Nat Nakasa: A native of South Africa

2014-09-14 15:00

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Many South Africans have been moved and inspired by the repatriation of the remains of Nat Nakasa, and his reburial in Durban yesterday. It has been a poignant homecoming, and a timely reminder of the suffering and isolation of exile.

But Nakasa’s reburial would not have happened without the efforts of an exceptional American named Gail Gerhart. She not only campaigned for Nakasa’s return, but has devoted much of her life to documenting and preserving the history of resistance to apartheid. Nakasa’s reburial is also a moment to reflect on Gerhart’s contribution.

Gerhart met Nakasa as an undergraduate student at Harvard in 1965, where they were both taking a course on the sociology of Africa.

“I was very shocked when I heard of Nat’s death in 1965. A few years later, I got together with Sheila Cingo, a close friend of Nakasa, in Johannesburg, where I was doing my dissertation research.

“Sheila wrote down the name of the cemetery and plot number where Nat was buried in New York. I slipped that little piece of paper into a copy of The World of Nat Nakasa, which I had recently bought,” recalls Gerhart.

Gerhart’s interest in African politics and resistance grew throughout the 1960s. In 1963, she took a year off from her studies to join a Harvard student organisation called Project Tanganyika. The student volunteers taught in schools in east Africa.

“I taught in Dar es Salaam [Tanzania]. This was just a few years after Sharpeville, and the city was swarming with South African exiles. At the end of my year in Dar, I hitched to Cape Town with some of the other volunteers and travelled around South Africa.”

She later married John Gerhart, a member of that group, who was also deeply interested in Africa. Over the years, Gail and John became increasingly committed to African development, and especially the struggle against apartheid.

John was employed by the Ford Foundation, where he worked for 29 years. Gail completed her PhD in public law and government at Columbia in 1974. During this period, John was posted to several African cities, including Nairobi, Gaborone and Cairo. Gail took up academic positions in all of these cities, continuing her work on South Africa.

Gail’s first major contribution to South African history was her book Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology, which was published in the late 1970s. During her research for this book, she taped the longest interview with Steve Biko ever recorded.

But she is best known for her involvement in the monumental series called From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990.

From Protest to Challenge has been enormously influential in South African resistance historiography and provides a starting point for any researcher working on South African resistance politics.

Aside from the wide-ranging documents (such as trial material, pamphlets, transcripts of speeches and letters), these collections include a vast number of transcribed interviews with political activists, from the high profile

to the rank and file.

They do not give undue emphasis to the Charterist tradition: they pay scrupulous attention to Pan-Africanism, the black consciousness movement, independent trade unions, white extra-parliamentary groups and church organisations. And in spite of her personal connections to political figures, Gerhart has remained fiercely independent throughout.

Between 1985 and 1992, Gail and John lived in New York. By then, their lives were deeply linked to South Africa, and their apartment became a home for South African activists. In 1993, John was asked to open the Ford Foundation’s first office in South Africa, and the family moved to Joburg. Their years in the city were deeply productive.

In 1998, John became president of the American University in Cairo and they moved north. Though Gail now lives in New York, she has maintained strong connections to South Africa.

She recounts: “Fast-forward to 2010. An old friend from Project Tanganyika sent me a copy of a thesis by an undergraduate at Duke University on the life of Nat Nakasa. The student was Ryan Brown, who was subsequently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to turn her thesis into a book [A Native of Nowhere: the Life of Nat Nakasa]. When Ryan came to my place for lunch one day in New York, I took The World of Nat Nakasa off my bookshelf and the little piece of paper with the details of his gravesite fell out.

“I somehow felt this was a message to me to quit just being an academic and to do something to bring Nat home.”

Gerhart started working on the legalities and logistics, and raising support for the idea. Through Brown, she made contact with Nakasa’s family, who strongly supported the initiative. The process began to gain momentum.

“At this stage, a friend introduced me to Siphiwo Mahala, a senior official in the department of arts and culture. He embraced the idea and garnered support from the director-general and minister, and the KwaZulu-Natal government. [They] visited New York and agreed to take on the project.”

And so, yesterday, Nat Nakasa was reburied in South Africa.

Over the years, Gerhart has been tirelessly committed to South African history. In doing so, she has helped us all ensure that Nat Nakasa once again has a place to call home.

Potenza is curator of exhibitions and education at the Apartheid Museum in Joburg. Glaser is associate professor of history at Wits University

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