ), which would soon put him on the Apartheid police radar.

He was regarded an exceptional journalist, working for The Sunday Times, The Sowetan and the Weekly Mail (Now known as the Mail and Guardian). He was also a founding member of the African Writers Association (AWA), the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) and Skotaville Publishers.

The nature of his character would not allow him to sit by silently while human rights were being violated. To try and silence him the government issued a banning order which lasted from 1973 to 1982. He served three years under house arrest which effectively ended his journalism career during that time

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Finding his way to Islam

Every story about Omaruddin Mattera is interesting. The way he found Islam is a particularly interesting. One day he was approached by a “dagga smoking guy” who brought him to the masjid for a meeting in which he met the late Colonel Amiruddin (RA). His one lecture invoked such a feeling in him that he felt unable to ignore the call to Islam. On 26 February 1974 in Newtown Masjid,  Matttera took his Shahada. It was this day he was given the name Omar as the Colonel found him to be a sturdy and strong man.

His love for children and getting the youth involved in activism 

Many people have expressed the deep love he had for children. He was an avid advocate for children rights. Kaamil Alli, Candidate Attorney, recalled an incident hat stuck with him.

“I remember an engagement that we were at that was celebrating giving him a lifetime achievement award. He reminded all the speakers that gave a speech at this very elaborate event that none of them mentioned the starving children in South Africa. That was something he was really passionate about that stuck with me.”

Irfan Mangera, from The Kathrada Foundation, was inspired by the love Don Mattera had for children and activism. He credits this love as what inspired him to do the work he does now.

“There was something that always stood out. His humility but his ability to speak to us as young people with so much humour, love, and compassion that we felt we were part and parcel of the struggle with him. I think all the time he mentioned his love for children, and it inspired me to do the work that I do today. To care for children, to care for human rights. To be able to transfer that care into action. He was very much a solidarity activist.”

 His fight for Palestine

Don Mattera was not only concerned for the freedom of this country but also for the freedom of Palestine. He was an activist in every sense of the word. Alli reflected on how he has taken inspiration from Don Mattera to become the activist he is today.

“During the struggle for freedom in Palestine he always stood at the forefront of that struggle. As a Palestinian activist myself, I take inspiration from him in that sense. There are many aspects of his life that I drew inspiration from for my activism. We have really lost a giant in our community.”

A life for all youth to take lesson from

South Africa is suffering from a drug epidemic. There are many youths who are in the wrong crowd. Youth who have given themselves to a life of crime and drugs. The life of Don Mattera gave hope that one can change their lives around and do better, said Naazim Adam, Palestine Solidarity (PSA).

“For me personally he’s an inspiration and a hope especially for our young people. His early life as a gangster on the wrong path and coming back, reflecting on his own life, and making a positive change … Here is an inspiration for you from a man who said `I can make that difference, I can be a better human being, I can overcome.’”

The legacy left behind

There are many who have fond thoughts of Don Mattera. Many who have learnt valuable life lessons from him. For Malik Arafat, humanitarian, he will remember this humble giant as someone who always looked out for the people.

“We’re living in difficult times now where a lot of people have become despondent of what’s happening around us. We need people like him. For me he was the Malcolm X combined with your Martin Luther in our times. He was an epitome of what it is to stand up in the face of difficulty. We need more of that. We need people who are more compassionate, easy, forthcoming, who have love for the people and do things for the people.”

Being recognised for his contributions

He received many literary awards such as the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 as well as the South African presidential Order of Ikhamanga: Silver in 2007. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature and Philosophy degree from Unisa. In January 2020, a foundation was launched in Eldorado named the Don Mattera Legacy Foundation.

Don Mattera leaves behind a legacy not only in South Africa but across the globe. His footsteps and words have reached everywhere. We have lost a different star in our sky today. A star whose radiance can be felt by picking up from where he left off.

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