South Africa’s Great Moment: Nat Nakasa To Be Reburied At Home

So Nat Nakasa touched down at the Durban International Airport on Tuesday, August 19, 2014; and to a hero’s welcome.

This emotional human episode ended an almost five decade journey to bring the great man’s remains back to his home country, one he dearly loved, South Africa.

Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa better known as Nat Nakasa was a South African short story writer, journalist and editor.

Nakasa is to be reburied on Saturday, September 13, 2014. He was part of the generation which took “Black Journalism” to greater heights. Other prominent names from this era include Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, William Modisane, Todd Matshikiza, Henry Nxumalo, Arthur Maimane, Eskia Mphalele, Peter Magubane among others.

He was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in 1964 to study journalism at Harvard University in the USA.

However, the racist-oppressive apartheid government rejected his application for a passport. As a result, he was forced to leave South Africa on an exit permit which meant that he could not return to the country of his birth.

Nakasa soon found that racism existed in America as well, albeit more subtle. Legend has it that it was no only the White racism he experienced but Black racism as well.

He didn’t like New York and soon moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he spent his time at Harvard steeped in the somber business of education.

Although he learnt a lot, he was isolated and became homesick. He became depressed at being exiled and died after a fall from a high rise building in New York. This death was attributed to suicide but talks of Nakasa being pushed down still vibrate.

Nakasa wrote articles for several newspapers after leaving Harvard, appeared in the television film The Fruit of Fear and was planning to write a biography of Miriam Makeba. But two days before his death he told a friend, I can’t laugh anymore and when I can’t laugh I can’t write.

As it was not possible to bring his body home, he was buried at the Ferncliff cemetery in upstate New York.

A headstone placed by the Nieman Foundation 30 years later simply reads:

Nathaniel Nakasa May 12, 1937 – July 14, 1965. Journalist, Nieman Fellow, South African.

— 1038 (the tombstone number).

The first moves for Nakasa’s remains were made in 1997 and a project was begun in May 2014 to return his body to South Africa. His remains were returned to South Africa on Tuesday 19 August for reburial on Saturday 13 September 2014 near his childhood home in Chesterville, a township outside Durban.

“This will hopefully bring closure to a horrific chapter that has remained a blight in our history for almost 50 years. His homecoming is the restoration of his citizenship and dignity as a human being,” said Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture.“

Other Nakasa works include, The World of Nat Nakasa : selected writings of the late Nat Nakasa / edited by Essop Patel ; with an introduction by Nadine Gordimer, Ravan Press, 1971, ISBN 0-86975-050-X.

Ndazana Nathaniel (Nat) Nakasa was born on 12 May 1937 in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape Province.

Nat was the second of three children of Joseph Nakasa and his wife, Alvina Nakasa. As a child from a working-class family in an impoverished rural area, Nakasa was forced by poverty to leave school in 1954 without matriculating. He moved to Durban where he worked as a reporter for Ilanga newspaper, published in Zulu and English. He later moved to Johannesburg where he joined Post and later Drum magazine. He also freelanced for publications in Germany, Sweden, the USA and Britain.

Nakasa became assistant editor of Drum, and founded the Classic literary magazine and wrote a column for the Rand Daily Mail.

A colleague of Nakasa at the time, well-known journalist Joe Thloloe, says while many journalists of the time were men of the bottle, Nakasa would come to the Classic shebeen where they drank, have his half nip of brandy, and leave. ‘Nat was a natty dresser, he would always be neat while we smelled of booze and were unwashed,’ Thloloe says.

It was after this shebeen that Nakasa named the literary magazine he helped found. Nakasa had a way with words and all who read his work were impressed by his command of the language and his biting criticism of the system of apartheid.

In 1964, Nakasa applied for the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in the USA and was turned down.

When the nominated recipient, Eastern Cape Herald parliamentary correspondent D.K. Prosser, could not go, this became Nakasa’s break and the beginning of his problems. Government refused him a passport.

Nakasa had not expected this. In a letter to the Nieman Foundation curator Dwight Sargent in early 1964, Nakasa wrote: ‘As I have never been active in politics except as a journalist, I expect no difficulty in obtaining a passport from the South African government’. When told he would not get a passport, without even the courtesy of a reason, Nakasa said he was completely bewildered. ‘I can only assume that the government has refused me a passport because some of my writings have opposed apartheid – which is not surprising after the minister of Justice recently stressed that action would be taken against people who opposed apartheid.’

Nakasa took an exit permit which meant he would never be able to get back to his home country. When he eventually arrived in Cambridge, Massachussets two months after the programme had started, after getting travel documents from the Tanzanian government, he settled into his studies. Nakasa’s studies at Harvard included Intellectual History, Social Structure of Modern Africa, History of the American South and Negro History, which he said he had found ‘to have direct relevance to my own preoccupations. I found it possible to draw parallels between the Negro’s exclusion from the mainstream of society and the more vicious degradation of my own people in South Africa’.

Nakasa confessed to a tendency to holler whenever people, mainly White academics who were invited to address Nieman seminars, spoke of the problems of race in detached and intellectual fashion. A story is recorded in the Nieman history of how one day Nakasa had challenged a social psychologist for about two hours, in between shouting and screaming about judging civilizations and ‘how the White man can never really understand what goes on inside a Black man’.

When the programme ended, Nakasa went to New York where he wrote articles for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times. But his mind was in Africa and he was known to brood about home. As it became clear he would never be able to return home, it was claimed that he committed suicide on 14 July 1965 by jumping from a window of a high-rise building. Attempts to bring his body home bore no fruit, and he was buried at the Ferncliff cemetery in upstate New York.

Nakasa’s writings were compiled into a book, The world of Nat Nakasa. He was an influential writer and had an impact on many Black people and writers. The Print Media Association, the South African Nieman Alumni, and the South African National Editors’ Forum have established an annual award for courageous journalism, which is named after him.

The Reviewer

South Africa

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