Nat Nakasa is home

2014-09-13 00:00

NAT Nakasa’s final journey ends today when his remains are reburied in the ­Heroes’ Acre cemetery in his home town of Chesterville, Durban.

In 1964, after working on Drum magazine and being the Rand Daily Mail’s first black columnist, Nakasa received a prestigious Nieman Fellowship to study journalism at Harvard. Refused a passport by the apartheid authorities, he left the country on an exit-only visa.

Homesick and depressed in the U.S., Nakasa committed suicide in New York on July 14, 1965. His grave in Ferncliff cemetery, alongside such heroes of the American civil rights movement as Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Paul Robeson, remained unmarked until 1995 when a simple headstone was placed there by the Nieman Foundation.

Nakasa’s remains were returned to South Africa in August.

Last night, former press ombudsman Joe Thloloe delivered the inaugural Nat Nakasa Lecture in Durban.

Speaking to Weekend Witness, Thloloe said his last memory of Nakasa was when he went to see him about a story he had submitted to The Classic, but which had not been published. “He went through it with me line by line,” said Thloloe. “He said that was well put but this needed more work. I reflected that though I was studying literature at the University of the North, here was a man who had never studied but understood so much about writing.”

The lecture was followed by a discussion of Nakasa by former friends and colleagues Keorapetse Kgositsile and Peter Magubane.

Today Nakasa’s reburial ceremony will take place at the Durban City Hall, starting at 9 am. The keynote address is expected to be given by President Jacob Zuma. The departure to the grave is scheduled for 12.25 pm and the reburial for 12.45 pm.

My brother, Nat

by Gladys Maphumulo

(nee Nakasa)

NAT was the youngest of my three brothers. In 1957 at the age of 19, he got a job on Durban newspaper Ilanga lase Natal (Natal Sun). In late 1957 Nat moved to Johannesburg and became a reporter on Drum, a weekly magazine read by thousands of Africans. Nat soon became a well-known writer.

In 1961 he was invited to write a feature for the New York Times. Early in 1962 Nat and some friends planned the creation of a literary magazine where African writers could publish fiction and poetry. Nat persuaded Nadine Gordimer to participate because she was already an experienced author.

In 1964, Nat was invited to write a fortnightly column for the Rand Daily Mail.

He was the first African in South Africa to receive this invitation. He called his column “As I See It”.

In April 1964, Nat applied for a Nieman Fellowship – the prestigious award for journalists from around the world. It allowed him to be in residence for a year at Harvard University in the U.S. His application was successful, but the apartheid government refused him a passport. This placed him in a terrible dilemma – to forgo the opportunity or to accept the government’s alternative: an “exit permit” that allowed him to leave South Africa but not to return. He decided, very reluctantly, to take the permit. He arrived in Boston in October 1964 and spent the next eight months at Harvard.

My family never knew much about his experiences there, but we know that he was very homesick. In 1965 we were shocked to learn of Nat’s death by suicide. To this day we do not know what to think about the cause of his death.

His friends in America wanted to send his body home for burial, but we heard that the government refused to allow this. Instead, he was buried near New York City, away from his family. But we know he would have chosen to be buried at home. We thank the government and all who made it possible to bring our dear brother back home.

• Used with permission: Gladys Maphumulo; Local History Museum of eThekwini Municipality and Steering Committee of “Nat Nakasa: Bringing Home a Hero” exhibition.

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