Nat Nakasa, symbol of exile's loneliness


It must have been hot that July evening 34 years ago in New York when we lost Nat Nakasa.

It is cool, though, and wet, the June day I visit his grave in the verdant hills of Westchester County, an hour's drive north of New York city. I step over it in the rain, almost tripping over strands of long grass splayed across the flat, bronze plaque that sums up the short life of the talented South African writer: Nathaniel Nakasa. May 12 1937 to July 14 1965. Journalist, Nieman Fellow, South African.

Strange how the complex identities of life can be compressed into five words. Until five years ago, there was nothing to mark the place where Nakasa lay buried, far from home. Nothing until Lew Clapp, who worked for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard university, a shy man, large in physique and heart, who died last year, tracked down the grave and organised the plaque.

Nakasa's grave is within sight of Malcolm X's in the Linden section of Ferncliff. But Malcolm X has fine flowers on his grave. They shoot up above the flatness of the other bronze plaques buried in the summer grass.

I am here because, at last, South Africans as a whole - not just journalists, or black journalists or Nieman Fellows - will learn about the loss we suffered. Filmmakers in South Africa had asked me to do some research for a film on Nakasa's life. I am here also because this year I have been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

I have seen the handsome face of the 27-year-old South African in the group pictures. I have read in the files the story of his tragic journey from his homeland to the United States, his time at Harvard where he struggled with his feelings of oppression as a black man, and the depression wrought from exile.

I have seen the note sent to Nieman Fellows on July 15 1965 by the then curator of the Foundation, Dwight Sergeant: "I bring you the unhappy news that Nathaniel Nakasa died yesterday. I talked with John Thompson of the Fairfield Foundation, Nat's sponsor.

"He said Nat was with him, and jumped out of the window. He said he knew Nat was depressed but didn't know how serious it was."

I have spoken to the South African journalist Joe Thloloe, who endured apartheid's victimisation inside the country rather than out, a former Nieman Fellow who visits Harvard and tells me: "We want to bring Nat back home, to bury him at home."

I go to see John Thompson, the last person to see Nakasa alive, in his elegant but modest apartment in Central Park West. It is on the seventh floor and as I look out over Central Park I see the last view that Nakasa must have seen: the grey Empire State building looming out of midtown, and rows of apartment blocks.

New York city had depressed Nakasa. He once wrote that it was like a "modern slum - countless blocks of flats without paint outside".

It depressed him, too, because the question of race oppression and identity never left him alone. Thompson, now in his eighties, recalls how Nakasa had once seen pictures of a southern lynching in an Africanist bookshop in Harlem.

"That truly distressed him," he said. But that night he was more than distressed - he was "disturbed". Thompson had gone to pick him up from his apartment in Harlem after a call from a friend saying Nakasa needed help. He had brought him home, had a couple of drinks with him, made up a bed in the spare room and gone to bed. He was woken by the police knocking on his door. Nakasa's body was sprawled on the sidewalk, seven floors below. He had been in the country a mere 10 months.

The second black South African to be awarded the Nieman (the first was Lewis Nkosi), Nakasa had arrived via what was then Tanganyika on an exit permit. It was a condition of his fellowship he had never expected.

"As I have never been active in politics except as a journalist, I expect no difficulty in obtaining a passport," he wrote to the Nieman Foundation from South Africa. But a trip to what was then the Bantu Affairs commissioner's office "was enough to wipe off any smile that might have been developing on my face".

Nakasa worked on Drum, a magazine well connected to the African intelligentsia of the fifties and sixties. It was the first magazine to interview a younger, angrier Nelson Mandela; it was the nexus of a throbbing, thriving African middle class in Johannesburg.

Good music, good sport and the quest for racial justice were its staples. He had also started a pioneering African literary magazine The Classic.

This is where Nakasa came from. This is what the apartheid government could not stomach, especially as he went against its tribal ideology.

"I am just not a tribesman whether I like it or not," he wrote. "I am inescapably part of the city slums, the factory machines and our beloved shebeens."

"It is rare indeed," wrote Helen Suzman who, along with Nadine Gordimer, recommended him to Harvard, "to find an African who has managed to throw off any racial resentment as has done Mr Nakasa".

Nakasa left the country and waited in Tanganyika. In the US he began work on a biography of Miriam Makeba, making frequent trips from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to New York to interview her.

She sang at his funeral, a small affair the day after he died, "a melancholy song in Zulu about the faults of noble men", recalled an American who was at Harvard.

Nakasa was exercised, always, by the question of identity. In his final Nieman report, he wrote that he was happiest "in those seminars in which human beings were discussed in a context of one human family", but that when it came to racial problems, "I was apt to respond with a scream to disagreeable views, a disastrous tendency in any scholarly pursuit".

Who knows what troubled him most the night he died: his despair over racism, his exile or anguish over his mother who had been mentally ill?

Thompson still suffers guilt about Nakasa's death. He wrote to Lourens van der Post shortly afterwards: "I was responsible for bringing that wonderful boy out of Johannesburg and here to his death."

Today, as we struggle to recover from apartheid, it is as though Nat Nakasa has become the symbol of the loneliness of exile and of the struggle for dignity in racially oppressive societies.

His story reaches across boundaries.

"My secret, perhaps foolish, notion," wrote Lew Clapp in 1993, "is that if enough people know the story of Nat's anguish, someday his remains might be returned home as a symbol that the wrongs of the past are finished forever."


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