Don Mattera’s Assessment on SA Media: TRC Submission 1997


In a series of submissions to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the media, we post legendary poet Don Mattera’s submission

 I would like to say this, comrade, is that sometimes one wonders when one sees people sitting there, whether these people are ably equipped to handle this issue, whether these people have studies this issue, because I do not know what the line of questioning was yesterday on people like John Horak, I do not know what the line of questioning was on such people, but I trust you and I trust that you have the bona fides, not only of finding the truth, but being able to examine one of the tragedies.

You know, in Shakespeare there is this piece that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, well, Denmark was rotten, meaning South Africa was rotten and white people, particularly, particularly shared and lived and thrived on that rot. They lived, and you count the ones that did not, on your fingers. You could count Beyers Naude, Helen Joseph, I can go to town on a few of the names, but they lived in the state of Denmark, they shared and perpetuated that rot and that rot sunk deep into every facet of life. Yes, there were many good people in the white people in the world, in South Africa, as there many black bad people. So, when you look at me and talk to me you have to see many aspects of this person. You have to see this person who had been kicked out and robbed of a home in Sophiatown, branded a Coloured despite his objections, his family’s objections. You have to see this person moving into an environment, a political environment, conscientised by the African National Congress through people like Robert Gesha, Trevor Huddleston and be given a new set of values, a new way of life, a new thinking from the thinking of the streets, from the gangster to the poet to the politician to the journalist.

So, I do not think this one session is enough for me if we have to arrive at some truths. Firstly, the state of journalism cannot be divorced from the state, the rotten state of South Africa as it pertained. We cannot look at journalism in isolation to the fact of the colour bar, that white people, if there are such creatures, were given a status that was almost the same thing that Hitler gave to his people. These people began to believe in the whole Arian notion to the point that they internalised it and lived by it and killed for it and destroyed in its name, both politically and in journalism. I am, I was never naive to suppose that white people were so generous in the media that they would see me coming in and offer me the world. I saw the media as another terrain of struggle and it was a terrain of struggle, because since 66, when I was campaigning actively for the release of Mandela and Sobukwe and many others, I never received the publicity for those campaigns.

In 1967, 68 with the launch of the Black Consciousness Movement, I had been conscientised from a non-racialist who saw the good in white people, who supplicated to white people for the goodness of their hearts, turned to black consciousness. Conscientised by Steve Biko and still told that black man, black woman, you are on your own. So, for all these years I had been campaigning as a non-racialist from Sophiatown, campaigning with noesis, trying to change the status quo with Helen Joseph, with many other people. I became a different kind of enemy for the State. The State then began its vilification programme, which I will come to later. In 1968, with the launch of the Black Consciousness Movement, I ventured into newspapers news rooms.

What did I find at the Rand Daily Mail? I found black people sitting in a corner, designated for black journalists. The whites, Clive Emden is here and he will attest to that, Peter Wellman, all of them worked in that white group.

In 1968, with the launch of the Black Consciousness Movement, I ventured into newspapers news rooms.

What did I find at the Rand Daily Mail? I found black people sitting in a corner, designated for black journalists. The whites, Clive Emden is here and he will attest to that, Peter Wellman, all of them worked in that white group. The blacks had their corner

I found this and I objected to that. I objected very strongly to that fact that black journalists were allowing themselves to be demeaned. They were allowed to have representative membership within this white journalist union that was called The South African Society of Journalists. Blacks were not allowed. The like of Mayakiso, Gordon Siwane, could not be members. I objected very strongly to that fact. Again, I found fawning, cringing black people. They did not go through the baptism that I had gone through and I could not say to them with the force of whip that you guys were wrong. Then the editorials stank, they were stinking. Particularly, on the issue of the military excursions into the front line states. Mopping up operations, the one, as the editorial says, the SADF went in and they mopped up, they cleaned up Lesotho, they cleaned up Matolo, they cleaned up Botswana. They did not say that pieces of flesh were lying on the trees. It was not their worry. So, if a thorough has to be done, go into the dealings, the editorials of Alistair Sparks, Raymond Louw, Rex Gibson. What did they write during the time when we fought this war against these people? What did they say, what were their views about what constitutes a terrorist and what constitutes a freedom fighter? We braved that, we spoke out, I spoke out, I braved that and I saw there was a need to start a journalist organisation with Bokwe Mafuna, Willie Lenglapo, Harry Mashabela, Joe Kolwe. There was a need to set up a journalist organisation that would speak for the people and so was born the term liberation journalism. Just like liberation poetry, just like liberation theatre. The black journalist could not see himself or herself outside of the parameters of struggle and so we formed the Union of Black Journalists, but let me go back. Let me go back to when we were preaching the Black Consciousness ideology. Young people like Ramaphosa, Terror Lekota, Popo Molefe, I can go on, a long list of young people that were conscientised into the stream, making them understand that there was a war, not only that the black people had to fight physically, but there was a war that had to be fought internally and I became one of the proponents of that law, having left the Coloured Labour Party, after being conscientised by Steve Biko to move in that area. So, the other programme began. The programme of vilification. Now, this John Horak, that you guys love so much, that now has the, has membership of the African National Congress, who is this creature? This is the creature that worked at The Rand Daily Mail and started terrible whispering campaigns schooled in the art of vilification and dirty tricks, this John Horak. This is the man that said watch out for Clive Emden, he is an informer, watch out for Dennis Beckett, he is an informer, watch out for Tony Holliday, he is an informer, watch out and he continued his vilification and his dirty tricks at The Rand Daily Mail. The same man, if he is a man, who said Peter Magobane was the nigger in the wood pile, that Winnie Mandela had sold out on Nelson Mandela and had given Nelson Mandela away. This is the same John Horak who joined The Starand came with that same programme of vilification. Be careful of Don Mattera, he is not banned, he is an agent, he is a CIA agent. Be careful of Roshid Tjopdat(?), be careful of Joe Nazir, be careful of Riaan Malan. This same man, this same creature went on on a spree of vilification. This same man found me crying in the toilets when I had received from detention a roll and, a toilet roll written with agonising details of torture. This same man wanted to grab this toilet roll for me, from me and I pushed him away. I phoned somebody called Beyers Naude and I said I have this toilet roll, please come and fetch it. He came and took it from me. Eleven o’ clock the cops raided me. I was detained in front of The Star, beaten and taken to John Vorster Square. “Waar is die kakpapier?” they said. Where is the toilet roll? So, who is this John Horak? Who is this man, now, that comes here and tells you that he knew about agents. His work was vilification. His work was to destroy a whispering campaign, a campaign that resulted in almost 350 raids on my house, 150 times detention. This is the agony of what the black journalist went through. So, for us black, journalism became part of the liberation movement. We had to exert all our energies, all our strengths, all our brains to fight this enemy. Liberation journalism became that. Bokwe Mafuna, Tenjiwe, many such young people moved, Harry Mashabela, whose neck was broken by the security police all because creatures like that. Now, let me take you back to some history. Are there Jewish people here? Thank you Clive. The likes of Heinrich Himmler, the likes of Goebels, the likes of all the people that helped to destroy and murder so many people throughout the world had their informers planted in all kinds of places. Pastor Niemolan, the Protestant, knew of that. These people were sent to their executions and death by the whisper of some agents who did not like a certain family, who did not like, the same thing occurred here. There was a holocaust of the truth and the holocaust of black lives in South Africa in a way that beggars description, in a way that made us being picked up and killed and tortured. One such torturer, Olivier, Col Olivier, said to me in 1977 after I had been detained for the toilet roll, Mr Mattera, it is people like you who will cause the Kaffirs and the whites to kill each other, a person like you. The poems which you write, the poetry, the books which you write all lead to the destruction of the white nation in South Africa and we will never allow that. That piece of shit paper, I have to keep to that word, because that is the only way to describe this kind of person, because that is the term that they used for the toilet paper, we want that and we want it now. This young man that had written to me was terribly tortured, he was broken and they wanted his name and I said I will never give his name to you. He hit me. I hit this dog back. I was hand-cuffed behind my back and beaten and I came out with a vengeance for anything that represented the cops and anything that represented this stinking state of Denmark, in which white people, particularly, remained silent while the atrocities against their brothers and sisters were perpetrated. I would like to say this. If it had not been for Nelson Mandela helping to bring this country to a peaceful resolution, John Horak would have been dead by my hand. He is the kind of creature, the kind of animal that helped to destroy and vilify us. It did not buy with the black community, because the black community knew who we were, but here the whispering campaigns among these white liberals and their friends tortured and destroyed the mindsets of many people and I was one of those. I came to The Star in 1973. I entered on the second of January with a man called Tony Deegan, a junior by many years, a very talented and humane human being. Three months after that Tony Deegan was given a position on the news desk. I am a wordsmith, I have handled the English language in a way that other people cannot handle it, because this has been my gift, but I found that at The Star you had to be a white person and a white Rhodesian, most of all, to mean something and this whiteness, this claim to superiority and biological, I do not know what it is, played a very important role. I saw myself helping to open up the columns to black people, black readers, interviewing SASO, bringing them closer to understanding and using the newspaper, to prosecute the BC ideal. I saw that there was no place for me and when I was banned in 1973, let me just go back to the 30th of September. I had been campaigning with Joe Variava, Abue Asvat and many people in Lens for the setting up of a non-racial creche in an all Indian area, because we felt that the women who worked in service for the people there needed a place to bring their children there. So, we helped launch the Tamaray Creche. On the evening of the launch, the reading of my poetry, the main speaker, four shots were fired at me and a Volkswagen owned by some doctor who ran to Canada. A man called Bowa, security police, phoned The Star, spoke to Ron Anderson to say we have been informed that Don Mattera has been shot and he is lying in a ditch and I was standing next to Mr Anderson. So, who knew that I was going to speak at this meeting? Many people, but Horak also knew. So, I could have been killed and I was banned and house arrested for first three years, taken out of the newspaper and told to stay home while Mr John Jordie and Tyson campaigned for my return. During that time I could not come to town, I could not go into a bookshop, I could not attend my daughter’s birthday, I could not go to church, I could not attend my cousin’s funeral, I could not do many things and so the raids began and increased. When the Booysens Police Station was bombed I was raided from Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday by Haystack and his crew. Not once did it appear in the paper. Not a single Rand Daily Mail, Star newspaper, Beeld, Rapport, nothing had appeared. So, comrade, when I told you that I have to have the whole day, ten days it is to tell you that security agents not only had a free run. Horak carried a gun at The Star. He was allowed to come with a gun into The Star newspaper from 1973 when he came to work, I think, in 1974 and 75. Mrs Bondishio worked in the library. She was a confirmed spy. Nel, the farming editor, was a confirmed spy. There was a cloud and a question mark over Tony Sterling. John Horak’s whispering campaign in the newsroom that vilified people, his own colleagues, that led to the banning of my poem Protea in the terror edition of Newsas, which used my poem, The Protea, in the silhouette of the policeman beating the student and so these young provocateurs were allowed to continue their dirty tricks, their vilification during that holocaust. So, I am sure you have some questions to ask me and I can go on and on just to tell you that we had formed the Union of Black Journalists and what we did was take the SASO Constitution which said black student and we took out the word student and we put the word journalist there and so liberation journalist, then, was born and we continued in that way, sacrificing, playing the role that others were afraid to play. So, I will await your questions.

CHAIRPERSON: Thank you very much comrade Mattera for giving that very moving account, which virtually is a moving account of your own experiences, but then, also, a perspective which we, in the Commission, need to know in order for us to discharge our mandate, which is to present as complete a picture, as complete a picture as possible of the gross violations of human rights that happened in the period dictated by the Act, 1960 to 1994. It is something to think about when one takes into account what your personal experiences were, not only in the news room, but as a consequence of your activity in the newsroom which led to your arrest, detention and torture. Torture is defined in the Act as one of the gross violations of human rights. Now, can I have a sense of what you consider should be a recommendation that the Commission should make to those who are in charge to make sure that what happened in the era under consideration should never recur?

MR MATTERA: Yes, comrade, I accept that, there is one point I would like to make, a very serious point that Mike Tissong raised, no, the earlier, I think Mondli Makhanya raised. I would just like to amplify, very briefly, on that. When I worked at The Star I was made to understand, firstly, that I was a Coloured and these were blacks and that Coloureds receive a kind of treatment that blacks did not receive. Coloureds could pee in the same toilets with whites and blacks had to go around the corner to the open door, where there were no doors, shower and pee in that place and so I had always fought against this Coloured thing, because I had rightly believed that I am an African and I am black, but the insidious thing about this was that in that situation at The Star, whites looked at each other, not all of them, I suppose, with the same awe and respect, particularly, a boy called Dennis who was a 32 Battalion member and who was feted and loved because he was a crackshot at The Star. I cannot know Dennis’ surname, but he worked with Battalion 32. There were others, too, who were, had positions of Sergeant. I do not know what other positions they had. That point I would like to stress on. They were in the newsroom and they boasted and they were feted about having been members of 32 Battalion and having been crackshots. The Rhodesians, the Selous Scouts also bragged, the Walkers and his father and many others bragged about this and their photographer having been members of the Selous Scouts and having been part of that campaign to kill black people in their country. In the same breath, those people found sucker, found comfort, found a place for themselves in The Star news room. I just wanted to make that and amplify on that point. Then there was a newspaper called The Alkalam. Because it was a Muslim newspaper and Indians, Muslims, Indians were said to be Muslims there, nobody every covered their problems. The Alkalam newspaper that I wrote for was banned because of my writing by the State. The Alkalam was taken off the street, The Alkalam suffered, its editor was almost crucified and even in his own community he had been attacked for being, daring to put across the liberation perspective in his newspaper. I just wanted to add that, because it would be a travesty if we forget that there were other small fringe newspapers, unknown to all of us, whose editors and journalists suffered the same fate on many fronts as we did. So, Alkalam was that kind of newspaper and Alkalam was in the forefront of liberation journalism during its tenure. So, I will come back and, to your point. Sir, I think two things I have always campaigned for. Having been in the African National Congress Youth League, we had a slogan “Freedom in our lifetime”. I always believed I wanted to see in my lifetime black people rule this country and really rule it. Every facet of every way of life to be ruled by black people. Then, those people who consider themselves to be Africans, who consider themselves part of this country should fall into place, should serve in this and if there were whites, let them go to their white countries where they came from. If they were, because I would like to add, that I have never a German say to a Frenchman, you know, I am white. I have never heard an Italian say to a Swede, I am a white, but it is when they are here that they become to bear their whiteness down and their whiteness profits them. So, I would like to see a situation in this country where true, true anti-racism takes place. Not the wishy-washy kind that has one black guy as a manager, one black woman shunted into a corner and this is non-racialism. We need to go and have a total catharsis and purge of this situation. We need to understand that white people are here by our sufferance. They are here by our sufferance not their sufferance and they need to understand that this is not Europe, that this is not America, this is not India, this is Africa and they must learn to fall into place and share, with black people, that which they have denied black people for so long. The newspaper is only one terrain, I am proud that I have Dr Motlane as my Chairperson, but if Dr Motlane does not raise my standard of living as a black journalist, he is useless to me. So, we do not want meet and greet black people who own newspapers but cannot effect the changes that we need. Lula Maloetie has got the potential to be the first black woman journalist in this country, but what happens to this child. She has to leave the country to go and study further, because it will never come in her lifetime. I am saying that the likes of Ramaphosa, the likes of Motlane, the likes of Dikgang Moseneke and many others must truly take the bull by the horns and transform this media and, truly, to represent the demographics of this country. The demographics of this country are that black people have been denied their life, they have been denied their stay, they have been denied this for centuries and it is time that we spun the coin around. Heads they win, tails they win. Thank you, Sir.

CHAIRPERSON: Thank you very much for that and, unfortunately, we are running very, very far behind. I do not know if there are any questions. I will allow one question or two questions, one question per panellist.

MS BURTON: (Speakers microphone not on). I am very glad that you mentioned (indistinct) because I think that one of the, sorry, one of the responses, one of the reactions to the fact that so much news was denied to the public was the establishment of many other ways in which people communicated news and I think when we hold a media hearing we must remember that poetry is also a medium of communication, that in our country banners and posters and t-shirts were also media which carried important news and messages and, also, those many publications. One might, perhaps, call them a femoral media, the pamphlets which appeared on our streets, the journals like, being a Capetonian, I know Muslim News, the Western Province Council of Churches crisis news … (intervention).

MR MATTERA: Cross Roads.

MS BURTON: … Cross Roads publications. One thinks of so many, Saamstaan in the Southern Cape and they were published quickly, they were disseminated quickly, they were one way in which people heard about what was going on and that is a rich tradition which grew out of that struggle. I wondered if you would like to say something more about that and, also, how we incorporate that richness into our future traditions of media.

MR MATTERA: I think, Ma’am, diversity is a very important facet of democracy although we espouse democracy a bit. You know, it is not, it is the most crucial, the will of the people and I think diversity is a very important pillar of any, it should be an important pillar of any country that wishes to establish, finally, a non, a truly anti-racist, universalist state where people are people and not, as I continue to abjure, black and so on, and diversity of the media will always be a fallacy, will become a fallacy if those who now have moved into avenues of power want to usurp and grab everything around them and not allow the independent voice, the hand bill, the little newspaper to continue. I think it is in the nature of business people to be avaricious, it is in the nature of Governments to look for consensus, but we have a good Government now that allows diversity, that you can talk to and there is a door open and I think that Government should establish a media diversity fund to help to promote people who have their divergent views and may not be the populistic view that all of us want. I think that, particularly the SABC, has tried very bravely to give voice to so many silenced voices and they must be praised and I think, also, the likes of the Weekly Mail, for which I have worked for, they tried very hard during trying times, I think some flower, some petal should also be thrown to their door for having kept alive, for us, this very important flame. Madam, one of the things that I have always deeply felt that this country, this system cheated us of, it was the right to be ourselves, the right to be the selves we choose to be and not the selves that everybody else wants and, for me, that has been the greatest tragedy, the greatest loss to, besides the human life, they have taken away from us the right to be ourselves, the selves we choose to be. I hope that with this new Government and with other ensuing Governments, the right to be yourself, to be different should be encouraged and, where necessary, if it does not militate against the broader national good, we should encourage it, we should help to plant the seed. Like our President, many of us had long forgiven other people who have hurt us, but hurt, as the Jewish people will tell you, has a way of following you wherever you are. Fifty years on you want to remember. Do not take away the right of people not to remember. Always encourage the people the right to remember, because Milan Conderras says that the struggle of humanity against tyranny and oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Let the people remember and let them, through remembering, be humanised so that we can truly take our country forward and forgive creatures like John Horak, Craig Williamson and all these butchers whose fingers are dripping with blood and let us move forward. I am prepared and I have been prepared to do so, to move forward. So, I thank you for this opportunity to speak.

CHAIRPERSON: There was still one question from Hlengiwe.

MR MKHIZE: Thank you very much. I have listened very carefully to what you have said, especially about, the things you have said about how we should engage with what we have been hearing over the past three days. I should think that warning is helpful to us. Just one question. You said that white people in this country believed, internalised, naturalised what was constructed, the ideology of the Nationalist Party Government and, as a race group, they began to act, especially in a news room, on the basis of those socially constructed identities. I wonder whether you think the print media can be used as a medium through which alternative identities could be planted, because it is like something which need to be done over a long period of time. At this point in time we have a monster in front of us, the Constitution of the country, which does not allow discrimination of any kind. We have the Government of the day which is, which does, also accommodate … (intervention).


MR MKHIZE: … racism, but at the same time on daily basis people, especially when they are brought together, they end up talking about racist practices. So, it is like, it is something which needs to be worked on vigorously, but what we have heard, especially over the past two days from people like, you have mentioned, like Craig, is like the media was an important platform to make sure that people of this country begin to see the dangers which were coming with liberation movements. So, based on what you are saying, I do not know whether our media, as an institution as it exists today, is in a position of helping the country to transform.

MR MATTERA: Yes, Mam, you know, during the war in 1939, 1945 war, they instituted the Marshall Plan to try and rehabilitate and reform Europe and save the starving Germans at the time, but what we need in this country, in my humble opinion, is also a Marshall Plan of sorts. Firstly, if I had been, hypothetically, the editor of The Sowetan newspaper or of The Star, I would stop racial connotations of any kind. I would not say a black man was arrested for raping a white woman, which seems to be the great norm, it seems to be the big thing these days. A man raped another woman and that is important. It is a heinous deed, it is a heinous crime, but if we continue to show racism in our reports, if the media continues to select, as The Citizen does, the white side of the news and if The Sowetan continues to do that with that side of the news, of the black side of the news, we are, again, entrenching the mindsets. What the media, new magnets should do, is to seriously engage and de-racialise this country. Its columns must be de-racialised. I am a poet, not a Coloured poet and we must continue in that way, we have to engage racism. This is not happening. It must be engaged, seriously engaged. We must thrive seriously to create different mindsets. I used my poems as swords of liberation. Now my poems are to play new roles, they have to be balms of healing, they have to act as ointment to heal the contusions and the bruises that my people have suffered, but I must be allowed to be able to come to terms with that horror of the past, so that I can look at the future with a different eye. White people must learn to see that future and not see a Black President who is going to kick them out and drive them to Israel, drive them to Australia. They must see a country in which they can live, in which there is a role for them to play. So, the media must assist in helping to create different mindsets. The schools in Eldorado Park are still managed by Coloured teachers. The schools in Soweto are still managed by black teachers. The white suburbs are still the white suburbs and they will remain so in ad infinitum if there is not a conscious effort to say some white, some white families will say I want to go and live in Soweto, let me go and see. They never do that. What we are saying, we have removed the value of human beings and we have placed them in the northern suburbs. They must aspire to the northern suburbs, they must aspire to that. So, our journalism is the journalism of aspiring to power, to money and to position. All of that has to change. For our children too, all of that has to change. Madam, I thank you, but I am rambling and I do not want to do that.

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  1. Long but interesting. Wow!!
    The media machinery.
    It takes just that one person like Mama-Winnie and Don to question and challenge the statusquo to awaken the rest of the tamed or submissive countrymen – proud that he never accepted the setups in those news-rooms.
    How far we have come, yet still not close to where we going.

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