Nat Nakasa was a South African author and journalist, who came to the US to take up a Nieman Fellowship, but in doing so, was forced to take an exit permit, meaning he couldn’t return to South Africa. As a journalist, I knew of Nakasa and his work for the anti-apartheid magazine Drum but when I moved here to New York, where he committed suicide at the age of 28, I became more interested in his story. After almost 50 years, his remains, which have been lying in a grave in Upstate New York, are now on their way home. I covered the story for Eyewitness News, City Press and the Sunday Times. Here is an unedited version of one of the stories I wrote…
Broadway Presbyterian Church in Harlem, New York could have been a place of worship in Kwazulu Natal on Sunday morning, as a memorial for the late author and journalist Nat Nakasa took place – a send-off 49 years in the making. “Se’si nqobile (we have overcome),” sang those gathered in the church – a few blocks away from where the late writer died in 1965, when he jumped from the seventh floor of a friend’s apartment.
Nakasa’s only surviving sister, Gladys Nakasa Maphumelo, flanked by her niece Nombulelo and nephew Thamsanqa, as well as her son Sipho Masondo, attended the memorial, together with the Consul General George Monyemangene, expats such as Felicia Mabuza Suttle, and members of the American community who helped the struggle for freedom from afar, including documentary filmmaker Danny Schecter.
Maphumelo, using a crutch to help her walk, watched as a coffin draped in the South African flag and covered in white roses and orchards, containing Nakasa remains, which were exhumed on Friday, was carried into the church. Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa helped carry the coffin, before addressing the crowd, telling them this is the dignified service Nakasa deserved. “It has taken a culmination of many years of work to bring him back to South Africa,” he said. “And in doing so, we take Nat from being a ‘native of nowhere’ [as he once wrote] back to being a patriotic son of South Africa. In returning him home, we are also declaring apartheid an ideology of nowhere.”
Mthethwa lauded Nakasa’s work in nation-building and social cohesion, saying he was one of the people who helped build a bridge of good relations between South Africa and the US. Nakasa died at the age of 28, in what was ruled a suicide. After taking up a a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, he was not allowed to return to South Africa by order of the apartheid government. Even in his death, bureaucracy and high costs meant he could still not return – until now.
An empty tombstone in Ferncliff Cemetery is all that physically remains of Nakasa’s time in New York. But law professor Harold McDougoll, who was a Nieman Fellow alongside Nakasa in 1964, spoke about his legacy of mentorship that will live on. “Nat was 27, and I was 19, and so I looked up to him greatly,” said McDougoll. “He was one of the most diligent of my teachers,” he said. “He taught me the importance of culture as a source of strength,” he said, sharing memories of listening to Zulu poetry and jazz together.
To those who knew him here, or who found out about him after his death, his legacy will live on, even if it’s not overt. “He taught me about social change, and was a great mentor to me,” McDougoll told the crowd at the church. McDougall says he created a mentorship programme at Howard University, inspired by the guidance he received from Nakasa at a young age, called the Invisible College. “He is the Professor Emeritus of the Invisible College,” McDougoll said.
Matthew Keaney, who wrote his MA thesis on Nakasa in 2010, said he was pleased to see a large space dedicated to an article on the author in the New York Times this past week. “If more people here in the US realized the importance a figure like him plays in our own country’s history, perhaps we would be better off,” said Keaney, referring to the spate of racially-charged events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, this week.
Thembinkosi Ngcobo from the Ethekwini Municipality, who was part of the delegation returning Nakasa’s remains home, thanked the Americans who played a part in fighting for freedom in South Africa, and civil rights in their own country. “There will always be that link between our two countries,” he said.
But for Maphumelo, who is now in her mid-70s and has waited almost 5 decades to lay her brother to rest, this weekend has been a time of great healing. “It’s a miracle this is happening,” she said, upon visiting his gravesite, for the first time ever this week. “Even though I can’t believe this is finally happening, I never stopped praying it would.”