Donato Francisco Mattera was born in Western Native Township, now called Westbury, Johannesburg in 1935. His grandfather was an Italian immigrant who married a Xhosa or Khoisan woman from the Cape. His grandfather then moved to Johannesburg where Mattera's father was born and classified Italian by the authorities. His mother was a Motswana and domestic worker in Johannesburg.

Mattera was raised by his grandparents not his parents. He grew up in the mixed area of Johannesburg called Sophiatown before the apartheid government moved his family to Westbury; an area earmarked for people classified “Coloured” by the government. At the age of eight, his grandmother sent him to study at the St Theresa Catholic Covenant School in Durban. His grandparents were not pleased with the quality of education provided for coloured by the government.

Mattera returned home from boarding school at the age of 14. He continued his secondary studies at Pageview, another suburb of Johannesburg whose residents were forcefully removed. It was during these years that Mattera became involved with gangsterism. He then joined and became the leader of the most notorious gang group called the Vultures. He escaped from death several times. He was stabbed and shot at by rival gang members. At the age of 20, he charged with the murder of a rival gang member and spent time in jail as an awaiting trialist before his acquittal. It was also during this period that he fathered his first child.

It was during the campaign against the removals of Black, Coloured, and Indians from Sophiatown, that Mattera became more aware of the political dimensions of his life. He then joined the African National Congress Youth League and became a political activist. In the early 1970s he, like many others, became involved in the politics of 'Black Consciousness'; he helped to form the Union of Black Journalists, as well as the Congress of South African writers. As a result of his political activities, the South African government from 1973 to 1982 banned him. Three of these years were spent under house arrest. Following this period, he resumed his active life. He became a member of the National Forum, which was against what it referred to as “racial exclusivity” of the United Democratic Front.

Mattera has written poetry and an autobiography, called Memory is the Weapon. He has written plays and children stories. He was awarded the Steve Biko Prize for his autobiography. Mattera has worked as a journalist on The Sunday Times, The Weekly Mail, now Mail & Guardian and The Sowetan. He is a popular motivational speaker and he is often invited to be a Master of Ceremony in different functions. He holds an honorary Doctorate (Dlit) degree in Literature from the University of Natal. He has received fellowships from Sweden and America. He continues to work with street children in the Eldorado community. He is also Muslim. In 31 July 2004, Mattera announced that he was retiring from public performances.

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