The renowned late journalist’s remains will finally be returning to South Africa. Author Siphiwo Mahala reflects on his life and times.
Johannesburg - ‘What happens to the writings of a man when he is dead and gone?” Nat Nakasa asked Essop Patel this troubling question in October 1964. They had a brief meeting in London, where Nakasa was trying to get a visa to travel to the US to take up a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
Nakasa was only 27 at the time and him asking such a question presupposes that he was either a man of great vision or he had a feeling he did not have long to live. In his short but meteoric career as a journalist, he had proved to have a penchant for pushing boundaries.
In spite of not having completed high school, Nakasa delved into the world of journalism and became part of the iconic generation of Drum writers in the 1950s.
He was the first black columnist in The Rand Daily Mail, a popular white liberal newspaper. In 1963, he founded The Classic, South Africa’s first black-owned literary magazine.
Nakasa’s greatest legacy is probably his resolve to create a society where all races lived together in harmony. He believed the “best way to live with the colour bar is to ignore it”.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu aptly described him as “a rainbow man when the rainbow was not allowed”.
His former colleague Joe Thloloe argues: “Nat was ahead of his time, believing in the ideals that we now espouse, a non-racial, non-sexist democratic South Africa in which all are equal before the law.”
Through his column in The Rand Daily Mail, he was able to expose white readers to the lives of their black countrymen.
It was not only through his writing that Nakasa tried to build bridges between races, but also through the network of friendships that he created.
He was determined to live in what he called the “fringe country,” a world that “straddled black and white communities”.
In a recently published biography, A Native of Nowhere: The Life of Nat Nakasa, author Ryan Brown tells a story of how Nakasa, while attending a party organised by Francie Suzman, daughter of anti-apartheid MP Helen Suzman, gave himself a tour of the house. Later, Lewis Nkosi found him sleeping in the main bedroom.
When Nkosi enquired about the reasons for that, Nakasa’s response was that he “wanted to see how the other half lived”.
He derived pleasure from making a mockery of apartheid laws.
He once called the train ticket office and, speaking in a deep English accent, booked himself a first-class ticket.
The first-class compartment was exclusively reserved for whites and they realised only when he came to collect his ticket that a terrible mistake had been made.
Another remarkable incident was when he and his flatmate Nkosi decided to put up an advertisement in a newspaper, looking for a white maid for two black journalists living in Hillbrow. “She must not mind sleeping in,” they said.
This stunt earned them expulsion from the flat.
Nakasa dealt with a delicate matter of racial integration in an understated and nonchalant manner. Apart from his individual approach to collective struggles, the criticism that can be levelled against Nakasa is that his quest for racial integration was pursued at the expense of his cultural identity. He detested exclusionist predispositions to the extent of surrendering it. He declared that he was simply “not a tribal man,” but not being a tribal man does not mean one should be ignorant of certain cultural and historical dynamics.
In an article titled “Was Nat a Black Man Who Lost his Way?”, Obed Kunene shares Nakasa’s desperation to learn more about his own identity. On arrival in the US, Nakasa was often confronted with curious questions from African-Americans who were keen to reclaim their African heritage.
They asked him about King Shaka and the majestic Zulu nation. He felt somewhat inadequate that he knew very little about the history of his own people. To some extent, Americans made him feel not African enough.
He wrote a letter to Kunene, pleading with him to supply him with any relevant material.
“Please do me a favour,” he said. “Send me any book you can find dealing with Zulu history and written by our people, like Mr Dhlomo.”
At this stage, he was getting desperate to fill the gaping cultural identity void in his intellectual outlook. He was a great mind whose intellectual supremacy was set on a hollow cultural foundation.
According to Patel, Nakasa “even refused to sleep in the townships, but he would often be caught by the curfew and shared the tiny room of the watchman in the Drum offices and on occasion, slept on the kitchen floor in Houghton.”
His failure to identify with township life incensed people such as struggle veteran Duma Nokwe.
In A Dream Deferred, Thabo Mbeki’s biography, author Mark Gevisser shares the story of how Mbeki gave Nakasa a lift and they had to drive around because Nakasa didn’t know where he stayed. Nokwe, who was driving with Mbeki, is quoted as saying: “This person no longer belongs here, he doesn’t even know his home.”
In spite of his apparent detachment from his people, Nakasa played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the black and white communities. Nadine Gordimer eloquently argues that “he belonged not between two worlds, but to both”. His dynamic and courageous articles interrogated the race question in South Africa and laid the foundation for a free society.
He grappled with the question of social cohesion way before it was fashionable to do so.
It was not long before he came face to face with the horror of apartheid. When he was invited to take up the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, his application for a passport was declined. This came as an utter surprise to him as he believed he was no threat to the government since he was not a political activist.
In an earlier letter, he had assured the Nieman Foundation that “as I have never been active in politics, except as a journalist, I expect no difficulty in obtaining a passport”.
This was not to be and left him with no option but to take a one-way exit permit, something that would make him a “permanent wanderer”.
In his epic article A Native of Nowhere, he sarcastically explains his identity struggle.
“What this means is that self-confessed Europeans are in a position to declare me, an African, a prohibited immigrant, bang on African soil.”
Brown also reveals that at the time of Nakasa’s departure, a letter had already been drafted to declare him a statutory communist and ban him for a period of five years. The letter was awaiting final approval by BJ Vorster, then minister of justice.
Nakasa first flew to Tanzania, where he was trying to get a visa.
It was there that he met the US civil rights activist Malcolm X, who was on his rediscovery-of-Africa mission. He then went to Zambia, where he stayed with former Drum journalist and music composer Todd Matshikiza.
He eventually went to London, where he finally got a visa to fly directly to the US. In his brief stay in London, he had met Patel, who immortalised him with the publication of a collection of his works titled The World of Nat Nakasa, in 1975.
By the time Nakasa arrived in the US in October 1964, he was left with only five months before the expiry of his visa. He was, however, excited to finally be in the land of dreams and wrote quite glitteringly about the US and its people. In his article Met with Smiles and Questions, he writes that “the American people are a gay, friendly lot. They greeted me with broad, welcome-into-the-fold smiles, which helped undo some of the tension I felt”.
When he later realised that America was not anywhere close to becoming the utopian society he had envisioned, he was so devastated that he became rebellious and extremely radical.
This emotional breakdown is believed to be one of the major factors that led to Nakasa’s ultimate demise. The story goes he was so devastated that his benefactor Jack Thompson was called in to talk to him to calm him down.
Thompson took Nakasa to his flat and after he had calmed down, or so he thought, they drank and went to sleep peacefully.
It wasn’t until the morning that Thompson was woken by a frantic knock on the door.
Nakasa’s fractured body had been found lying cold on the pavement near Central Park.
He had plunged from Thompson’s flat on the seventh floor of the building.
What was found on the street below the flat was not only a heap of fractured bones. It was a fractured dream of a young South African who wanted to make the world a better place.
Nakasa’s death was presumed to be suicide but over the years, there have been a number of revelations that raise different possibilities about his death. The two leading theories are that he simply jumped, the other is that he was pushed.
Looking at the first theory in greater detail, the argument is that he was a troubled soul on the few days leading up to his demise. He grew increasingly frustrated after his US visa expired. The frustration was compounded by his loneliness there as he could not come back home.
The other factor is that he was worried about his mother who had a history of mental illness, something he suspected he could have inherited. In the documentary titled A Native of Nowhere, directed by Lauren Groenewald and broadcast on e.tv in 1999, Thompson asserts that Nakasa had mentioned suicide.
When Nakasa completed his fellowship at Harvard, where there were barely any South Africans that he knew, he was staying in Harlem, New York City, where there was a sprouting community of South African artists and political activists.
The likes of Peter Magubane, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Barbara and Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, as well as Miriam Makeba, many of whom he knew from home, were all resident in New York.
At the time of his death, Nakasa was working on a biography of Makeba.
The other theory is that Nakasa was actually pushed, and in this regard, fingers point to Thompson.
Thompson worked for the Farfield Foundation, described in Brown’s book as a philanthropic organisation “which bankrolled artistic and cultural projects around the world”.
Nakasa was with Lewis Nkosi when he first met Thompson in Johannesburg in 1960. On hearing about the work of this organisation, Nkosi applied and received funding to take up a Nieman Fellowship in the US in September 1961. The Farfield Foundation also funded Nakasa when he established The Classic in 1963. The same organisation funded him to go to Harvard in 1964.
Brown also makes the startling revelation that the Farfield Foundation had links with the CIA.
“But what the organisation did not say, and indeed, what few outside its board of directors knew, was that Farfield received its funding directly from the CIA,” she says.
Nakasa was oblivious of the fact that the Farfield Foundation was a conduit of the CIA.
This substantiates the theory that he may have caught wind of the CIA involvement and started asking questions, which led to him being pushed out of the window.
Thompson may not have physically pushed Nakasa through that window, but his association with the CIA raises questions about the authenticity of their friendship.
The mere realisation that Nakasa was unwittingly associated with the CIA for five years could have driven him to emotional turmoil of extreme proportions.
Only Nakasa knows what happened in Thompson’s flat in the early hours of July 14, 1965.
The best South Africa can do is to cherish the ideals he stood for.
His return 50 years since he was forced from his home soil, and 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, is the fulfilment of his dream.
The gesture also answers his question about what happens to a man’s writing when he is dead.
When great writers die, their words spring into life.
They get inscribed in our collective memory and assume new meanings across ages, ensuring they remain with us and relevant to present-day society.