Dr Don Mattera is one of the African continent’s preeminent poets. The ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, sponsored by Media24 Books, is a recognition of his valuable contribution to anti-apartheid literature and African writings of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Donato Francesco Mattera was born in the Western Native Township (now Westbury) on 29 December 1935. He has been acknowledged as a journalist, editor, writer and poet and is honoured as one of the foremost activists in the struggle for a democratic South Africa. He is a founding member of both the Union of Black Journalists and the Congress of South African Writers.
Mattera can lay claim to a diverse lineage: his paternal grandfather was an Italian migrant who married a woman of Khoi-Khoi and Xhosa descent, while his mother was Tswana. This diversity found a home in the vibrant and creative Sophiatown, where he lived (spending most of his childhood with his paternal grandparents) until 1955 when Sophiatown was replaced with the white suburb of Triomf. The emotional pain of seeing his grandparents’ home ‘murdered’ by bulldozers and the displacement of his family that followed can be felt in his elegant prose and emotive poetry.
Mattera’s autobiographical work, Memory is the Weapon (1987) tells of teenage years seeped in the violence of gangsterism. As leader of the Vultures, a notorious child gang, he was no stranger to the bloody struggles of gang warfare and carries the scars of gunshot and stab wounds as memories. ‘We never thought of death; only of making names for ourselves,’ writes Mattera in Memory is the Weapon. He spent his 20th birthday in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of a rival gang member, but was eventually acquitted.
“[Dr Don Mattera], this ageless literary activist who makes music with his poetry” – Es’kia Mphahlele
Mattera’s first child was born shortly after his time in jail. The little boy, along with the influence of Father Trevor Huddlestone, became a catalyst for reforms in Mattera’s life. He left the gang behind and instead invested his time in politics and fighting against the injustices of apartheid. He exchanged his knife for a pen, his bullets for words, and began writing poetry, plays and novels, as well as working for The Star, the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) and other newspapers. It didn’t take long for his revolutionary words to reach those in control, and he was banned by the apartheid government and placed under house arrest from 1973 to 1982. Still, he wrote and struggled for the freedom of those of all races, cultures and religions.
Today, his award-winning writings are studied in schools and universities around the world. His published works include Azanian Love Song (1983), PEN Award Winner; Memory is the Weapon (1987), winner of the Steve Biko Prize; Gone with the Twilight: A Story of Sophiatown (1987); The Storyteller (1989); The Five Magic Pebbles (1992), Noma Children’s Book Award; and the plays Streetkids, Apartheid in the Court of History and One Time Brother (banned in 1984). He is an active patron of several well-known charities in Johannesburg and has been celebrated for his work with youth in Eldorado Park.
Mattera is the holder of several prestigious literary awards as well as numerous humanitarian citations, including the Order of Ikhamba – Silver (2007), the Department of Arts and Culture Literary Lifetime Achievement Award (2007), the Crown of Peace Award (Washington – 2004), the Ambassador of Peace Award (Kenya – 2001), the World Health Organisation’s Peace Award from the Centre of Violence and Injury Prevention (1997) and the French Human Rights Award for the We Care Trust. He has also been awarded an honorary PhD from the University of Natal. Mattera was awarded the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature at a glittering event, hosted by Sun International.
Let the children decide
Let us halt this quibbling
Of reform and racial preservation
Saying who belongs to which nation
And let the children decide
It is their world
Let us burn our uniforms
Of old scars and grievances
And call back our spent dreams
And the relics of crass tradition
That hang on our malignant hearts
And let the children decide
For it is their world
(Published in Azanian Love Song, 1983)