Don Mattera

Don Mattera was born in 1935 in Western Native Township, an area in the west of Johannesburg that was bulldozed by the Apartheid government – it became the whites-only suburb of Westdene. He grew up in Sophiatown. His heritage is a good example of the mixing that was possible in such a place. His grandfather was Italian, his father was Coloured and his mother was African. Sophiatown was a place where this kind of diversity could become a reality. This is one of the reasons it was so hated by the Apartheid Government. As a teenager he was involved in gangs. However, later in life he became an activist and poet. This extract is from his autobiography, Memory is the Weapon. In it he describes the effects of the Population Registration Act, one of the foundations of Apartheid. This law classified everyone into one of four racial groups, often splitting up families. While race is often thought of as a natural fact of life, this shows how they were constructed, and Mattera himself is an example of someone who did not fit neatly into one category or the other – his real heritage of Italian, Tswana and Khoisan was far too diverse for Apartheid.

Be aware that there is some racist language in this story. Most of it is spoken by a white policeman, but there is also some directed at Africans by a Coloured character. At the same time, Mattera stresses that he is proud of his African heritage. While you read, try to think what might have made someone hold racist attitudes towards someone else when both of them were oppressed.

An Extract from Memory is the Weapon

Author: Don Mattera

Bad News

miscegenation Sexual relations between people of different races. appendage Something attached to the main, more important body. twilight The soft, fading light from the sky when the sun goes down; from sunset to nightfall. oblivion Nothingness or nonexistence. cosmopolitan Multicultural; a cosmopolitan area is where people of different cultural, language and ethnic backgrounds live together and interact.

According to the racial statistics of Apartheid South Africa, I am a second-generation Coloured: the fruit of miscegenation and of an in-between existence; the appendage of black and white. There are approximately four million other people like me – twilight children who live in political, social and economic oblivion and who have been cut off from the mainstream of direct interaction with both black and white people. But many coloured people, especially adults, have looked to the whites for their survival and security. There has been a rapid move by the younger, more radical people towards political and social integration with blacks because of the success of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa.

After the removal of people from cosmopolitan areas such as Sophiatown, the Verwoerdian protagonists protagonists A protagonist is the main character in a story. Calling them Verwoerdian means they are following the ideas of Verwoerd, one of the Apartheid rulers. – political scientists and academics – obviously with the collaboration of many coloured quislings, quislings People who collaborate and support the enemy (in this case, the Apartheid government) against their own community. have created a middle-class among the Coloureds. And, employing the swartgevaar (black danger) slogan, they have drawn many twilight people closer to the white laager (exclusive haven). Closer but not into it. Just close enough to serve as a buffer between white and black, and the latter are slowly beginning to doubt the bona fides of their lighter-skinned brothers and sisters.

laager A camp made up of a protective circle of wagons; often used by voortrekkers in the 19th century. The laager became a symbol of Afrikaaner nationalism and white rule over black people. haven A place of shelter and safety.

It is only in this mad and frightened portion of the world, bedevilled as it is by race consciousness and pigmentocracy, that human beings are categorised and classified bona fides Good faith or sincerity. bedevilled Tormented or harassed with bad intentions. pigmentocracy A society or country where the government or social hierachy is based on shades of skin colour; where the relative worth of people is related to the colour of their skin. under the law into sub-tribal and sub-human units. Consider the Coloureds. The Griquas are the so-called descendants of an aboriginal chief called Adam Kok whose land was first seized by the British colonialists and later the Boers following unsuccessful uprisings against both the occupying forces of his day. Adam Kok’s territory inside the borders of South Africa is still known as Griqualand.

Then there are the Cape Coloureds – the name denotes denotes To be a mark or a sign of; indicate; to name. a direct genetic link with the so-called Bushmen and Hottentots Bushmen and Hottentots Both of these words have racist connotations. – preferably known as the Khoisan. What the segregationists could not escape was that so many of these Bushman and Hottentot offspring had blue, grey or green eyes with straight blond hair. The other Cape ‘mixture’ is known as Cape Malay. Although a large section of this grouping has traces of Malayan blood, many thus classified are very light-skinned, with European features as well as Khoisan characteristics. The original Malay slaves were brought into South Africa by the Dutch East India Company settlers, the majority of whom did not bring women with them. The other lesser known coloured ‘tribes’ are the ‘Maasbieker’, the name being derived from the word ‘Mozambique’ and meaning ‘a type of Mozambique Coloured’. There are the ‘Basters’ or Bastards- half-breeds, mainly found in South West Africa/Namibia and in parts of the Northern Cape Province. The Mauritian Coloureds, most of them light-skinned and long-haired, are chiefly based in South Africa’s Natal Province and choose English as their language, unlike their counterparts in the Transvaal and the Cape who mostly speak Afrikaans. Perhaps the most obnoxious obnoxious Awful, very unpleasant. and the most hated label is ‘Other Coloureds’ – referring to ‘mixtures’ that possibly arose out of relationships outside the white group, such as the offspring of African and Chinese, African and Indian, and African and all the other aforementioned Coloured varieties.

Where did it all begin for me?

We stood in a long queue inside a state-owned courtyard waiting our turns to be classified or reclassified either as ‘pure’ Coloureds or as ‘Natives’ – as Africans were officially dubbed dubbed Named. in the forties and fifties. As a flower or tree would be classified into a certain species, so were the Coloureds grouped and regrouped, until they stopped believing they were just humans. For it is in the nature of men to create pigeon-holes. When I left the classroom at the Vrededorp High School, in the company of several of my standard eight classmates one day in August 1955, it was by order of an Act of the white parliament which decreed that all ‘Coloureds’ or even so-called Coloureds were to report to specially set up reclassification reclassification A judgement about whether people should be moved from one race group to another or not. courts to determine our ‘race’.

glistened To shine or glow.

William ‘Lovely Boy’ Bokera, a very yellow-skinned boy, who like me, had an African mother and a coloured father, tugged nervously at my jacket sleeve. The sweat of the fear of the unknown glistened on his forehead like oil.

‘Hey Don, are we going to tell the fokking Boere that our old ladies are darkies? I mean it’s not their bloody business who our damned mothers are; I mean we didn’t tell our toejappes (fathers) to grab darkie ousies (girls).’ I didn’t answer. There’s no way I was going to reply; one never knew who else was in the yard, keenly watching and recording speeches and events.

‘Hey, are you listening, bra? Are we going to tune tune Tell. them about our old ladies?’

‘I don’t know, Lovely Boy but it shouldn’t really matter because as I understand it you are what your father is, and in our cases, both our fathers are half-white and they have not been classified Native or African,’ I said, trying to allay allay To get rid of fear, doubt, suspicion, anger, etc. his fears.

‘Never! In this country you are what they think you should be, what they want you to be, and all that through the stroke of a pen. Since this reclassification shit, everyone is changing his surname.’

I nodded. This conversion of surnames was widespread. Sonnyboy Letlapa (‘Stone’ in Tswana), who was a fair-skinned Morolong, changed his surname to ‘Kleppers’ derived from the Afrikaans word ‘klippe’ (stones). Direct adaptations were ‘Maybee’ from ‘Mabe’; ‘Radbee’ from ‘Radebe’; ‘Cummings’ from ‘Khumalo’ and ‘McKwenna’ from ‘Mokwena’; the list is endless.

Some people actually adopted our surname. Once a policeman called at our home to inform us that one of our relations – one B Mattera – had been arrested for a pass offence. I hurried down thinking it was my father because his initials were B G. I saw a man called Basil inside the prison courtyard. I enquired whether he had seen my father because our information was that a B Mattera had been arrested. He smiled sheepishly, sheepishly Embarrassed. almost remorsefully, and said: ‘I hope you don’t mind Donny, but I gave them my name as Basil Mattera.’ I shook my head. ‘You do recall,’ he added, ‘that I used to work for your folks. Please tell that Boer over there I’m your uncle!’ His voice fell to a pleading whisper.

‘Meneer,’ I said to the obese obese Very overweight. desk sergeant, ‘that man over there is my uncle. He’s a Coloured; can you please release him?’

The policeman shook with derisive derisive Mocking, insulting or making fun of. bursts of laughter. ‘That kaffir your uncle? Don’t tickle my arse. Since when do Hotnots slice open their ears? Just look at that blerry houtkop houtkop Houtkop and kaffir are extremely racist words for black people. (wooden head); a real fokken Zulu with only painted wooden plugs missing in his ears. If he’s your uncle, then I was the blerry midwife!’ His laughter rang through my ears, into my stomach and fell deep into the soles of my feet.

Lovely Boy Bokera’s father, who was also known as ‘Bokeer’, had won respect as an outstanding golfer and a man who had a way with women. His wife Nana was a simple, buxom buxom Full-bosomed; healthy, plump, cheerful, and lively. Tswana who had not lost her rural, traditional traits nor ever hid or was ashamed of her blackness. This, apparently, was the cause of Lovely Boy’s uneasiness – that he might, like hundreds before him, be reclassified African. The queue was shortening; some men emerged in tears and others smiling. A tear and a smile; out of one ‘race’ and into another by the stroke of a pen and through the scrutinising scrutinising Inspecting closely and critically. eyes of Afrikaner officialdom. I shuddered at the thought of being made a ‘Native’ overnight, without having a say in the matter although, because of my close connection with my Tswana relatives, I felt no shame about being an African.

Suddenly a group of men in front of Lovely Boy and I moved out of the queue to speak to a man at the exit point of the reclassification office. Amid quiet whispers and the shaking of heads, I detected concern on their faces. One by one they moved towards the huge gates, all of them touching their hair.

I approached one of them. ‘Excuse me big man, what’s happening? Why are you guys all pulling your hair like that and where are you going?’

‘To the barber-shop, boy; we’re all dashing out for a haircut!’


Pointing over his shoulder with his thumb, he said: ‘Those bastards in there, those dogs are using matchsticks and pens to classify us!’

‘Matchsticks? Pens?’

‘Yes’ came the quick response. ‘Matchsticks and fokken pens, which they run through our hair! And when the pen or matchstick gets stuck, the Boers shout: “Go to Room 47 and get a pass!” Like we were fokken natives. What the hell do they take us for?’

His words stung everyone into silence. People began looking at each other’s heads. Those with soft, straight hair smiled confidently and one or two actually combed their heavily-greased hair to the open envy of some of the more curly-haired, who were now vanishing from the queue. A very dark-skinned man smiled quietly. He had shaved off all his hair: matchsticks and pens cannot get stuck on a bald head. A tear or a smile on the way to pain and humiliation, or to the joy and satisfaction of being a ‘real’ Coloured.

Lovely Boy emerged a ‘pure’ Coloured. He had passed all the tests without a single hitch: he could recite both the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 in Afrikaans; exclaimed ‘eina!’ (ouch) and not ‘aychoo’ as a ‘native’ would when inflicted with sudden pain. Lovely Boy was a few inches taller as he walked through the heavy gates. My turn came.

‘And what do you want to be, boetie?’ said Meneer Lotter, my classifier. ‘A Hotnot or an Italian? I see your whole family has already been issued with identity numbers; yours must be in the batch.’ There had been no matchsticks or pens; no blood tests, no scrutiny. I was the Italian’s son, and the last-born of the family. If the Boers believed I was my grandpa’s son, I was not going to be the one to shatter that belief. My number was 331-591697C; the ‘C’ stood for ‘Coloured’ but the birth certificate read ‘Mixed’ in the column denoting race. It was the first I knew of a race called ‘Mixed’. Mixed, though, was far far better than Native, and being called ‘Kaffir’, as many reclassified Coloureds were to discover. Heart-rending stories, filled with biting humiliation and anguish, anguish Pain and suffering. absurd Ridiculous. daily made newspaper headlines in the late fifties. Some victims of the reclassification trauma chose suicide to bail them out of their absurd misery. Whole and stable families were shattered overnight as brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were ripped apart by the cruel laws of race separation. Relentless pass raids netted in hundreds of ‘borderline’ cases; those bordering Relentless Intense and without an end or break. sordid Immoral or disgusting. between African and Coloured, not between white and Coloured. The latter species would be dealt with only later as the ‘Other Coloured’ grouping.

In one sordid instance of reclassification insanity in 1955 Thomas Wentzel an elderly man in Noordgesig, Johannesburg, was also reclassified ‘Native’ when he approached the authorities to ask why his son William had been reclassified. Old man Wentzel had fought against the Germans in two wars, a coloured soldier in the Cape Coloured Corps.

The dark- and fair-skinned fair Light. Gabriel brothers were split; one to ‘pure’ and the other to ‘native’ pigeon-holes and never the twain twain Two. to meet in the same township or the same house. This was the Law.

A comb once stuck in the hair of a man called Maynard in a reclassification office in 1955, and presto, a ‘Native’ was born. His cranium, cranium Skull. indisputable Unquestionable. the shape of his nose and lips and forehead, were minutely scrutinised and compared against the government-approved human charts and genetic diagrams; their authenticity, power and finality were indisputable.

And where there is power there is corruption. The two are inseparable, like twins joined in the womb. There was no price too high nor gift too expensive to bend and twist laws that forced people to live lies and demean demean To lower in dignity or honour. themselves in the land of their fathers. Men and women hid in fear of pass arrests, tasting for once a small measure of the anguish and the shame that were part of the lives of the millions of Africans throughout the country.

And, as the law of the white man would have it, many of these unfortunate creations of God – in a way creations of the god Apartheid – have accepted the categorisations without any real protest. Into this group called ‘Coloured’, this cultureless genetic enigma, enigma Mystery. was I classified ‘for the purposes of the South African Population Register’. But in their heart of hearts the Boers know this is only one of the many offerings they make at the altar of their god.

With the stroke of a pen, my Africanness and the acquired Italian tradition of my paternal grandfather were obliterated. obliterated Destroyed, done away with. pedigreed Marked. scorn Contempt, disdain or disrespect. Apartheid decided my race and my destiny on that dusty August day of 1955 in a government courtyard, where men stood in long queues to be branded and pedigreed with the hot iron of humiliation and scorn. Second-class citizens with a second-class future and destiny; South Africa’s dirt-heap race; or so the people were made to see themselves.


  1. Mattera describes Coloured people as being quite divided about whether to identify with white people or black people. What do you think the reasons for this division were?
  2. How did the people in the story try to avoid being classified as African? Why would they have done this?
  3. What point is Mattera making when he points out that many ‘Cape Coloureds’ had blue or green eyes and blonde hair? Why would this have been an uncomfortable fact for an Apartheid supporter?
  4. There were many different categories of ‘Coloureds’. Were these real divisions or were they created? Did ordinary people (like Mattera) always fit neatly into ‘Coloured’ or African categories?
  5. How did racial classification work as a divide and rule tactic? How did it turn groups of people oppressed by Apartheid against one another?
  6. The extract says that classification determined not only a person’s race but also their destiny. What are some of the ways mentioned here that Apartheid (and specifically race classification) affected people’s lives and families?