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An Education from Don Mattera

by Keitu Reid / 23.07.2011

A few weeks back I went to Don Mattera’s book launch. Originally born in Westbury, or Western Native Township as it was known in 1935, Don Mattera grew up in Sophiatown in a time that forged one of the most vibrant expressions of South African culture. He depicted Sophiatown in his biography Memory is the Weapon, for its beauty, picturesque and intimate like most ghettoes… Mansions and quaint cottages stood side by side with rusty wood-and-iron shacks, locked in a fraternal embrace of filth and felony. The rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, all knitted together in a colourful fabric that seemed to ignore race and class structures.

Mattera was the one time leader of the Vultures, a Sophiatown criminal gang, and has the scars to prove it. He has been shot and stabbed several times. But Don also had some very constructive years in politics. He was banned from 1973 to 1982, and spent three years under house arrest. His house was raided 600 times during the bad old days and he was detained on approximately 200 different occasions in that 9 year stretch.

However what Mattera is most well known for are his published poems and short stories.

During the book launch held at Xarra Books, Bra Don summarised and punctuated the above mentioned history with some poignant tales. Like the time when he first realised that his writing was a viable commodity, when in high school his friends would ask him to write love poems so that they could “score with the girls”. Some of his recollections made us laugh, others made us cringe, he shared his views on the current state of South African politics and dropped jaws by reciting poem after poem with incredible ease.

Then he asked the gathering, “what do you do when you start a race?”
We all responded in unison “ready, steady, go!”
He laughed as if we were buffoons and then asked his son, who was sitting in the crowd, to educate us, pointing to the young man and saying, “stand up and tell them what you do before a race.”

His son stood up. “Before a race you say ready, steady… but wait! Be… for… you… go… look back and see who you can take with you!”

Bra Don, noticing the bewildered stares, reiterated the words uttered by his son. “Life is a race,” he explained. “But there is no winning post. So ready, steady… but before you go [Bra Don pauses for maximum effect] look back and see who you are taking with you.”

On further rumination, I think this might be the best thing I’ve learnt all year. Firstly it is contradictory to what we know from school and the boardroom. In a race you have to look straight ahead and not be distracted. Then you run as fast as you can to be number one. Fuck everything, and everyone, else.

Yes, it’s an obvious point. But I share this with you because I have been observing how when we are so busy with the contest of life, that we often forget others, more so, we forget where we are from. And I am not talking about frivolous handouts here, in fact Don himself lamented with sadness about the number of people who call him pleading:
“Uncle Don, there is no food in the house, please help.”
“Bra Don, my mother just died, help asseblief.”
Bra Don sighed as he said this, part helplessness, part frustration at why this government is not stepping up to help people. This is a government that is running full steam ahead without looking back to see who is being left behind.

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