By Mongane Wally Serote

Dr Don Mattera passed away on 18 July 2022. He was 87 years old. An internationalist, a Pan African and an African Renaissance activist, an outstanding poet, writer and journalist, Mattera lived life to its fullest.
Bra Don, as Mattera was fondly known in the streets of his birth place, Western Native Township and other townships like Sophiatown and Alexandra Township where he socialised, rebelled, as did many young people in those poverty-stricken environments of squalor and crime which were created by the apartheid system.
He straddled, rejected and lived his life fighting those contradictions, right up to the end of his life.
Born of a Motswana mother and an Italian father, and coming from a maternal line of the Griqua and Khoisan, he was alienated by the apartheid system whose objective was to implement maximum exploitation of what it called non-whites for the benefit of the whites.
The system was used to implement the means to divide and rule people. The apartheid system nurtured tribalism and the separation of people on the basis of colour, language and class. Bra Don was classified coloured because of these apartheid laws.
The system imposed harsh realities upon what it called non-white people: cheap labour, which resulted in rampant poverty, squalor, broken families, and hard labour – in other words, severe oppression to implement maximum exploitation for cheap black labour.
No wonder Bra Don and his peers became gangsters. No wonder also he became a father at a young age. No wonder that at 20, Bra Don was already awaiting trial for nine months, charged for gang murder. No wonder he became a feared leader of a feared gang. His strong and no nonsense life as a gangster was forever told by both men and women, including his peers.
While the gangster mentality stayed with Bra Don almost right up to the end, he disciplined himself by engaging in politics.
If he had not learnt of the ANC, which was at the height of its political campaigns, activities and confrontation and fight against the apartheid regime in the fifties, in townships like Sophiatown or Alexandra, at the time, he would have terrorised the community, as he did when he set his gang against the residents of Alexandra to stop them from being involved in the bus boycott in 1957.
The good story-teller he was, Bra Don always related his adventures as a gangster – jungle knives, guns, gang-fights, turf battles and fights for (cherries) women, murder and all! His strong-handed and no- nonsense life style as a gangster is a staple for narrators.
Having been in a Catholic orphanage, Bra Don became an ardent reader also. He did, as he did in politics, and in his life, straddle different political, social formations and religious denominations. Father Huddleston of the Anglican Church had great influence on him, in spite of the fact that he was brought up in the Catholic orphanage.
The linguist he was, depending on social circumstances, Bra Don, whose other name was Monnapula Lebakeng, had a feel for and spoke many of the African languages including Tsotsitaal, a township lingua franca, which to a large extent was a passport in the gangland.
He became a member of the ANC youth league, a member of the PAC and also an ardent follower and supporter of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) at different times and stages of his life. That is an almost lifetime engagement and mental battle.
Being politically engaged turned Bra Don into a different person. He propagated non-racialism fervently. He was regarded as the enemy of South Africa by the apartheid regime, on the one hand. On the otter, he received the wrath of the regime, but was also most respected in the communities he came from and rose to become a national figure as a poet.
As the Setswana saying goes, “…kgomo e tswoaroa ka dinaka, motho ka leleme…” (You can identify the breed of cattle by their horns, and people are by what they say).
Here goes, Bra Don A Poem:
And Yet
I have known silences
Long and deep as death
When the mind questioned the logic
Of frailty
In the imminence of my destruction
By men ruled and ravaged by power lust
I have known deep silences
When thoughts like angry waves
Beat against the shores of my mind
Revealing the scars of brutal memories
And the murder of my manhood
And yet
I cannot hate
Try as I want to
I cannot hate…why?

It was difficult to identify Bra Don’s political position through what he said when he assumed the so-called coloured position, even after the black consciousness movement had propagated that there is some semblance of concession by the state for the condition of coloured. The fact remained that they are black people and it was possible to know his position about the apartheid system through what he said.
A strong non-racialist and democrat, Bra Don also suspected that non-racialism did also discriminate against those who were regarded as coloureds – because they were not black enough. At one stage, it was because they were not white enough.
Bra Don would also take a strong stand against some of the BCM positions, if he suspected that the views expressed leaned on being racist against the whites.
Is it the politics of oppression and exploitation which are difficult or is it that freedom itself is a complex phenomenon?

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