John Mateer’s first passport photograph, circa 1976

John Mateer’s parents were born in Cape Town, living there until their twenties. From his early childhood, their nostalgia for The Cape was influential on him, even though he was born in the early 70s in Roodepoort, Johannesburg.

In the mid 70s his father took the family to Toronto, Canada, then, suffering ill health, returned two years later to Johannesburg. Shortly before John Mateer was conscripted in the late 80s, he moved with his mother and sisters to Australia. His father received treatment for cancer there, in South Africa and the UK, passing away in Australia not long after they settled there.

On returning to South Africa in 1995, the year after his father’s death, John Mateer started writing the first poems that are presented here. Those poems appeared in the photocopied booklet (ECHO), parts of which were reprinted in Michael Chapman’s The New Century of South African Poetry. Later poems were issued in the booklet Makwerekwere.

From that time on, he commenced travelling as much as he could, usually writing about the people, places and cultures he encountered. In South Africa some of his poems appeared in small magazines, among them Donga, Itch and Bliksem. He was a partcipant in Poetry Africa, where he met many poets from South Africa and overseas, including the late Sandile Dikeni, about whom he wrote a poem.

His poems were also included in the anthology Imagine Africa. In the early 2000s he edited a special “Africa” issue of the US online magazine Slope which included, among many others, Mazisi Kunene, Taban lo Lilong and Antjie Krog. At that time, too, he was in correspondence with Tatamkhulu Africa, finding publication for his poems in the Australian literary journal HEAT.

This selection of poems for Botsotso is drawn from a two hundred and forty page manuscript titled That Nostalgia, a manuscript that was intended to present an overview of twenty one years’ of John Mateer’s work that was about largely about “travel”. Focused on his poems set in various parts of South Africa, the selection here includes poems that describe places elsewhere – Sumatra, Japan, Portugal, Macau, China – where the tensions of Southern Africa and its histories were encountered.

John Mateer’s latest book is That Nostalgia. It is a significantly shorter version of the original mansucript. Recently he edited a special South African issue of the journal Portside, which can be found here:


Few visit here. The floor is dusty, the gate unlocked.

Inside, on the bench, a weathered copy of the Quran.

In the kramat’s dimness there’s pure, fresh space,

as in the Kaabah after the idols were obliterated.

Your grave, the mound, is above ground, coffin-long,

at its head burnt-out incense and a grey, blank stone.

This must be like the cell that held you on Robben Island,

where, listening through walls, you transcribed the sastras,

the dip-darting flight of your script being annunciated doves,

and their speaking-in-tongues an Uncreated Afrikaans.

Outside your tomb, staring at the bright Atlantic,

my thoughts aren’t words, are this listening –

behind me the scrape of the palm’s old fronds,

below the traffic echoing, gusting from the grassed-over quarry,

then, far off, those voices scribed by you,

the squatters’ angry words rising from their encampment,

a shout, from between the quiet shops and empty parking lot.

(But that was not his tomb: a Yemeni,

exiled from Old Batavia and kept in chains for life, lies silent there.)


– a painting by Thomas Wijik (1616-77)

Unlike the other portraits, still-lives, landscapes

and mythological scenes, the painting of the alchemist

is a dark, evasive mirror. You near the small gilded

frame. Inside, the apparatus glints.

Across the murk your head’s shadow is gritty,

layered with black time. Leaning into the picture,

you stare, searching…

Far in the distance, the smoky form of a man.

Among tulip bulbs as expensive as collections

of slaves or entire ships, he imagined

his art could circumvent the age.

Do you see his face?


i.m. Sandile Dikeni

The poet, a New South African, holds his fist out to me.

I extend mine to meet his, our knuckles snug as in a knuckle-duster.

“Welcome home,” he says, swaying his fist back to his chest, his heart.

I do likewise, but feebly, and mutter, “This is strange…”

Earlier he’d told of when they’d razed his grandmother’s house with her inside.

In the interrogation he’d been asked, “What do you think of your comrades now?”

And he had shouted back: “Every revolution has its casualties!”

But when in gaol, alone, he wept for her for the first time.

I look at my hand on the table between us: a pale, grotesque thing.

Why, without reticence, did I press that against his dark fist?


The child’s skull rests on his arm on the doorstep,

his limbs curled up, relaxed, weighing lightly

on the concrete like guilt on the everyday.

He’s foetal, napping in the thin warmth of the winter afternoon.

Last night he would have been up and down Long Street

begging with the Dickensian, “Please Sir.”

And in the coldest hours, after inhaling glue fumes from a crumpled bag,

he would have found sleep with the other runaways and orphans

somewhere out of the wind

under a huddle of limbs, heads and open hands.

As I walk past him he twitches, still fast asleep,

his little hand tensing into a fist,

and his dry blistered mouth opens to the comfort of a thumb.


– early 1980s

The man was walking with him.

Same pace. He was talking. The boy

was unsure, listening to the stranger.

They were striding up from Sea Point,

where the boy had done nothing,

where the other hadn’t found work.

Up Signal Hill, they were climbing

towards the city. The man spoke, friendly.

The boy was staring. Ahead. Ahead.

The man was telling: His uncle was taken

into detention, held without trial,

released after three months, had died.

You know how? They injected him.

That’s so they can die in freedom. That’s

What they do to my people, my friend.”

Lying, the boy said he wasn’t going

that way. At the milkwood garden

overlooking the harbour and one mausoleum.


They wear the faces of Apartheid politicians

in my dream and wordlessly

threaten me… Could be they’ve

fetched the big ants from the graveyard,

dried and mixed them and sent them

to me with their evil spirit. Could be

they awaken and speak through my mouth

using my lungs, sitting bloated in my belly

like fed tapeworms, like eaten tongues.

I speak: I’m vomiting… These surges of bile

tear from beyond me. Their silence shouting

my throat hoarse is the Devil’s voice.


Climbing Bo-Kaap’s cobbled streets,

strolling between houses painted rose, pistachio and sky-blue for tourists,

avoiding the bergies who’re down from the caves, camped on the corners,

I am reliving Grandfather’s poems – they people the streets

with slaves named by the hinterland: Afrikas…

Above the city, as I’m looking back towards the mountain’s blue wall

from this quarter that would have Tatamkhulu in his blindness

remembering the Levant of his childhood,

the muezzin’s on the wind, furtive, and I am distant, quietened:

This is how prison poems must begin, with the uit-mantra.


– a dream

She has full, soft lips and is beautiful.

How he knows she is beautiful who can say?

She may be the image of the Malay bride on the travel-guide’s cover.

But she is faceless, not frightening,

and her bones curve with devotional time.

He is kissing her. They are naked. Then she is singing

in the only African language he can understand.

Her voice is a young woman desiring a child.

She is singing the lullaby or nursery-rhyme with an elusive melody

that he has heard before, years ago, in another dream.

The echoing of her song could undo him if allowed to,

but before he can summon a word they are inaudible again.


after H.I.E. Dhlomo

Valley of a thousand hills,

green as the afterimage of blood!

did you not hear the poet’s izithakazelo

or the professor’s ululating

responsive as the earth under our feet,

as the rocky hills under an echo?

Valley of a thousand hills,

green as the afterimage of blood!

did you not speak when I answered the call

defiant as a black cockatoo

and my mouth opened to what hijacks

sound: the absent, the uprooted?

Valley of a thousand hills,

green as the afterimage of blood!

I will invoke you as the home- and heartland

that isn’t mine, the chasm

of my African being that,

like the Ancestor of Kunene’s poem,

walks tall on the horizon.


He tells them, “My name is Milton.”

He drives the Landrover like a tank.

He watches the rhino with the eyes

of a lover and the elephant with the eyes

of a husband. The poachers set snares.

He collects them. The tourists take photos.

He allows them. His bosses speak siSwati.

He could mock them. It wasn’t he who spoke

the poem of grass that grows for sharp teeth

and rivers that flow for us all. It was he

who stopped the Landrover at the dam’s edge

and asked the foreigners to look for the python.

It was there he told them, “They are always basking here.

That is why the grass is sleeping.”


Across the vast thorny kilometres of semi-desert

other families of elephants could hear this happening.

Could hear the helicopter driving a group of their relatives

into an isolated area. Could hear the confusion

as the young lagged behind. Could hear the mothers encourage

their slowing children despite the foreboding.

They couldn’t hear the dart’s thud leaving the ranger’s gun.

They couldn’t hear their relations drugged unconscious

while the noiseless helicopter sat near like a decoy tsetse fly.

They couldn’t hear the abject transparent silence focused

in the instant before the muffled thunderclap and worming bullet.


And that razor-wire, more than doringdraad

that a giraffe’s black chewing-gum tongue could circumvent without touching,

is invisible, car-jackers, makwerewere everywhere in your head.


They tell me Joburg’s just awful

full of blacks, an African city, dangerous

They tell me Nigerians and Columbians there

are selling cocaine, brewing crack, ruining lives

They tell me there’re also Senegalese having

prayer-meetings and Angolans speaking like Porras and

Mozambicans selling AKs and pistols and

(so-called) Swazi princesses caught in the

act their tenants think is ‘mos flesh’

flesh is yet meat

They tell me Xhosas are slaughtering

the Pondo, They tell me in a foundry

shots ricochet off fire, They tell me they

can hear I live in a place called ‘Aussie’, They tell

me (and I hear them) the playgrounds

are full of children and the sheer faces

of huge blocks of flats have windows like

names all over a war memorial

If flesh is yet meat

are we carnivores, murderers, cannibals?


In Krugersdrop, in my aunt and uncle’s garden

I see the ghostdaemon seen

when I grew like a fingernail and

the dust from minedumps coated our furniture and floor

with forensic yellow

and that man cupped his hand to

his ear,

my voice: (echo).


a photograph by David Goldblatt

The shadows, railings at their backs, nodding off in the bus’ flickering dimness

are processional but stuck in the tunnel of their unending fatigue.

They have arisen long before dawn and will arrive long after dusk,

their lunch hour spent face-down on plush lawn in the sleep of the dead.

Yet they are spectral, lions, in a wasteland of factories, goldmines and evacuated veld,

industrial heroes whose families are no longer awaiting them in the blindness of crowded rooms.

On this bus, between two other drowsy workers, a man, head tilted back, lolling,

trembling with the straining bus’ droning, seems toppling back, shot in the back.


My father’s last years were spent here in this flat in this Afrikaner suburb.

Every day, over the jacarandas, he watched the flight of the sun and videotaped the news.

Every night he paced from room to room hardly noticing all the mirrored walls.

When he wrote us letters they were always only jottings to accompany newspaper clippings

updating us on the country’s politics, statistics, its ‘growing uncertainty’.

In Australia we read them as missives from another, forgotten, world.

During those years each Sunday he would circumambulate his beloved – now fenced-in – lake

and content himself with twice-weekly visits to the factory once his joy, his pride,

where he would be endured like a returned exile, a lost soul.

He couldn’t ever have imagined the speed that is cancer, its ambush,

or he would have sorted out these cupboards, the boxes of slides of his travels,

and he would have cleared the filing cabinet – his reliquary – of documents and family photos

and the hundreds of pages he’d carefully sheared from soft-porn magazines.

Of his life this is all that remains:

a last will and testament; ‘personal effects’; a box of ashes; the family handgun;

and memories absent from this poem.


Being foreign is the democracy that allows the Nigerian,

in all the accoutrements of a gangsta, to address me as brother

and offer a special discount to a nice place where the girls are all foreign

Russian, Brazilian, Australian – and all speak English.

We are, perversely, brothers: of the same continent,

slave and master, ear and mouth,

in the weird dialectic of Shinjuku, this thoroughfare

where crowds blur into clouds.

What tradewinds brought him here? and those girls? and me?

Our common tongue is illusory, necessary, a kind of coin

minted by being stamped on.


– for Ana Paula Tavares

We were walking along the Rua do Arco da Traição,

just below Coimbra University, on our way

to the Botanical Garden deep in conversation about Leopold Senghor

and the vanity of power. “Poor fellow!” we agreed. “Few love

his poems now…” We read our poems under a Morton Bay fig-tree,

and neither of us could ever have imagined that. That weekend

all we discussed were the subtleties of Portuguese cuisine:

tripas à moda do Porto, tarte de amêndoa and the vast empire of bacalhau.

You were an Angolan sister to me, you who are an historian

and poet. In Lisbon, too, we spoke about food, and at the table!

I remember my coconut curry with the white rice, and your chicken

sputtering over a brazier out in the bright Alfama street. You were saying

that when in Durban, strolling along the foreshore, you and a friend

were overheard by a white man whose job was weaving

telephone-wire into baskets, nimbly, like a proper African,

and he’d said: “I can understand your language;

I learnt when I was fighting you people in the war.”

You made no comment, no words of disabuse, were gentle

in your recollecting, just as you had been in asking

directions to the restaurant: “Menina, desculpe…”


Strange for the Poet to meet him here,

in the Capital of the Anglophone Empire,

Roger, this ex-Photographer who had been

in the townships during the Emergency

and in Mozambique during the war, where

he learnt his Portuguese. Here

they’re in a jungle, almost lost in the Ecology

of Everyone. That’s Capital, isn’t it – the Rome

of Apuleius the Magi, worshipper of Isis, or

the later world of Saint Augustine,

that other African? They order dinner

from a Sri Lankan lady who still wears

her sari under the anorak. A selection

of curries on the plate and the Poet has

a flash-back to sitting alone in a tourist restaurant

not far from the conflict-zone in her country

a few months before, having travelled

along roads where a soldier was posted every

five hundred meters, and where, at the ancient Buddhist

cities, beggars appeared in the dusty parking lots,

mothers toting their children,

and he’d gone from one defunct site

of the Buddha’s Tooth Temple to another,

asking the guide why the Tooth was Sovereign,

why there had been wars over the relic.

The guide had surmised that every time

the Dharma was uttered those words

streamed past and purified the Tooth. The Buddha’s

Tooth as Stupa circumambulated by

the Teachings. These Azanians, the Poet

and the ex-Photographer, have their own: Refuge

in Lisbon – where they had been

introduced – with Mandela as their Buddha,

and their Dharma, or the beginnings of,

in The Struggle. “You know,” Roger says,

“It’s really strange to be here. The last time I

was here was to lecture at Goldsmiths. I saw

my name the other day, as ‘Visiting

Professor’. Now I’m a student

working on software for Cape Verdean children!”

He’s been back and forth to Boston,

Cape Verde, returning home to Cape Town;

his wife and children stay in Lisbon.

The Poet is remembering a pasta dinner with them

in their apartment there, their conversation

about the visit the previous week

of a now famous photographer,

and in his mind he’d seen one

of his Works: a man, a cane-cutter, who in

digital vividness was a rural chic,

that illusion. (Later in the evening

the police had arrived to talk

with Roger’s wife. She’d lodged a complaint

that the girls of Elefante Branco, the club

across the road, were having ‘liaisons’

in their apartment building. Roger had said

that one day at a cafe or park, his wife

had met one of those girls,

and the young Brazilian had explained

that she didn’t want to be working

there, that it was a notorious place, infamous

in the Portuguese World, even among

mining engineers in Angola, and her mother

back in Brazil had explicitly

asked her to not end up there.)

The Poet asks Roger if he ever missed

been a photographer. “Not at all.

It was a weapon in the Struggle. The other

day I came across a book, a book

with my photos. It was from those days, those

crazy times, when I was working hard,

drinking and sleeping rough.

I got to know Kylesha, was

interested in the hostel-dwellers. Once

you’re known in a place like

that, and the right people think you’re ok,

you can really see things. So I started documenting

the people living there. It was a whole world,

that hostel, with its own politics based

around the bed. Each bed was

a house, everything circled around

that. It’s strange for me to now see that work

called ‘illustration’, and the difference

between the various editions: On the cover

of the SA book my name is there

with the author’s. On the American it’s not.

Sometimes you can think these things happen

because you’re White…” The Poet’s story

is different: two immigrations, a life of

what used to be called ‘inner-exile’. He

tells Roger that his father kept them moving,

his father couldn’t make up his

mind where they should live. His father’s

last days were spent in Jo’berg after

all. Roger says, “It’s hard to remember

what those days were like now. You can forget

that Apartheid, something so important

in your life, might mean nothing

to other people. A while ago I was

looking at YouTube and I thought I’d

show my son some videos of Mandela, teach

him something about our history. It’s

amazing what you find there! I showed

him the speech from the day of the Release, the video

of him leaving the gates of the prison. You

know, when I was running the museum

on Robben Island he met Madiba?

But you know what really impressed him? Not

all of that or the stories we’d told

him, but when he saw the footage

of the FREE MANDELA concert. Yes!

He said to me, “Gees Dad, that old man

was so famous Wembley Stadium was full of people

wanting him to go free!” He knows

how big Wembley Stadium is: we

watch a lot of soccer.” He laughs and keeps eating,

like an African, a peasant, until his plate

is clean. To the Poet, the memory

of Mandela’s release is of waiting

with his family in front of the TV in their dingy

house in suburban Perth, waiting to see

that man’s face – he’d only ever seen one picture

of the Legend – to see how he had aged, how noble

he might be, and with his parents wondering

why it had all happened just after they’d

left. The Great Man’s image, banned

for almost three decades. Roger: “The thing

about that, having worked all those years as a photographer,

fighting Apartheid with pictures of what was

really going on, is that I didn’t see that

moment, the moment when he slowly walked

out of the prison gates. I was

in Mozambique. The war was still going

on. I didn’t see the first pictures for

a while afterwards because the newspaper

in Maputo couldn’t afford to buy

any syndicated ones. They went

through their files and all they could find was that image

of him as a boxer. You know that famous

one? Well, that’s what was on the front page

of the newspaper in Maputo on the day

he was released. The Judge Albie Sachs

tells the story of how, in those days

during the war, the Mozambicans

were running out of supplies and they

had to choose between making paper for toilet-paper

or newspaper. And they chose newspaper! Actually,

I think it’s just one of his parables. So

I never saw those pictures that everyone else did

till I got back to SA. I remember

sitting in a shack in the shantytown

outside Maputo and listening with a stack

of other people to the event being described on

a little tinny radio.” The Poet remembers

having memoralized the Moment of Emancipation

in a poem: Mandela as a flame, as

the Personification of Justice, as Moses

entering the Promised Land. Though for him

and his family it was no longer the promised

land: they were on their way to

becoming Australian. And he thinks

back to those speeches by Bishop Tutu he’d heard

over the years, on the People in Captivity,

of the Flight from Egypt. Everything

changed on seeing Madiba walk

out into the Glorious Day. Then he’s thinking

back to that Lisbon night when he’d had dinner

with Roger and his family, breaking bread with

them, his own experience of Issac Singer’s story,

where the Writer, visiting the White City, a city

built on seven hills, like Jerusalem,

like Rome, like Macau or Rio,

and the Writer’s constantly reflecting

on the Jews, their plural Exodus. Accumulating

details of their lives, their presence, the tale

ends with him having dinner with a family

who, through their Judaic resemblance

– Was it a Sabat meal? – makes him feel

he’s in an Eternal past. But when the Poet

had left the family’s apartment, going down

the dimly lit stairwell, passing the two hostesses

from Elephante Banco who were leading

a tipsy middle-aged man up to

their studio, he’d had a guilty

moment when he longed to be that man,

one who could lose himself in imageless

bliss among the illusion of Others.


– Macau

“You fuckers kept invading my country,” the Angolan says,

leaning into my face like the reflection of something dead.

I say, “That’s one of the reasons I left my country…”

“Yes, my friend”. His patting me on the back

fortells a joke. The Macanese hostesses watch on.

Behind them, the mirror is alive with a scintillating harbour.


“Gweilo,” he crooned. “Gweilo.”

We were both drunk. The taxi-driver, too.

We’d spent all day on translations, then

went roaming the Foreigners’ District.

He gestured through the window to Tiananmen

Square: “Hakgwei! You expected what?”

From the Forbidden City’s gate a postage-stamp Mao

flew past us and into the rear-view mirror.

I didn’t answer, was nodding off, could hear him

singing in the empty taxi of my skull.

We were in Africa, arms and torsos against

the windows, the car trembling with the passing mob.

Couldn’t tell who they were or if they upheld

small red books or wooden AK47s

or Europeans ideas like pasteis de nata.

Then they were rocking the taxi. No, I was waking.

My translator, an albino anaconda

uncurling over me across the backseat,

hissed with vodka’s forked tongue, his voice

in my ear only. Under my breath I started

my own mantra, like when in the mirror

the Devil’s face had been mine

and I’d chanted forcefully, loud and fast,

from deep within my belly where Tsafendas

had said his sleeping snake was. Mine is here,

asking, “Where are you going now?”

I want to say, Back into the Dream of Revolution,

but don’t want to be that museum curator

beaten by peasants till mute. He’s pointing

at a cenotaph: “One of those steles that obsess you;

Monument to the People’s Heroes. At its face

Mao signed-on, as you say, wrote…”

My eyes are closing again. Another tiny Mao, silent,

accelerated by my mantra, is speeding closer.

Are we circling a massive stupa?

In the flickering dimness, tumbling into a canyon,

I am that boy running across the dark Chengdu intersection,

a blur, small thuds, screech of the stopping black car.

I’d run forward, and a woman, too. Too late – he’d risen,

was running, sprinting into the purified night.

Awake now. My translator is humming a tune,

possibly from his youth, something sentimental

– “The East is Red”? – and his eyes

are closed, or appear to be.