Bra Don looms large

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

At 73, the same age as Don Mattera, South African golfing legend Gary Player probably rues the day he got entangled in the politics of Myanmar.

A world renowned golf course architect, Player has designed no less than 250 courses in his illustrious career, including the one in Myanmar, used by among the worst scum of the earth.

For this oversight, the veteran golfer had his wrist slapped back home when those tasked with protecting the dignity of the world's favourite statesman, Nelson Mandela, withdrew his name from a golf tournament Player had links with.

As if that was not enough, the man dubbed "The Black Night", who has 24 PGA Tour wins to his credit, has had his name recently dragged into the scandalous Jackie Selebi-Glenn Agliotti affair.

The jury is still out on why exactly Agliotti, the skelm, found it necessary to mention Player in his conversations with the troubled police chief and other shady characters of the underworld.

There's just not enough space here to get into details of how Indian golfer Sewsunker "Papwa" Sewgolum got his award outdoors in the rain in 1965 with the losing Player, "a great proponent of human rights", in attendance.

Suffice it to say, maybe one could find comfort in the humour of car stickers which inform: "Old golfers never die, they just lose their balls."

Which brings us back, for the purposes of this article, to the question: "What happens to old poets?"

Do they lose their balls too?

And we don't mean here the small white whatchamaycallit that golfers smack around 9 or 18 hole courses. No, we mean their guts, courage, grit, heroism, fortitude?

What, indeed, is the lot of old poets?

Hughes, Dante, Poe, Wordsworth, Yeats, Leipoldt, Ntsime, Kunene ...

One of them is still here, at least - Donato Fransisco Mattera; Bra Don to you and I!

Born in apartheid-era Western Native Township in the same year Player was delivered across town in white South Africa, Mattera is the product of the union between a hard-working Motswana domestic and a womanising Italian.

He spent some childhood years in Durban and Sophiatown.

In Johannesburg, he'd wake up to the politics of the ANC Youth League, with enough vigour to ensure he'd be a banned person from 1973 to 1982.

He was detained more than 200 times.

Fast-forward to 2008, Mattera walks the streets of his new home in Soweto's western-most suburbs singing the praises of 18-year-olds in the neighbourhood about to enter university.

The father of grown-up children, Teddy and Snowy, he shares the house with new wife Melody Celestine and younger children from both sides.

Don Junior is 14.

But is this exactly the life of an old poet?

What happens to old gangsters then, for Bra Zinga - another one of Mattera's nicknames - was also, in his youth a gangster, inspired by the night?

Al Capone, though he walked this earth, the streets of Chicago, more specifically, he's become just a name in the movies - Scarface.

John Gotti was another, also in America. "At the end of his first decade in prison, the 61-year-old Gotti died on June 10 2002 from complications of head and neck cancer," we are told.

Kortboy, like the Afrikaans of his nickname suggests, was vertically challenged. Born George Mpalweni many moons ago, he died "now now" without much fanfare in Meadowlands.

Poet-cum-gangster, sweeter than the sound of a double-barelled surname, this Mattera!

When juveniles in Westbury, just west of Jozi, fired up by the folly of youthful exuberance, started hacking each other to death in the 1990s, the pacifists thought of only one man qualified to call a truce - Bra Zinga.

Through his intervention, in just two months the blood-thirsty urchins - answering to such ominous names as the Fast Guns and Varados - had tossed their traditional weapons aside!

Mattera says the boys in Westbury listened because "the urban legend around Don Mattera had got to them. They were curious to find out how a man like him could have turned his own life around".

Shot three times in his life, knifed several times more, Mattera says he's been "there in the mud". He brought to the peace talks, his own empirical experience the youths could identify with, he adds.

He's done the same in Soweto, between the BTL - Born To Love and the Makabasa.

A Black Consciousness philosophy stalwart who witnessed the internecine violence between the ANC-aligned township residents and Inkatha's hostel-dwellers first-hand in the years preceding Uhuru in 1994, Mattera, a former Apla (PAC military wing) operative, has seen it all.

Today he looks at the Jacob Zuma/Thabo Mbeki tiff with tears in his eyes: "If the ANC collapses, many of us collapse with it.

"If there's an outbreak of violence in their ranks, only the former enemy - who still lives well in this country - will enjoy it."

He says to the two comrades: "No man can plough a whole field alone."

The poet takes over: "We've struggled hard, we've struggled long. We deserve better."

In his speaking engagements these days, the affable man of letters is bound to leave whole audiences begging for an encore of his poetic renditions.

His anthology of poems, The Azanian Love Song, has had to be reprinted due to a growing demand. Memory is the Weapon, which won him the Steve Biko Prize, is due for reprint by this month's end.

A poet from the time of his conception, and described by Es'kia Mphahlele as a true poet, Mattera says a poet speaks out against what is wrong, evil, dirty "and apartheid epitomised all that".

He's won plaudits from around the globe for his sterling work, among others the Peace Award.

The most recent nod of recognition was from the Mbeki government itself, the Order of Ikhamanga Silver, "awarded for excellent contribution to literature, achievement in the field of journalism and striving for democracy and justice in SA".

Ask him about his favourite poet and, without hesitation, he mentions Lebo Mashile and Kgafela oa Magogodi repeatedly.

But he speaks excitedly about the poetry of Claude McKay.

McKay was born in Jamaica on September 15 1890. Like Mattera, who started writing at nine, McKay began writing poetry as a schoolboy.

But while McKay worked as a policeman, Mattera was a thorn in the side of law enforcement agencies, albeit of the old order.

When Mattera was not kicking up a political ruckus or conjuring up a stanza or two, Tower - another sobriquet - was teaching greenhorns how to be journalists of worth.