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Don Mattera knew the love SA deserved from the start

- William Gumede

The poet practised love wholeheartedly and saw from a mile away leaders who pretend to love their ‘people’.

What stood out the most for me about Don Mattera, the award-winning poet, writer, and journalist, who died recently, was his belief in love for others, no matter their colour, ethnicity, or religion – and his active showing of his love.

His love was not a toxic one, or to abuse or to gain control over another human being. It was genuinely compassionate, caring and giving. It was not a fake love for the people, which is based on self-interest, to secure power or to control resources, exhibited by so many African independent and liberation leaders, including many South African ones.

I am now convinced that the reason so many African leaders turn out to be such disasters to their people is that they lack love for their fellow human beings, whether their colour, ethnicity, or religion. Many leaders such as former President Jacob Zuma, the late Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, behind their pretend love for the “people,” see other people, whether supporters or voters as objects of control, and how to use them or if they are opponents, how to destroy them with a smile.

Yet, sustainable development of societies that emerged from violence, cannot happen, without the formerly oppressed communities inculcating a mass culture of individual self-love, and consistently elect leaders who operate from love, who have compassion for others that stretch across ethnicity, colour, or region, and not based on self-interest.

“Bra Don,” as I called him, but “Bra Zinga” for many others, had a traumatic upbringing, being displaced from Sophiatown, when the apartheid government demolished the multi-ethnic town, an affront to apartheid leaders who believed that black and white cannot live together, to make for whites-only Triomf suburb of Johannesburg.

He joined a gang during his youth, but later transformed his anger into opposition to the evils of apartheid. He was banned by the apartheid government. It is astonishing that given that Mattera had such a hard upbringing, had to resort to violence to survive as a youth and had terrible violence meted out against him by the apartheid government and others, that “Bra Don” embraced love – self-love and love for others, rather than anger, resentment, and self-hatred.

As Susanne M. Dillmann writes “the ability to freely give and receive love is a fragile skill, which traumatic experiences can all too easily dent or damage.” Experiencing cruelty from others can harden a person, not to trust others again, to assume that others are out to exploit you and to remain a victim of past injustices. Furthermore, traumatic experiences can often lead to one not believing in love and seeing relationships, whether intimate, friendships or business as transactional, depending on what one can get out of it. Yet, to give love – and be open to receive it, despite traumatic experiences, is crucial to healing from traumatic experiences themselves.

Love, I imagine, must have carried “Bra Don” through tough times. Christine Hanna writes: “Love is clear-eyed acknowledgement of things as they really are. Love is holding onto a vision of something better. Love is courage to do the right thing even when it is hard.”

“Bra Don” was also an extraordinary optimist, who remained full of hope and lightness, whatever his circumstances. His light energy often lifted the spirits of others. His optimism was inspired by his deep faith in that things will change for the better, no matter how dire. In his poem “Azanian Love Song,” he writes: “Like a tall oak I lift my arms to catch the wind with bruised fingers and somewhere in the ghetto a child is born; a mother’s anxiety and pain hide in a forest of hope.”

Because he grew up in multicultural Sophiatown, “Bra Don” was a strong proponent of embracing South Africa’s diversity as crucial to lifting economic growth, inclusive development and maintaining societal peace. Sadly, it increasingly appears that many in South Africa, whether in the ANC, EFF or among black political parties on the populist left, believe that one group, whether ethnic, colour or political, could on their own, successfully drive the country’s development, lift economic growth levels, and bring societal piece.

“Bra Don” was refreshingly humble. Again, this is in such contrast to the astonishing arrogance displayed by many ANC and other political leaders, such as ANC Chairperson Gwede Mantashe, who got their positions of luxury because poor people voted for them. The sad thing is politicians in South Africa and across Africa are often celebrated above that of community leaders, writers, and artists. Universities often heap honorary doctorates on useless, self-serving, and opportunistic “struggle” politicians, but the likes of “Bra Don” and other more deserving patriots are often ignored. It is a credit to Wits University for honouring “Bra Don” with an honorary degree.

“Bra Don” selflessly mentored many young journalists, writers and academics, from Ismail Lagardien, the former Sowetan political correspondent, now successful academic to Mapula Nkosi, the former Sowetan deputy editor and me. I owe so much to “Bra Don, who together with Chris van Gass, the former newseditor of the Pretoria News newspaper, played critical roles in helping me in the early 1990s break into "mainstream", from “struggle” student, community, and trade union media.

“Bra Don” wrote me long-handwritten references for all three attempts (two failed ones) – in the early 1990s to find a job as a trainee journalist in the national press. In the early 1990s the Reuters newsagency advertised a place on its entry journalist programme in London for one African journalist. “Bra Don” characteristically wrote a handwritten reference letter, despite my protestations that it should be typed. The selection process went to the wire between me another candidate, and it was given to the other candidate. “Bra Don” wrote an angry letter – again in its flowing handwriting, to the Reuters office in London!

My next attempt to get a position in a media house, accompanied with a new handwritten letter from “Bra Don,” this time to the local Weekly Mail in Johannesburg, also received a firm rejection. This time, “Bra Don” marched downtown to the editors in Johannesburg – and was told I may be too politically partisan, having been a full-time official of a national student organisation and working for the Congress of South African Trade Unions at the time.

I was particularly heartbroken because the Weekly Mail was my favourite newspaper at the time. And that year’s Weekly Mail intake had exceptional talent like Ferial Haffajee, Mondli Makhanya and Vuyo Mvoko, who all rose to the top of the craft in post-apartheid South Africa. After these successive rejections, I decided to make one last attempt to enter “mainstream” journalism, by applying to the entry programme of The Star newspaper in Johannesburg. “Bra Don” came through again with his handwritten reference. Again, I was rejected, despite the then head of The Star’s entry journalist programme Chris van Gass, making a spirited defence of me.

The Star’s then editor said it may be a clever idea for me to continue my trade union career. “Bra Don” afterwards complained loudly on my behalf to The Star editors. My luck turned when one of the successful candidates withdrew and Chris van Gass made a case for me to take the opening. “Bra Don” was elated when at the end of the programme I won the Ollemans Trophy as the best young journalist.

As a consolidation for past rejections, both Reuters and the Weekly Mail later made job offers to me; and the Weekly Mail & Guardian generously years afterwards in their anniversary edition apologised for not picking me. “Bra Don” was overly critical early in the ANC administration of the “waBenzi” lifestyle, the jobs, without merit, for ANC cadres and “struggle” family and contracts for connected companies.

In 1996 some ANC members embarked on a protest march against me, assembly at the Johannesburg Library Gardens and marching to The Star offices, denouncing my criticisms of ANC leadership corruption, incompetence, and dishonesty, demanding the Sunday Independent and Saturday Star sack me. “Bra Don” was a pillar of support, when many kept silent fearing that if they say something, the ANC, which dominated every sphere, will marginalise them from jobs and tenders in the public sector, and private companies will similarly marginalise them, in fearing of retribution from the powerful ANC government. If many more criticised the ANC early on, when the corruption took hold, state failure, may have been prevented.

“Bra Don” lived books, reading and knowledge. Reading was an important stepladder for “Bra Don” out of poverty. Just like individual reading is important for individual development, a national reading culture is also a crucial development catalyst to lift entire societies out of poverty. In honour of “Bra Don,” government should do more to support the local publishing industry, libraries and reading.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published on TimesLive/Sunday Times.