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No Middle Road for Jessie Duarte, Don Mattera

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – Struggle stalwarts Jessie Duarte and Don Mattera’s life trajectories reveal a marked similarity. They broke barriers, built bridges and surpassed the imposed limitations that they had to constantly contend with. They knew and worked with each other, seeing the world similarly, yet differently. Both played significant roles in ushering in democracy, says the writer.

By Professor Saths Cooper

The sudden passing of Jessie Duarte and Don Mattera has evoked numerous recollections and emotions among various strata of our frazzled country.

It is appropriate to reflect on a few aspects behind the masks of these notable public personalities whom South Africans came to know, through some reflections on the patriots whom I came to know fairly intimately. I always had cordial, respectful and enlightening engagements with the two stalwarts, even in our disagreements.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that Jessie was 68 and Don was 86 when they departed, but their life trajectories reveal a marked similarity. Their lived experience in Western Coloured Township, Coronationville and environs, as a teenager and young adult activist respectively, far from restricting their quest for achievement and overcoming the harsh marks of their origin, thrust them beyond the confines of predetermined race classification and Groups Areas confinement.

They certainly played to a larger audience of prominence in nearly all they immersed themselves in, straddling trade unionism, journalism, publishing, civic, social and political organisation. They broke barriers, built bridges and surpassed the imposed limitations that they had to constantly contend with. They knew and worked with each other, seeing the world similarly, yet differently.

Above all, they listened to and learnt from almost everyone whom they came to know, even fleetingly. Importantly, they led with passion, showing an abiding compassion and consideration for those worse off than themselves. They strutted the local, national and other stages with ease and palpable commitment, conscientising, organising and indelibly denting the apartheid and colonial edifices, playing significant roles in ushering in democracy.

There was no middle road with either of them. What you saw and heard was who they quintessentially were. Ever challenging, raising counterpoints, pushing understandings, both were always considerate, retaining their personable and endearing qualities. They were true comrades, colleagues and friends, but they were daunting intellectual opponents, quick of tongue and unshaken in belief.

While humour, wit and incisive observation were part of the superb Mattera repertoire, Duarte tried with her easy, unique style to explain the ANC when it started the long tortuous journey of facing its worst moments and decline.

When faced with a sale that few, especially in the media, were buying, her sharp and swift retorts stilled the most dogged journalist into silence. What is most ignored is the underground ethos that she came from, where there was principled commitment and discipline to the liberation of our country.

She fervently believed in the Freedom Charter and the ANC – while Mattera, a fervent Africanist, didn’t – and found the ideal crashing all around her, unable to fully apprehend and account for its slide.

The unfurling of a liberal democratic dispensation enabled the media to come into its own, playing a role that many in the media now seem accustomed to, despite many of their predecessors being servile and, at best, kowtowed to and gave credit to the previous system.

These were effective lifetime activists, imbued with a desire to free all from the burdens of our horrific past – which persist in their terrible visitations on us in the most troubling and shocking ways – and who were often pushed beyond the precipice of reasonable response,appearing implacable. After such anxious and traumatic moments, they would seek to restore their ineffable sense of humanity, with close family, friends and comrades who could provide a semblance of reality, of solace.

Their personal struggles with white power, entitlement and privilege saw them defy the nomenclature of “coloured”, “non-white” and other derogatory appellations to which the majority were subjected.

They chose the inclusive positive self-description of black, which they decried the collective demise of during democracy, ushering in as it did rabid ethnicity and ‘othering’. They refused to be described in terms of somebody else, standing solidly behind their quest for a liberatory blackness that would humanise all in a true equal, fair and egalitarian society.

Who can forget Jessie’s ringing words against her fellow top leadership comfortable in their patriarchal expectations of where she fit in? Mattera gave up his Coloured Labour Party leadership position and embraced, as did Duarte, that “spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa” (Mandela, 2002) unleashed by Steve Biko and his band of intrepid freedom fighters.

Jessie’s activist brothers, Mohammed and Achmat Dangor, were part of that cohort that sought to enable our common humanity despite how we thought of ourselves, how our education debased us, how our society denied us. The Dangors and the Matteras were close, sharing lighter and heavy moments: of banning, imprisonment, trials, of not knowing what else the apartheid arsenal would use to silence them.

They remained fearless, uncompromising, committed to ensuring that all our lives – not just of the elite in power – can and have to be placed first, before their own selfish needs. Don Mattera and Jessie Duarte were not saints, like most of us, but were mere mortals who had shared a profound compassion for all of humanity. They will retain a special place in our hearts in very special ways. The ANC deserves more Dangors. South Africa deserves more Matteras to restore faith in ourselves.

Cooper is President of the Pan-African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a political prisoner, and a member of the 1970s group of activists.