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Donato Francisco Mattera (1935 - )

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Donato Francisco Mattera (1935 - ) Awarded for:
Excellent contribution to literature, achievement in the field of journalism and striving for democracy and justice in South Africa.

Profile of Donato Francisco Mattera

Donato Francisco Mattera was born in 1935 in Western Native Township, where modern-day Westbury, west of Johannesburg, now stands. His father was Italian while his mother was a Setswana-speaking local woman.

Life in Johannesburg's black settlements at the time offered youngsters very little choice: to follow the moral upstanding path expected of the children of Christians and go to school, or be swept up in the temptingly glamorous life of the mobsters.

At boarding school in Durban he was an altar boy in the Catholic Church but when he returned to Sophiatown, where he grew up, he was lured to the ugly side of societal existence. He was soon heading a gang, the Vultures. It took a few attempts on his life to convince him there was more to life than hustling.

Turning over a new leaf heralded a real new beginning for Mattera, a decision that birthed the emergence of the poet, journalist, motivational speaker and a community leader whom later generations would come to know and love.

The first port of call was the liberation struggle where, as a member of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, he stirred things mostly with his pen. This soon attracted the attention of the apartheid authorities who responded with banning orders and house arrests, especially from 1973 to 1982. For three of those years he was under house arrest.

Like many good writers of the time - not necessarily trained in the craft - Mattera, in his own words 'a natural writer', turned to journalism as an outlet for his creative genius but found that, as per the terms of the banning orders, it was against the law to write and publish political literature, or to gather with groups of people.

With ink in his veins, it would prove difficult to abide by the banning orders and he continually fell foul of the law. The Suppression of Communism Act and the Internal Security Act were among the battery of laws used to rein him in. One arrest stands out among his numerous brushes with the law - being arrested outside his workplace, The Star, in 1976. More often than not, the ex-gangster, a karate enthusiast, would hit back at the arresting officers.

His contribution to journalism remains legendary. When he was not writing himself, he taught others the rudiments of the trade, such as at the cadet school run by the Weekly Mail, forerunner of the Mail & Guardian (M&G). As chief training officer there, he helped mould the careers of many journalists, among them, Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and Ferial Haffajee of the M&G.

Such is his relationship with today's journalists that when he frowns on their writing indiscretions, he spares no one, and, ironically, receives praise from the same people being taken to task.

When Mattera speaks, his audiences are left spellbound, the trance getting more intense when he recites his poems. His anthology Azanian Love Song, like other works, has won awards.His autobiography, Memory is the Weapon (1987), won him the Steve Biko Prize.

He holds an honorary doctorate in literature from the then University of Natal.

He has written for stage, notably One Time Brother, which was banned in 1984.

When not officiating as programme director at functions and raising the roof with his oratory skills, Mattera spends his time hosting reading sessions for children, whose literature he now finds time to write.

He lives in Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg, and is active in community work where, as in 2005 when residents were pitted against the authorities, he continued to exert his influence.

Donato Francisco Mattera is among the most fascinating characters in the history of the South African nation. His own transformation from the life of a street hustler to that of a respected journalist, writer, intellectual and member of the community stands as a metaphor of the transformation of South Africa. He has, over the years, made a remarkable contribution to the fight against apartheid and the liberation of our society. He is revered as a leader who helped usher in the new era of a united, just and democratic society.

At the age 71, this gentle stalwart devotes much of his time to the youth in his community and to developing his spiritual life in his local mosque.