Donato Franscesco Mattera
Born Donato Francesco Mattera in 1935 in Johannesburg's Western Native Township (now Westbury), Don Mattera inherited multiple cultural traditions from his Italian grandfather, Khoisan/Xhosa grandmother and Tswana mother. Mattera was largely raised by his grandparents developing a strong affinity with Italy through his grandfather s reminiscences, Mattera has written of those reflections "I virtually lived in the farm cottage in his native Italy, and walked among the olive trees. Even my blood was shed in the long vendettas. I became one with them who I had never seen or touched or spoken to."
Sent to a Catholic boarding school in Durban to become a man, Mattera returned to Johannesburg at the age of 14 having mastered the skills of convent English and boxing. During his later teenage years, he rebelled against his strict upbringing and became embroiled in the gangster culture of the time as the leader of the Vultures. By the mid-1950s, partly under the influence of Father Trevor Huddleston, his focus began to shift and he became involved in politics being drawn into the struggle against the forced removal and destruction of Sophiatown. The suburb was one of the few remaining areas in which Africans could own property. Known as the 'Little Paris of the Transvaal', Sophiatown was a legendary cosmopolitan area, home to most of the City's prominent black writers, journalists, artists and musicians. Mattera's memoir, Memory is the Weapon is an important landmark in the literary canon that has grown up around Sophiatown. His emphasis on the political importance of memory in the face of totalitarian forgetting became an important point of reference and helped to shape the philosophical position of the black consciousness movement in South Africa, in which he became involved in the early 1970s. This work foreshadowed many of the debates on remembering that surrounded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
His political activism continued and in 1973 he was banned and placed under house-arrest, a condition he endured for eight-and-a-half years. After his banning order was lifted, he involved himself in establishing several literary and cultural organizations, including the African Writers Association and the Congress of South African Writers.
He was a director of Skotaville publishers, a new black consciousness imprint. During this period Mattera became a journalist and at various times worked for The Star, The Sunday Times, The Weekly Mail (now the Mail and Guardian), the Sowetan, Roots (a community-based newspaper) and Finance Week. Mattera founded the Union of Black journalists and later co-founded the first Black African Writers Association. This period also saw him acting as a mentor to many young journalists and intellectuals who wrote against the apartheid state.
Mattera s literary output was significantly curtailed by state interference in his personal life. In spite of the random arrests, harassment and banning orders he has made a significant contribution to the South African world of letters.
In addition to Memory is the Weapon, his works include: Azanian Love Song (1983, a volume of poetry); One time Brother (1983, a play; banned in 1984) and Kagiso Sechaba (1983, a play). He contributed to a poetry volume, Exiles Within (1984); two collections of children s stories: The Story Teller (1991) and Five Magic Pebbles (1992, which won the NOMA Children s Book Award in 1993) and a collection of poems, The Heart of Love (1997).
He uses images of a bloodied earth and a dying sun in juxtaposition with those of fruit, harvests and seasons. He rails at the injustice of apartheid -, but declares that hate and vengeance only perpetuate vicious cycles of death and further retribution.
His other numerous literary awards include: the Steve Biko Prize from Sweden; the Kurt Tucholsky Award (given by the World PEN Association) and the South African Order of the Baobab (gold) for his significant contributions to South African Literature. He has held writing fellowships in America and Sweden. Memory is the Weapon has been republished under different titles in the UK, the USA, Germany and Sweden.
It is generally acknowledged that Mattera s oeuvre with its pre-occupation with the incisive critique of violence constitutes an important aspect of the anti-apartheid era protest literature . There can be no doubt that Mattera shaped the thinking of many young people in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who were socialized in struggle on a diet of his provocative literature.
In addition to his widely acknowledged contributions to literature and journalism, Don Mattera has had a long-standing involvement in community work, particularly in Eldorado Park. He established the Harvey Cohen Centre for mentally and physically handicapped children representing one of his signally important contributions to this community. Prompted by his personal mission of helping to "remove pain and suffering from people s lives", he continues his substantial involvement in many community organizations. Mattera has a particular empathy for work involving young people from marginalized communities.
In recognition of his significant contributions to combating violence in black townships and his commitment to peace-building, he was awarded the World Health Organisation s Peace Prize in 1997, an achievement that he considers one of the most important in his career as an intellectual and activist. The fact that he is currently the patron of approximately 50 trusts serves as further illustration of his acknowledged value to his community involvement and his wisdom.
In consideration of Mattera s substantial contributions to literature, journalism, political and community development in South Africa, it is clear that he is a worthy recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Literature, the highest honour this University can bestow.