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In a Poetry of Injustice

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Picture: Timothy Bernard– Struggle veteran and poet Don Mattera passed away on Monday.

By Kim Heller

If ever words could capture the injustice of South Africa past and present, it is in the poetry of the legendary Don Mattera. It was as if Mattera’s words were dipped in the spattered blood of black sons and daughters butchered in the savage of apartheid.

In his poem, Perfect Day, he describes the pain of Sharpeville Day: “Great Ancestor, creator of a cold, uncaring sun, whose frozen, frigid face no comfort nor sanctuary gives here in the cruel shadows of an unfeeling country. Muzzle and cage the rage of the turbulent, torrid winds their keen, ill-breath sucks deep the sap of resilience, stripping flesh from dreams, newly born.”

It was as if he wrote on a fountainhead of the dark ash of black suffocation. Through his poetry, the reader could feel the anguish of miners forced into the earth’s cavities so deep that breath itself surrendered to the agony of inequality and indignity. In his poem, Of reason and discovery, Mattera writes ‘’I have discovered, yes, that an ounce of gold exceeds the value of a Blackman’s life.”

Mattera wrote on the inkwell of black tears and black fears in the omnipotence of white power, In No time, Blackman he wrote, ‘Stand Blackman and put that cap back on your beaten head. Look at him in the eye cold and blue like the devil’s fire and tell him enough, three centuries is more than you can take, enough.”

The raw pain and passion, in Mattera’s writings often intersects, almost cruelly so, with the poignant beauty of the possibility of a better tomorrow. But even in that longing for a more perfect day, he never surrendered to verses of easy cadence or fell into a harmonica of easy rhyme.

In his book, Faces of Trees: Poems of Struggle, Freedom, and Kin, Mattera writes “broken boughs breathe and tremble as I grasp the taproot of a new awakening deep like god’s beauty and radiance, eternal sap of my unfolding in this teeming cauldron of Africa, this beauteous, burgeoning Azania, this orchard of trampled fruit and freedom gained, this placed of pardoned injury and hurting memory; of guarded joy and sorrow songs.

I met Don Mattera at the Sowetan newspaper in 2000. It was at a time when journalism in South Africa was at its finest. With Dr. Aggrey Klaaste as editor-in-chief, a buzz of top journalists in place and Don Mattera in the house, the Sowetan was in full majesty. Although he spent much of his time in his office fixed on writing, mentoring, and advising the young journalists, intellectuals and activists who flocked to him, his presence could be felt in every corridor and corner of Sowetan. When he entered the newsroom the intensity of his political insights and his compassionate storytelling captivated journalists, stilling even the most pressing of deadlines. In his time he trained eight hundred journalists. His major lesson to journalists was to be compassionate.

One day he called me into his office. He read me a poem that he had just written. When I left his office, I wept just a little, for I felt that he had given me a small piece of his soul that day. I cannot claim to have known Don Mattera well and I did not spend much time with him, but those few minutes with him when he recited his poem to me was a very precious moment in my lifetime.

Mattera was a man of words and deeds. A deeply compassionate man, tormented by the plight of the poorest and most downtrodden in South Africa. Among his many awards was the 1997 World Health Organisation’s Peace Prize, which honoured his momentous contribution to combating violence in black townships. Committed to “remove pain and suffering from people’s lives”, and particularly tormented about child abuse, he contributed actively to better the lives of children in particular. One of his flagship projects was the establishment of the Harvey Cohen Centre for mentally and physically challenged children, in Eldorado Park.

His almost compulsive-obsessive focus on injustices against the most exploited and marginalised, was always the centrepiece of his writings, be they journalistic pieces, poems, or books. A strong advocate of black consciousness and a student of Robert Sobukwe, Mattera was banned by the apartheid regime and was not as celebrated as he should have been by the ANC government. Mattera’s genius of voice has never been given the pride of place it deserves in democratic South Africa. The Department of Education’s reluctance to prescribe his books at schools, fearing that they induce feelings of guilt amongst white children, is a crying shame and sad indictment of the ANC’s tendency to downsize the voices and vocabulary of black consciousness.

Mourning the passing of Mattera this week on Monday July 18, PAC President Mzwanele Nyhontso says the party has lost a fearless giant. The PAC president said, “Don Mattera played a pivotal role in the development of PAC underground structures. When the organisation was banned, he provided resources to help with the armed struggle. He took up membership in the PAC in the 1960s with his cousin in Johannesburg. He played a role in the unification of the PAC in recent years, despite his ill-health and other related issues. Prominent PAC leaders have worked with him directly in the mentioned missions of the PAC.”

In many ways, Mattera was all consumed with the pain of injustice. Mattera wrote in 1973 of how when a perfect dawn does come, he shall “clothe it Black” for black is the shade of his dreams, the texture of his soul and the colour of his people waiting in the wings of expectation. Mattera writes of how when a perfect day dawns, “the sun and moon, and bird and wind, they all shall love their old meaning and assume new voice, new resonance beaming and tell of the coming glory of freedom, then and only then, shall Perfect Day dawn”.

When he launched the Don Mattera Legacy Foundation in 2020, he spoke of the need for compassion and redemption in democratic South Africa. Sadly, the Perfect Day, where compassion and redemption abound has yet to dawn in South Africa. Child abuse tore him apart and Mattera begged, implored South Africans to take care of its children. “What have we become, what have we become in this country?, he cried out.

“Before I die,” the great man said, “before I die, let this country come back to compassion.” In the end one can only hope this great poet and great humanitarian found peace, if not in life, then in death.

Heller is Political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.