TRIBUTE | Vuyo Mvoko: Don Mattera made me what I am today

Legendary poet Don Mattera during Jazz legend Johnny Mekoa's funeral service at the Music Academy of Gauteng on July 11, 2017 in Benoni, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu

Legendary poet Don Mattera during Jazz legend Johnny Mekoa’s funeral service at the Music Academy of Gauteng on July 11, 2017 in Benoni, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu

Following Don Mattera’s death on Monday, SABC anchor Vuyo Mvoko reflects on how the former journalist, author and poet got him to where he is now. 

It’s the year of our lord 1992. I’ve just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree pha ezinyoka (as my friend Vukani Mde called the Gqeberha campus of the then Vista University). I see an ad in the Weekly Mail (now Mail & Guardian). They’re looking for journalism interns, and I apply.

Days later, I’m asked to go to Johannesburg for an interview.

The way their system worked was that you paid for your bus/train/taxi ticket, and once you arrive in Johannesburg, the Weekly Mail would reimburse you for both legs of the trip.

I spent the week trying to raise the money for the one leg, but without success.

Weekend hustle 

I had a little side hustle, on weekends, running my next-door neighbour Mpho Heshu’s shebeen (what is kwaNgqoko today). I couldn’t convince my tight-fisted neighbour to give me a loan either.

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The interviews were going to be held on a Saturday. The day before the interviews, our other next-door neighbour, Sis Nowandile, comes knocking: “You have a call from Johannesburg. The gentleman says it’s very important.” (I had left her telephone number on the application form, as we didn’t have one at our home.)

Gentleman on the line: Mhlekazi, this is Don Mattera.

Me: Hello, Mr Mattera.

Him: I hear you’re not coming for tomorrow’s interview?

Me: Yes, Sir, I couldn’t raise the money.

Him: You’ve got to come Mhlekazi. Borrow the money, you know we’ll reimburse you.

Me: I tried Sir.

Him: What a pity… Ok, let me tell you something I shouldn’t tell you. You’re already in – so to speak. We’ve looked at your application. Your portfolio of work speaks for itself. Go rob a bank, or ubamb’ umuntu inkunzi, just get the money and come.

READ | Tribute: Don Mattera, poet extraordinaire, we salute you!

My head started spinning. I couldn’t handle the dissonance. For I had accepted my “reality”. I had consoled myself by saying, ‘the chancer from the bush university, who didn’t have any kind of journalism training anyway, was probably not going to make it against those A students from prestigious Rhodes University who graduated in journalism. My ‘only claim to fame’ – after all – was only starting and editing a campus student newsletter, all part of our mobilisation efforts as the SRC of the time, of which I was the publications officer.

Off to Johannesburg 

Early that evening, and it being a Friday night, shebeen king Mpho was wondering why I hadn’t pitched for work. He comes knocking to enquire. I tell him of my conversation with Bra Don – and the opportunity of a lifetime that I had just ‘lost’. He tells me he thought I was just trying my luck.

“What do we do now?” Mpho asks, “I spent all the money I had to buy stock for the weekend”.

He suggests we go and borrow from Bra George Luse, a former news photographer who was at the time running perhaps the most successful salon in the township of New Brighton.

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Bra George agrees to lend us money for a plane ticket, and the following morning I fly to Johannesburg.

A Weekly Mail driver fetches me from the airport, takes me straight to their offices, to a room full of dozens of fellow applicants.

READ | Renowned author and poet Don Mattera dies, will be remembered as ‘a man of great reputation’

A couple of writing exercises and an interview later, I’m on my way to the Wanderers Taxi Rank to catch a taxi back to Gqeberha.

Three days later, I get a telegram informing me that I had been successful.

The rest, as they say, is history. That call made me what I am today. Salute Bra Don! Salute Bra Zinga! You will forever be in my heart.

– SABC anchor of current affairs show ‘The Watchdog’. Former political editor at SABC and eNCA. 

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