Dashiki Dialogues: In memory of a true rainbow warrior

2012-07-14 13:13

In the northern summer of 1965, a South African scribe and journalist exiled in New York City leapt out of a seventh-floor window to meet his mortal end. His name was Nathaniel Nakasa.

He had worked as a journalist in a tumultuous South Africa.

He was affectionately known as Nat to those who knew him.

The dreadful day when he was taken from us was July 14. This means that yesterday was the 47th anniversary of his passing.

Nakasa came from his native KwaZulu-Natal to a racially segregated but equally electrifying Johannesburg of the 1950s.

This was at the height of the Sophiatown renaissance.

Even in that bedevilled world of apartheid and its attendant indignities and horrors, one gets a sense that Nakasa was at home in the world.

Nadine Gordimer shares an illuminating anecdote in her essays titled One Man Living Through It All.

It was published to accompany an anthology of Nakasa’s writing, titled The World of Nat Nakasa.

She remembers her first impressions of, as she puts it, “a round-faced boy faced with the prospect of being left alone to amuse himself while Lewis Nkosi – another departed giant – and I went off for a private talk. ‘Haven’t you got any records I can play?’ he asked.

 He was not ill at ease, but carried the youthful confidence in his own interests that marked the city-bred.

“Here was someone who would skid through the conventions of white houses as nippily as, a few years earlier, he would weave a bicycle in and out of big cars. When Lewis and I came back, he was stretched full length in a chair, attentive to the music and inoffensively indifferent to our absence and return.”

Later in that same piece, though, Gordimer writes with a touch of tragedy: “I write of him respecting the ultimate despair that took him beyond the understanding of friends, aware that what each of us know of him was only part of what he was, and lived and suffered, and that even when we have put it all together, there will always be something that he kept to himself and died of.”

That despair that she writes of took over Nakasa as he faced the fact of his exile. He was denied a passport that would enable him to go to the US to pursue a Nieman Foundation Scholarship in 1964.

He was forced to take an exit permit, which meant he would then be “a citizen of nowhere”.

The ideological contests mounted around his legacy revolve around whether he was black enough.

Nakasa dreamt of a singular South Africa where Gandhi’s passive resistance in Jozi and the Great Trek were one with Cetshwayo’s frontier wars.

Not the one we describe when we talk of “two economies.”

So he befriended people from across the racial divide when it was an act of protest. His journalism reflected this dream of a united dialogue for people separated from multiple dashikis.

»Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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