Hero’s welcome for Nat Nakasa


20 August 2014

He called himself a “native of nowhere”. But on Tuesday, 49 years after his death in exile in New York, the remains of anti-apartheid writer and journalist Nat Nakasa were given a hero’s homecoming welcome at King Shaka International Airport outside Durban.

“Today marks the reunification of Nat Nakasa with his people,” Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa told the large gathering, which included government and political party representatives and retired journalists.

“We are proud to say to the world Nat Nakasa has returned to his ancestral land not as a native of nowhere, but as a true South African patriot, an African, and as a citizen of the world.”

Buried near Malcolm X

Mthethwa was at the head of a delegation including family members that travelled to the United States last week, first to visit Nakasa’s gravesite at Ferncliff cemetery in upstate New York, where he was buried a few metres away from human rights activist Malcolm X, with whom he had become friends and who died only months before he did.

Following the exhumation of Nakasa’s remains on Friday, a moving memorial service was held at Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York.

“The last few days offered us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and impact of Nat Nakasa’s life,” Mthethwa said on Tuesday, standing on a podium beside the flag-draped coffin bearing Nakasa’s remains.

“This is a life that has touched many people in a variety of ways. There is no doubt in our mind that Nakasa was a complex figure, an articulate journalist and a highly gifted writer. In fact he was a man who defined his time though his lived experiences and writings.”

Mthethwa reminded his audience that the repatriation of Nakasa’s body and spirit to his ancestral land came just over a month after the passing away of his friend, colleague and fellow writer, Nadine Gordimer – the last person to see him off at the then Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg when, 50 years ago, he left the country on a one-way ticket.

A pioneer in South African journalism

Nakasa was born in Chesterville outside Durban in 1937. He worked for the isiZulu newspaper ILanga Lase Natal before moving to Johannesburg to join Drum magazine, joining a long line of famous Drum writers that included Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi and Casey Motsisi.

He also worked for the Golden City Post, and was the first black columnist to write for the Rand Daily Mail, providing a black perspective for the newspaper’s predominantly white readership.

In 1963 he founded The Classic, the first black-owned literary journal in South Africa.

Death in exile

He was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in 1964 to study journalism at Harvard College in the US. However, the 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.

Nakasa soon found that racism existed in America as well, albeit in a more subtle form. He did not like New York and soon moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spent his time at Harvard steeped in the sombre business of education, battling with isolation and homesickness.

He 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 any more, and when I can’t laugh, I can’t write.”

On 14 July 1965, Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa plummeted from a seventh-storey window on Central Park West and 102nd Street in Manhattan. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Knickerbocker Hospital in Harlem, having suffered multiple fractures and internal injuries.

The apartheid government would not allow his body to return home, so South African musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, New York residents at the time, and photographer Peter Magubane, raised money from South African exiles to have Nakasa interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.

Hero’s return

“Today Nakasa returns to a South Africa that is remarkably different from the one that he left 50 years ago,” Mthethwa said. “He would be pleased to know that this year we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the freedom that he fought for so courageously.”

As part of a progamme celebrating Nakasa’s life and legacy, an exhibition will run at the Oral History Museum in Durban for the rest of the year.

The Department of Arts and Culture has also partnered with Drum magazine and the SA National Editors’ Forum in running the Nat Nakasa Essay Competition for second-year university journalism students, with three journalism internships as prizes.

And a series of debates, panel discussions and public lectures will take place in the week leading up to Nakasa’s final reburial at Heroes’ Acre in Chesterville, Durban on 13 September.

SAinfo reporter