Born in Western Native Township (now Westbury), Johannesburg, South Africa, Mattera grew up in Sophiatown, at that time a vibrant centre of South African culture.
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.