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remembering South African poet and activist Don Mattera

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The towering South African poet, activist and humanitarian Donato Francesco Mattera handed away on 18 July on the age of 86. What he represented to South Africa is way bigger than his contribution to literature.

Through the on-line memorial service for Mattera, filmmaker and lecturer Dr Teddy Mattera mentioned of his father: “He illuminated my pathway as a inventive individual.” Tributes from journalists, historians, politicians, medical doctors and legal professionals – individuals who don’t readily determine as inventive – echoed his sentiments. Herein lies the enduring greatness of Don Mattera: what he did for individuals.

He was, within the conventional sense, an African poet, the centre of social life. Though Don was entertaining, he was excess of an entertainer; as a spokesman for the poor and marginalised his attain was wider than an activist’s. He was by no means a public consultant but he represented individuals.

He was an outsider to the mental institution, a passionate voice within the wilderness.

Usually abrupt in his critique of elitism, and his lifelong profound identification with the poorest and most marginalised members of society, what he stands for challenges the academy’s conception of The Humanities. It urges them to do higher to serve human beings. For South African universities to stroll their decolonial discuss, they must acknowledge the significance of a determine like Mattera to the society properly past making individuals write exams on his scansion and prosody. They must perforate brick and mortar of the college with clay and thatch, and abandon, or not less than query, the brittle certainties that uphold the system as it’s.

Like all nice poets, Don embodied paradox, and was motivated by, and motivated, radical change. From the early days of apartheid proper up till his dying, he challenged authority, publicly witnessed systemic violence, he actively used his company and voice to liberate himself and others.

His type was emotional and subjective, which can even have contributed to his exclusion from the academy, the place his work is just not extensively taught. He spoke up for and supported organisations defending prisoners, youngsters, girls, individuals with disabilities, the KhoeKhoe individuals. If the essence of fantastic scholarship is rigorous analysis, innovation and relevance to society, Don’s solely crime was ardour.

Reminiscence is the Weapon

Don’s autobiography Reminiscence is the Weapon (1987) is a seminal reflection on apartheid’s earliest crimes, significantly for its detailed statement of abnormal life, its unflinching portrayal of violence and its much-needed humour and humanity. It’s the “poet as historian” described by South African writer AC Jordan.

An occasion of the vividness of his language and searing compassion, reflecting the circumstances that sadly proceed to dehumanise and impoverish individuals:

You’ll discover a man or a lady mendacity drunk within the slime and dirt and particles, respiration the foul air of a dispossessed and forsaken life – women and men robbed of these very important fibres that separate man from beast.


Ravan Press

Poetry introduced Don and I collectively. We agreed that poetry, with its potential to include and specific the harshness of ache, grief, rage and despair, had drawn us in and healed us: his from the tough deprivations of early city apartheid and mine from the duplicity of my childhood.

Poet of compassion

“He led along with his soul,” mentioned Fasiha Hassan, scholar, activist and mentee of activist and political chief Jessie Duarte at an intimate Girls of Waqf occasion on the Masjid-Ul-Islam in Fordsburg particularly designed for neighborhood therapeutic following the deaths of Yasmin Jessie Duarte and Don Muhammad Omaruddin Mattera.

Spirituality and poetry are on the identical frequency, and lent his phrases a presence and intimacy which impressed his readers to motion – all the time optimistic, affirming and defending Black individuals, and importantly, inspiring individuals to boost one another. On this means we attain for and enact our highest human potential. He mentioned to me, “Whenever you get an opportunity to maneuver up on this planet, go searching and see who you may take with you.”

We had been in Kimberley on the Northern Cape Writers’ Pageant of 2008, the place he held court docket alongside poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, healer and writer Credo Mutwa, and writers Diana Ferrus, Sindiwe Magona and James Matthews. Distinctive in the way in which it introduced conventional dance and storytellers from deep within the Kalahari desert, the pageant programme taught me, amongst different issues, that there are not less than three extra indigenous languages that aren’t recognised as a result of they’re not written down, and Don may communicate them.

The Kimberley stage was broad sufficient to include and cherish his distinctive genius, and gave him house to reveal his prolific response to the canon of indigenous oral poetry, and equally the lyrical in English.

Don’s relationship with mortality might have its roots in one other formative expertise, he confided in me once we had been on tour within the UK. As a teenage gangster in Sophiatown within the Nineteen Fifties, earlier than he received concerned with politics, he killed a rival gangster in self-defence. Eternally wounded by the expertise, Don turned the poet of compassion, of something life-affirming.

His spirituality was additionally political: his Pan Africanism was non-racial and welcoming. In 2009 we joined a delegation together with Kgositsile and Lebo Mashile to tour the UK. As we walked via the airport, waiters, servers, bartenders and cleaners flocked to greet the 2 gents of letters, whereas white fellow travellers seemed on bemusedly. I used to be reminded, after having skilled the identical with James Matthews two years beforehand, that we’re seen by those that are invisible. And poets are greater than wordsmiths, they ship coronary heart and minds from emotional struggling and ignorance, and encourage company. It’s a calling, not a profession.




Learn extra:
A tribute to Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s poet laureate


Mattera and his works had been banned for greater than ten years throughout apartheid. After the banning order was lifted he self-published his poetry collections, and in 2008 Rose Francis, the founding father of African Views Publishing, republished Reminiscence is the Weapon and Azanian Love Track.

If a poet’s worth is predicated on their business foreign money, many people wouldn’t be capable to declare the title. Mattera’s values, strongly influenced by his Pan Africanism, Black Consciousness and Islam, see the well-being of the person as indivisible from that of the collective, and the humanities would do properly to comply with that instance.

A baobab kneels

The aesthetic issues of oral poetry don’t all the time efficiently switch to the web page; sound calls for a musicality that’s generally at odds with the content material of a poem. Don Mattera’s unforgettable voice straddled traditions and united divergent and infrequently contradictory imperatives: he was an oral poet and a author, an Italian and an African, a nationalist and a Pan-African.

To maintain his imaginative and prescient alive we may begin by conceiving of creativity as a human potential in everybody, and prescribe his works to college students of drugs, regulation, social work and administration, and never simply instructing and literature.

In his tribute on the memorial, Teddy mentioned that his father was an oak who left many seeds, however I disagree. He’s a baobab who seeded a forest.

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