This week started out pretty absurd. On Monday morning, delirious and drugged from illness and disorientation, I touched the day and walked away in horror. I sat down to write about a topic I should know with some confidence, but I barely managed to let it hold together. I’m sitting here now; I don’t remember a single thing I wrote early Monday morning. After writing, I took pills and passed out. I woke up at some point; it was dark and I didn’t know the time, and I read that Jessie Duarte was dead.
I never personally knew Jessie Duarte. I knew his brother Achmat Dangor many years ago, and more recently I got to know his other brother Zane Dangor. I have nothing to say about Jessie Duarte. I only knew her as part of the ANC…I took more pills and passed out again. When I woke up from another miserable sleep, I heard that Don Mattera was dead. It was only Monday. I again withdrew from the day. It was no longer the day to celebrate the life and wisdom of Nelson Mandela. It was the day Don Mattera died.
I knew Don Mattera. In fact, I knew him well. Everything I have accomplished as a journalist dates back to the time when Mattera started to guide me and saved me, as he did for many street children. Like so many colored children, I was his laaitie. Her child. His son. His protege. His underling. He followed my time as a journalist from afar, never commented on my academic banter, but called me sometimes to tell me how proud I made him.
He is dead now. His body is returned to the earth where he feeds the little creatures that we feast on in many ways.
Death thrives when dying. With death wisdom dies, and we only have memories. Memories that bring back memories. Some memories can last and become weapons, or they can become keys to understanding past times, and we can better manage the present and the times that may yet come. Without memories we are lost; more lost than those who have replaced intentionality with voluntary forgetting…
Ask any of the young economic freedom fighters about his memories of the time, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when South Africa was burning, and he will give you a blank stare or, at best, will raise a series of non-sequences and logical errors. which tug at the emotions and present themselves with the exaltation of Philistine vulgarity. They cannot fully understand the past and do not know what to do today beyond performativity that satisfies only their lowest instincts. They have yet to fully understand the relationship between subjectivity, the past, and intentionality.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, I would periodically get in my dented car and visit Mattera to listen to her talk. We strolled through the streets and through the fields of Eldorado Park. He always reminded me that I had to find what I wanted to do with myself, do it again and again, and let it never end.
It is these memories that linger and have a place alongside the memories of violence from Crossroads to Boipatong, Bisho to Bophuthatswana, that I cherish, and that make me tremble now. Far from the clicking of keyboards or the clicks of cameras, I always found immobility with Don Mattera. I listened more than he said anything. He tried to convince me that life had meaning. Over time, I lost that inspired optimism that he left me after each visit, especially when I returned to tear gas, stones, bodies burned with burning tires and noises of protest, violence, chaos and death.
Life sometimes seems like a meaningless sequence or arrangement of events, until we rise above it and try to make sense of it. A man so singularly principled and dedicated, it was Mattera, and much later TAM, in an entirely different time and place, who taught me the valuable discipline of ethics. He too, TAM, was Mattera laaitie – we were all his milk. I cling to my memories of Mattera with more emphasis than the mundane and the monotonous, the absurdity of life.
Memory can be approached with indifference and abuse, or it can fire the imagination with intended consequences; you know what you are doing and know what to do next because of memory… And so memory has the power to weave present, past and future into something meaningful – something less absurd than life. Like death.
Don Mattera inspired my intellect and my desire to write. When I started to distance myself from everything that bound me to family, faith, and everything that was made of me, Mattera helped me loosen those ties. He helped me realize that rhythm and cadence, and biological predictability — your heart beating, your lungs taking in, then pushing out air — weren’t life. In a way, I learned from Mattera, before he became a Muslim, that life was really a series of works that together give meaning. It therefore helped to look at the past to understand the present and to do more – something else – of what has been or has been determined. I learned very late in my life how aging gives meaning to my own childhood and adolescence, this period that Mattera began.
Because of Mattera, I broke, for several years, every link in the chain of society that conspired to throw me into an eternal disposition in which I would be expected to behave, feel and think (act) in a way that brought me into this miserable society.
When I look around me today at this generation of thinkers and leaders, I cannot imagine Don Mattera in their pantheon. He stands, even in death, a lonely man, imperturbable, imperturbable, always sincere and walking gently on this earth.
We were supposed to remember Nelson Mandela on Monday. I remembered Don Mattera. Through his wisdom, I came to believe that I am what I made myself. Although I never told him, it was because of his first inspiration that Don Mattera forced me to always redo myself again and again, driven, as I always am, by my greatest fear. The fear of mediocrity.
Don Mattera is dead now. I can’t thank him anymore. But his silence is consequent. DM