Where laws and guns cannot reach
South African poet Don Mattera, who died in July, was the real deal—preferring to throw his lot in with the ignored and the undervalued. Unsurprisingly, his monumental life and work is undervalued too.
In 1974, Duke Ellington died. The carnation revolution toppled Portugal’s second-division dictator. The Symbionese Liberation Army shot eight cyanide-packed bullets into Marcus Foster. Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in Kinshasa. Cote d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny met with BJ Vorster. While all this was happening, a young South African poet named Wally Serote penned a wistfully powerful requiem for Don Mattera, recently banned for the crime of describing the truth about apartheid.
The peculiar thing about Mattera, who died in July aged 86, is that he seemed immortal. For decades, he was part of South Africa’s agitative conscience, that register of griots who have sustained and given voice to the political struggles present and to come. Yet like the folkloric griot, his stories and his art were built on pain. He was someone whose public stature had long outpaced the visibility in print of his poetic output, which is why for a significant number of people, his poetic oeuvre is vaguely apparent. Many of the tributes refer to Mattera as a cultural activist or an anti-apartheid activist, both inexact ways of apprehending so uncontainable a social presence.
In a country that has always treated poets with public reverence while disdaining to adequately compensate them in more meaningful ways, it is perhaps not surprising that the collective feeling is that Mattera’s public legacy has been bitterly neglected. My own discipline in particular, literary studies, seemed to accept too easily the dictum of those who said that struggle poetry, struggle literature, and the like had little of artistic value to impart outside of their own time periods.
Ever after, Mattera’s work rarely featured in any noteworthy way on the education syllabuses that drive much of the circulation of literary work in South Africa and abroad. This omission accounts for the persistent sense that his work is old hat: in a market that obsesses insecurely over novelty, few things are so fatal as being thought outdated. While Mattera’s agitprop work, with its caustic anger effervescing, is particular to its moment in a way that marks it strongly, that is true of most literature. Particularly in his memoiristic reminiscences, Mattera is a beguiling read, and surely one of the architects of our South African cultural obsession with gangster figures who cross over from illegality to goodness and back again.
It is, of course, an impoverished view of literature to think the state of the nation can only be represented by what has not been seen before. Mattera’s continuity was his strong suit. He was an astonishing living archive of the annihilated spaces of Sophiatown, a library of Black social life, and a political voice who made it clear that what was being done to Black people impoverished the humanity of all those entangled by it. But he also pointed defiantly to the fissures that grew among those whose commonality of purpose in the struggle was too easily glossed over. Read a story like his (angry) Die Bushie is Dood, and you can’t fail to discern Mattera’s awareness of how easily idealism curdles.
It is the fate of good storytellers that they generate a kind of mythology around their figures, making it easy to overlook their work. I committed the same error when, hoping to draw readers to poets they hadn’t encountered before, I forsook Mattera from the collection of decolonial poetry I edited last year. But talking with people in the weeks following his passing, I realized where I had gone wrong. Mattera is often grouped alongside the pack of Black authors whose vibrantly naturalistic prose shaped popular understandings of the post-Sharpeville social situation for Black South Africans, and so it is easy to assume a wide familiarity with his work. But much of that work is out of print, meaning its reach has dwindled.
Certainly, Mattera’s work is often marked by a forceful didacticism: In his work, poetry operates as a form that gives us access to the most vital elements of what it meant to live, feel, and think as a Black person in the socially disparate world of apartheid South Africa. But Mattera’s work also defamiliarizes the familiar in more subtle ways: what could be more absurdist than the tableaux captured in his best poems, where he alchemizes the terrible proximity of South Africa’s intertwining problems? Who can read For a Cent, in which a decrepit beggar fails to see that the hand dropping the coin into his own is Black, and not feel the sting of recognition?
Born in 1935, the Don Mattera origin story is always read as being emblematic of South Africa’s cultural complexity. His grandfather was Italian. He spent his early days in the relative cloister of the Catholic Church, and years later he converted to Islam, all while maintaining a secular clarity in relation to the task of expanding compassion in the world. The young Don Mattera was also a complicated figure, an ambitious gangster in his youth who embraced a certain degree of ambivalence as part of his makeup. As a young gangster, Mattera had served time in jail for public violence, and it was his time among them as a young man that later allowed him to so eloquently elucidate the toxic cauldron of social factors that brought them into being. When the 1957 Alexandra bus boycotts were in swing, his ruffians played both sides, alternately boarding buses to encourage workers to break the boycott, then working as toughs for the African National Congress (ANC) to root out boycott scabs. He later joined the ANC’s youth league, only to link arms with the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress, which was more radical and had less truck with white respectability politics.
These are the broad strokes of his political career, the things that are always mentioned because membership is a lifetime pass once you become renowned. Of more interest is Mattera’s swing towards civic politics from the 1960s onwards. The poet’s stint as national public relations officer for the Coloured Labour Party, and his (unsuccessful) attempts to pivot that same party towards the Black Consciousness zeitgeist, mark a significant turn in his political ideology. Mattera left them and joined the Black People’s Convention, where he worked vigorously at making the ideals of Black Consciousness legible beyond highfalutin platitudes. This civic-mindedness is probably what kept Mattera at a distance from the academy. He preferred to throw his lot in with the ignored and the undervalued, the elderly, the abused, and the disabled. You felt, when he spoke about his projects, a keen sense of the pain behind his never-ending demand that more be done. A magnetic personality, he slipped quickly in his storytelling between English and his mother’s Setswana, always keeping his spark in that place, as he put it, “where laws and guns cannot reach nor jackboots trample.”
I only met Don Mattera once, and it was like encountering someone who was a complete condensing of everything you’ve ever heard or read or seen about him. He was incredibly warm, lucid even as those around him treated him with that fuzzy condescension people slip into around the elderly. He was not performing himself, as so many public persons do in their later years. I felt myself in the presence of someone who had far more depth than the stylized version I had heard spoken of so often. He was real.