Nakasa, a native of nowhere, is home
Durban - In 1997 Mathatha Tsedu stood at Nat Nakasa's graveside at Ferncliff Cemetery in New York. "I will do whatever I can to bring Nat's body back home," he vowed.
On Tuesday, 17 years later, Tsedu, with the help of Nakasa’s sister Gladys, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and two governments delivered on his promise.
Nakasa, one of the legendary Drum journalists, was awarded the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1963. He agonised whether he should take up the prestigious scholarship. Nakasa wasn’t scared of leaving; he was scared of not coming back. The apartheid government had refused to give him a passport, which meant that if he left he’d become a non-South African.
Nakasa decided to go.
In his Rand Daily Mail column before he left he wrote: “Some time next week, with my exit permit in my bag, I shall cross the borders of the Republic and immediately part company with my South African citizenship. I shall be doing what some of my friends have called, ‘taking a grave step’. For my part, there is nothing grave about it. You needn’t even be brave to take the ‘step’. It is enough to be young, reckless and ready to squander and gamble your youth away. You may, I dare say, even find the whole business exciting.
“According to reliable sources, I shall be classed as a prohibited immigrant if I ever try to return to South Africa. What this means is that self-confessed Europeans are in a position to declare me, an African, a prohibited immigrant, bang on African soil. Nothing intrigues me more.”
The column was titled A Native of Nowhere. A year after arriving in the US, 28-year-old Nakasa was found dead. A stateless and broken young man, he had apparently jumped off a building in New York.
“It was devastating to see such a bright young man dying in such a sad way so far from home,” Bra Joe Thloloe, a veteran journalist who had once worked with Nakasa, said this week. “First The World reported he had died in a car accident. The next day it reported that his death was a possible suicide.”
Thloloe met Nakasa at Drum. “He was one of the young Drum writers. In spite of his age, he was very impressive. He had boyish looks and spoke very carefully. Today you would say he had a Model C accent. He drank moderately. Not like us. We’d go to the shebeen and drink until it was lights out for us. He’d leave after one brandy and Coke. He was different in that sense, but he was part of the Drum group; he was a rebel. He refused to be part of the apartheid system. He just ignored it. If the law said black people couldn’t live in Hillbrow, he moved to Hillbrow. If the law said a black person couldn’t make a pass at a white person – he would do just that.”
Nakasa wrote news, short stories and poetry; he wrote what he believed, said Thloloe. “One particular story was about a fringe country, which was an island with no colour bar. This fringe country existed where people refused to obey apartheid. Nat lived in that fringe country.”
In the introduction of The World of Nat Nakasa, which contains a selection of his work, Nadine Gordimer writes: “(Nakasa) was a new kind of man in South Africa – he accepted without question and with easy dignity and natural pride his Africanness, and he took equally for granted that his identity as a man among men, a human among fellow humans, could not be legislated out of existence even by all the apartheid laws in the statute book.”
Thloloe left journalism to study and sent Nakasa a story for The Classic, a magazine Nakasa had founded with Gordimer.
“A while later I contacted him and said: ‘Nat, what’s happened to my story?’ He went through it with me word for word. He was well read and well versed in literature and I was amazed at his criticism. I didn’t do the things he suggested and the story was never published. That was the last time I saw him.”
Tsedu never met Nakasa, but was inspired by him to become a journalist. “I grew up in a very rural area – there was hardly any stuff to read. At some point I came across The World of Nat Nakasa. I read it over and over. It intrigued me. I was struck by his beautiful style.”
Tsedu, who is the executive director of Sanef, became a journalist and in 1997 – 33 years after Nakasa’s fellowship – he too became a Nieman fellow. “I went to the Nieman headquarters and pulled Nat’s file. I sat there and read it to understand his life. He wrote while he was in Tanzania about how he wouldn’t be able to go home.”
Nakasa was in Tanzania, waiting for a Tanzanian passport because the Americans would not let him into their country without a passport.
“He met Malik Al-Shabazz, more popularly known as Malcolm X, in Tanzania. Nat had this idea that he would be a free man when he arrived in America, but Malcolm X disabused him of the notion that America was all Hollywood and freedom.”
Tsedu decided to visit Nakasa’s grave. “My wife and two young children drove to New York. It was here that I realised that Nat was buried near Malcolm X. In my mind and in my heart I thought if I could do anything to fulfil his wish to come back home I would.”
It wasn’t an easy legal process because it involved governments.
“We didn’t have the resources,” said Tsedu. “We’d push and then we’d hit a problem and the process would be put in abeyance. Then we’d get moving again but we’d encounter a hiccup.
According to Tsedu, the commitment by Sanef in conjunction with Nieman SA and Print Media South Africa to have the annual Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism helped keep Nakasa’s name alive.
“But it was his sister, Mam Gladys, who more than anyone else never gave up. Every year she would ask: ‘When is my brother coming back?’ She spoke to then KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize at an award ceremony he attended. He promised that his office would pick it up. When the government put recourses on the table we were able to get things rolling.”
At the beginning of this year the Supreme Court of New York granted permission for Nakasa’s body to be exhumed and repatriated.
Thloloe, who won the Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism in 2012, said he had mixed emotions when Nakasa’s body arrived in South Africa on Tuesday. “I was happy that he came back but I was sad that he came back dead. I was angry that we – South Africans – could do this to ourselves – but I was also consoled that Nat’s life had been vindicated. He had called himself a Native of Nowhere… now he is once again a native of his fatherland.”
Thloloe said that as a journalist Nakasa asked difficult questions even when it was dangerous to do so – and we should remember that.
According to Tsedu, the fact that Nakasa is back is a moment of collective exhalation. “It’s been a sore wound to lose someone that young whose only crime was to better himself through education. He had a choice: his citizenship or knowledge. He chose knowledge – and because of this choice it was impossible for him to come home alive or dead.”
He added that Nakasa’s repatriation also sends a message that we will go to the end of the world to bring our own back home – and that should be a source of pride. “There are thousands of other South Africans lying in shallow, marked, and unmarked graves all over the world who should be brought back home – and Nat’s return holds the promise of their return.”
Standing next to Nakasa’s coffin, which was draped in a South African flag, on Tuesday Tsedu reflected that the police who would have been asking Nakasa for his dompas when he left the country all those years ago were now his pallbearers.
l Nakasa will be reburied in the Heroes Acre in Chesterville on September 12.