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Don Mattera: A generational beacon that lives on through us

Bra Don was a teacher. Africanist. Pacifying warrior. Father. Brother. Mentor. And, when needed, a disciplinarian of note who would not embarrass those who earned his quiet wrath
Author: Musa Zondi
Thu, Jul 21, 2022

PHOTO: Orlando Pirates Twitter

They say no one is dead until the last person who knows them dies. Don Mattera, popularly known as Bra Don or Bra Zinga, is not dead. He has transitioned to a life more powerful. He will live for a long time yet.

In Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, there is a paragraph that captures the shock to the system when one of our childhood heroes passes on. Even as accepted that he had served humanity well, we still struggle.

Kundera writes:

It was an unbearable insult to become a corpse. One moment you are a human being protected by modesty, by the sacrosanctity of nakedness and intimacy and then the instant of death is enough to put your body suddenly at anyone’s disposal – to undress it, to rip it open, to scrutinise the entrails, to hold one’s nose against its stench, to shove it into the freezer or into the fire.

Indeed. The fire did consume Bra Zinga’s body, returning it to ashes but it also served the final act: It solidified and turned his legacy into gold even as it consumed his human impurities.

The strangest part, though, is that I am struggling to pen recollections of the man who weaponised memory. It would be easy, but the world that Bra Don occupied was vast. Which memory is apt? Which anecdote best describes him?

One of those beautifully haunting memory is that Bra Don was always clean. Too clean. No piece of hair was out of place. His shirts were always crisp. Shoes were shining. His space was always spotless. You would be talking to him and he would be busy removing the last speck of food from the desk. It seemed that he gave you half his attention, yet he would recite back everything you said to him.

It sounds trite but for someone who opened and invited people into his space for coaching sessions, the cleanliness was inviting and created an aura of warmth which relaxed a young scribe for effective learning.

You walked away on a cloud – basking in the warmth that he transferred to you with the smile, hand on the shoulder or positive arrangement of words.

He embodied ideas of equality, fairness and generosity; engaged everyone he was talking to earnestly. The piercing eyes saw through your soul – he would have made a good Catholic priest.

But it would be wrong to put Bra Zinga in some sort of elevated status. He treated everyone as if they were in the elevated status but as for him, he was a simple man, with simple tastes and a simple life. He was generous to a fault and most of took advantage of that giving hand. Unashamedly.

In that simplicity, he touched many lives and achieved the extraordinary. His gifts of love, kindness and warmth created a ripple effect so huge, we may not even be able to track all of it.

He danced in our hearts through his poetry and in remembrance, many have taken to social media to post favourite poems.

He would be proud. But he would also be humble about it. Bra Zinga would be proud as “a poet’s pride is not ordinary pride. Only the poet himself can know the value of what he writes. Others don’t understand it until much later, or they never understand it. So it’s the poet duty to be proud. If he weren’t, he would betray his own work”, says a student in Kundera’s book.

He must have foretold our Bra Don who was a teacher. Africanist. Pacifying warrior. Father. Brother. Mentor. And when needed, a disciplinarian of note who would not embarrass those who earned his quiet wrath.

A case in point. Sowetan was celebrating 25 years in 2005. Bongani Keswa had delegated the running of the show to me as his deputy MD then. We agreed early on that Bra Don was going to be our keynote speaker. Somehow, we managed to bungle sending him an official invitation though we have had had a brief discussion.

Bra Don came to the function. Graceful as ever and dressed for the occasion. When he got on stage, he started by remarking how late an invitation was sent to him and that he was only doing this because he respected the institution and phenomenon that the newspaper was and what it represented.

That comment stung. In a few seconds, he administered a flogging so painful it left phantom scars yet there was no discernible anger in his voice or demeanour. And at dinner, he came over for a handshake. It left an indelible lesson.

Many have deployed a gazillion definitions of the man. It is perhaps the diversity of definitions and adjectives; of how people consumed his presence; of how he infused life and meaning into others’ existence, that gives the true testament of the man.

My intersection with Bra Zinga was at the Weekly Mail where he arrived to be part of the newly launched Daily Mail. The newspaper itself did not last long but he lasted longer as a training manager; shaping the youthful reporters, some of whom have played a critical role in the journalism landscape. We were to meet again at Sowetan.

We were star-struck. A whole author was in our midst, and we had unlimited access to him. But in the ephemeral world of youth, some of us did not recognise the opportunity that life had presented us, and we soon moved on.

Bra Don did not carry himself in the manner that we expected of someone of his standing. He was too humble, self-effacing and ordinary even.

Even though that was not his first duty, Bra Zinga played a role guiding young reporters in their craft. The Daily Mail was infused with energy and at some stage boasted the cream of the crop of South African journalism.

Beyond being a teacher, he kept the nation’s conscience pricked. His poetry and public addresses, before and after independence spoke of untold pain; of unmet expectations and a broken promise.

He wanted us to know and remember. He spoke of Sophiatown and the golden age when apartheid masters flexed their muscle in social engineering.

His tales frankly sometimes bored us after a while and he realised that our attention span was ephemeral. It is no wonder that his famous tale of that life was captured as Memory is a Weapon.

He was reminding us, the younger generation of not just the life and times of the struggle but the resilience of human spirit. His poetry was a “struggle of memory against forgetting” and the struggle against social amnesia.

Bra Zinga understood the politics of memory, the importance of memory and the importance of remembering where we come from with the hope that it would give us the conscience to be mindful of where we were going.

Bra Zinga encouraged us to turn damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) to creation memoriae (creation of memory) – stemming from the Roman empire was big on creating and recreating memories with statues and artefacts that kept the memory alive. But they were just as swift to condemn the memory for those deemed to have transgressed including “the defacement of all visual depictions and literary records of a condemned individual”.

We owe to Bra Don to create memories and remember where we come from. History is a fast flowing river and we forget easily and the failures of governing has created a mass of youth who yearn for an era they don’t know: it seemed it was better than. That would make Bra Don angry – and his flash of anger was scary.

  • Musa Zondi is an award-winning journalist and he writes in his personal capacity