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In his autobiography Memory Is the Weapon he writes: "Sophiatown also had its beauty; picturesque and intimate like most ghettoes.... Mansions and quaint cottages ... stood side by side with rusty wood-and-iron shacks, locked in a fraternal embrace of filth and felony.... The rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, all knitted together in a colourful fabric that ignored race or class structures." This "multiracial fabric" did not conform to the separatist policies of apartheid and so the suburb was destroyed and the people forcibly removed.
Don Mattera's grandfather was an Italian immigrant who married a Xhosa woman from the eastern Cape. They moved to Johannesburg, where Mattera's father was born. At the time, he was classified as an Italian. Under the apartheid system, Don was classified as a "coloured". This group was the last to be forcibly evicted from Sophiatown; they were taken to the nearby suburbs of Westbury, Newclare and Bosmont. Don is proud of his heritage and considers himself to be Italian.
Mattera was adopted by his grandparents and sent to a Catholic boarding school in Durban. He returned to Johannesburg when he was 14 and then continued his education in Pageview, another suburb that suffered under apartheid when the residents were again forcibly removed during the 1960s.
He then became politically active. As a result of these activities, he was banned from 1973 to 1982 and spent three years under house arrest. He was detained, his house was raided, and he was tortured more than once. During this time, he became a founding member of the Black Consciousness movement and joined the ANC Youth League. He helped form the Union of Black Journalists as well as the Congress of South African Writers. He also joined the National Forum, which was against what it referred to as the "racial exclusivity" of the United Democratic Front.
- Memory is the Weapon, Ravan Press, 1987, ISBN 0-86975-325-8
- Gone with the Twilight: A Story of Sophiatown, Zed Books (1987), ISBN 0-86232-747-4 (published in the USA as Sophiatown: Coming of Age in South Africa)
- The Storyteller, Justified Press, 1989, ISBN 0-947451-16-1
- The Five Magic Pebbles (illustrated by Erica & Andries Maritz), Skotaville, 1992 ISBN 0-947479-71-6
Streetkids, Apartheid in the Court of History, and One Time Brother, which was banned in 1984.
- Azanian Love Song, Justified Press 1994 ISBN 0-947451-29-3.
- (Originally published: Skotaville Publishers, 1983 ISBN 0-620-06628-8)
Mattera has also written a short story called "Afrika Road".
- PEN Award (1983) for Azanian Love Song
- Noma Children's Book Award (1993) for The Five Magic Pebbles
- Steve Biko Prize for his autobiography, Memory is the Weapon
- Honorary PhD in Literature from the University of Natal, Durban
- World Health Organization's Peace Award from the Centre of Violence and Injury Prevention (1997).
- South African Order of the Baobab in Gold for "Excellent contribution to literature, achievement in the field of journalism and striving for democracy and justice in South Africa."
- "Donato Francisco Mattera... Born 30-11-1934", Who's Who South Africa.
- South African History Online.
- Matthew Mokoena, "Conversations With Yesterday: An Evening With Don Mattera", Consciousness Magazine, April 4, 2011.
- "Don Mattera: poet of compassion", official Johannesburg website, 15 October 2002.