Nat Nakasa: Tribute to a gentle scribe

2014-09-14 15:00

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Journalist Nat Nakasa’s remains were reburied in the Heroes Acre cemetery in Chesterville, Durban, yesterday.

At the service, his former friends, journalists, family and politicians bade a final farewell to the man who died in 1965 and was buried in New York. His remains were brought home last month.

Nokuthula Manyathispoke to a few of the people who knew Nakasa as a person, not as a tragic figure. Their anecdotes reveal a man who never ran away from a story.

Peter Magubane

Nat Nakasa was an assassin who never missed the target when he was sent out on assignment.

“Nat used his pen like a gun. Whenever he was sent out on a story, he would do whatever it took to make sure he came back with what the editor had asked for?– and more,” said Magubane, who was a close friend.

The legendary photographer crossed paths with Nakasa when the latter answered an advertisement for “tough and young” journalists at a local newspaper.

“He got the job and started working with us,” said Magubane. His first job was covering the 1956 Treason Trial?–?a daunting assignment for an experienced journalist, never mind a green one.

“Nat got the beating of his life from the police, but he did not run away because he wanted to be a tough journalist.”

The young men did not only connect on their passion for storytelling.

“Nat loved beautiful women. When you said to Nat, ‘Let’s go and do this story,’ he did not ask any questions. He would just go.”

He took this attitude with him to the US. “Shortly after Nat got the Nieman Fellowship, I joined him in New York and we planned to expose apartheid in America.”

They arranged to travel to the state of Alabama to investigate the living conditions of black people there.

But on the morning they were to leave, Magubane woke up to the news that Nakasa had died. “I just don’t know what came into Nat’s head for him to think he should just jump from the floor he was living on. Whether he jumped or was pushed, I just don’t know.”

There were no signs that Nakasa was painfully unhappy and he was “upbeat” about their trip.

“The only strange thing was that on the night he died, he insisted on talking to everyone who was in

the home I was staying in.”

Magubane spent the night with Miriam Makeba at Hugh Masekela’s home. “Hugh was in California, but Miriam and Barbara [Masekela, ANC exile and Hugh’s sister] were there.” They wondered why Nakasa wanted to speak to all of them. When the mystery was solved the following morning, they were shattered.

Hugh Masekela

“I usually talk about people when they are alive,” said Hugh Masekela, as fans tugged at him in a packed lecture hall in Soweto this week. “I don’t like to share experiences about dear friends with people who were not there and who didn’t really know him.”

The South Africa jazz icon became Nakasa’s family when he lived in the US with ex-wife Miriam Makeba.

When Nakasa died, the apartheid government refused to allow his body to return home, so Masekela and Makeba collected money from other South African exiles to give him a decent funeral.

The congregation of about 30 people left from Masekela’s home for the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

“I think the saddest thing was how his life has been hijacked and how he’s been lionised now as an icon of the struggle against apartheid.

“But Nat Nakasa was just one of us. Let his soul rest in peace,” said Masekela.

Joe Thloloe

Young, “pedantic about pronunciation” and “Model C” are words veteran journalist and Press Council director Joe Thloloe uses to describe Nakasa.

“In some ways, he was different from us. We used to think he carried himself like he was white. We used to think he was uppity.”

Thloloe remembers a particularly gruelling line-by-line edit Nakasa subjected him to after he submitted a story to Nakasa’s magazine, The Classic.

At a time when young black journalists were notorious for living by the slogan popularised by Can Themba, “live fast, die young and have a beautiful corpse”, Nakasa chose a different route.

“All we wanted to do was to drink like Can [Themba] and write like Can. We all followed him carelessly into this lifestyle, but Nat had some brakes.”

When the other journalists drank straight brandy, Nakasa mixed his with Coke. While they spent evenings in Soweto, Nakasa spent his in the white suburbs.

“In many ways, he was part of that generation of rebels. He wasn’t rebelling in the same way as us but he was part of the movement. When the law said, ‘don’t make a pass at a white woman’, he would make love to a white woman.” Nakasa preferred reasoning over fighting.

“He wanted to reach out to the other side [to the apartheid government] while we wanted to lash out at the other side,” he said.

Keorapetse Kgositsile

When close friends and acquaintances speak of Nakasa, they all refer to his phlegmatic character: he never really seemed bothered by anything.

But there was one thing, said poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, that made the writer’s skin crawl.

“Nat was allergic to nonsense,” he said, holding back his laughter. “He did not believe there was any authority?–?including the apartheid government?–?that had moral clout over his life.”

He made it his responsibility not to entertain this “nonsense”. Kgositsile, who met Nakasa in the 1960s, said he lived life on his own terms, regardless of restrictions.

He said what drew him to Nakasa was the late writer’s humility.

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