The return of Nat Nakasa

By Drum Digital
07 August 2014

He died in exile in 1965 but moves are afoot to bring home the remains of legendary journalist Nat Nakasa.

Early 50 years after his tragic death, Nat Nakasa’s spirit still lives on through his writing, prolific and courageous journalism and reportage. Born Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa in 1937 in the small township of Chesterville near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Nat Nakasa undoubtedly pushed the boundaries in the quest for reconciliation by exposing the folly of apartheid.

A distinguished South African writer and journalist, Nat Nakasa’s reportage was sprinkled with humour and compassion. Sadly, he died young and far from home, in New York City in 1965. Now, however, the Department of Arts and Culture in collaboration with the KZN Premier’s Office, and the eThekwini Municipality, are engaged in efforts to repatriate his remains from the United States.

Among the many articles Nat Nakasa penned, none is more benevolent than his piece titled, It’s Difficult to Decide My Identity: “It often pains me to realise that even my speech cannot really be called me,” he wrote. “I am supposed to be a Pondo, but I don’t even know the language of that tribe. I was brought up in a Zulu-speaking home, my mother being a Zulu.  Yet I can no longer think in Zulu because that language cannot cope with the demands of our day.”

He goes on to argue that, “I am South African like Dr LE Beyers [an arch-racist]. ‘My people’ are South Africans. Mine is the history of the Great Trek, Gandhi’s passive resistance in Johannesburg, the wars of Cetshwayo (sic) and the dawn raids which gave us the treason trials in 1956. All these are South African things. They are part of me. So is Dr Beyers inescapably a part of me.”

It seems like way back then, even before the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Nat Nakasa was already dealing with issues of social cohesion.

Nat Nakasa distinguished himself as a transcendent voice in the world of journalism during the 1950s and early 1960s. On 12 May 2014, he would have turned 77.

He cut his teeth working for the Zulu newspaper ILanga Lase Natal (The Natal Sun) in Durban, before joining DRUM Magazine in Johannesburg. He was part of the iconic pantheon of DRUM journalists, including Henry “Mr DRUM” Nxumalo, Daniel Canodoce “Can” Themba, Lewis Nkosi and Casey “Kid” Motsisi, among many others. He was the first black columnist on The Rand Daily Mail, a white liberal newspaper. In 1963 he founded The Classic, the first black-owned literary journal in South Africa.

In the same year, Nat Nakasa was granted the prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalism at Harvard University in America. The apartheid government denied him a visa, however, and he left South Africa on an exit permit (meaning he could not return) in 1964. In his efforts to obtain a visa in order to travel to America, Nat Nakasa flew to several countries, including Tanzania, where he met American civil rights activist Malcolm X. He finally obtained travel documents in October 1964, but by that time his visa could allow him to stay in America legally for only the next five months.

It was under these circumstances that he described himself as “A Native of Nowhere”.

While in America he wrote for the New York Times and delivered public lectures across America about the South African condition.

Nat Nakasa was found dead on the morning of 14 July 1965, after falling from the seventh floor of a building near Central Park in New York. A community of South African writers, musicians and other exiled activists attended his funeral – he was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery, outside New York City.

The Department of Arts and Culture is now working closely with the KZN government, American authorities and several other stakeholders – including the Nakasa family and key members of the media – to bring Nat Nakasa’s remains home. The objective is to rebury him in the Heroes’ Acre in Chesterville, KZN. A formal application has been made to the Supreme Court of the State of New York for the return of his remains.

I think it would be difficult to say anything about Nat Nakasa without the names of other colleagues automatically popping up from memory. I refer to names like Lewis Nkosi, Casey Motsisi, Stan Motjuwadi, Joe Thloloe, Joe Louw, Joe Gumede, Can Themba, Peter Magubane, Alf Khumalo – the list goes on and on.

Though most of us spent a lot of time together, Nat Nakasa and I hardly ever spent any time discussing anything of mutual concern or interest before I left home and spent three decades in exile. Perhaps it was because Joe Thloloe and I were the newest members of that crazy community.

Remember, at that time journalists went out into the community where things actually happened to get their stories. They did not spend their time at their desks like secretaries, surfing the internet for what news might be breaking. They went to their offices essentially to type their copy.

Nat Nakasa spent a lot of time with Lewis Nkosi and I spent time with Joe Thloloe. Nat Nakasa was very soft-spoken, humble and easy to warm to, but Lewis struck one as the direct opposite at the time.

IT HAS been 49 years since Nat Nakasa’s death, and for some of us, there are questions that remain unanswered. After finding out that his travel to America had been funded by the CIA, did he perhaps confront certain people with uncomfortable questions and demand answers, endangering his life in the process? Did he jump off that building in Central Park West or was he pushed? Despite what we have been told, there was nothing about Nat Nakasa to convince some of us that he had it within him to commit suicide. There is no evidence that he was pushed, but neither is there any convincing evidence that he took his own life.

As a writer, Nat Nakasa lived a productive life in pursuit of some sense of meaning in how people interacted. The reburial of his remains here at home, at Heroes’ Acre, is an occasion to honour and pay our final respects to him.

It also offers us an opportunity to take a retrospective view of the road he travelled in his short life.

By Poet Laureate Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile

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