The legacy of Nat Nakasa

I was utterly surprised when my name was read out recently as the 2006 winner of the Nat Nakasa prize for integrity and bravery in journalism. To date, the award has gone to journalists; the idea of an academic getting the glory never occurred to me.

Nor is there any special focus on journalism educators by the three groups behind the award—the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), the Nieman Society of South Africa and the Print Media Association.

In the nature of the award ceremony, which takes place at Sanef’s annual general meeting, you look around and gossip about who the year’s winner could be.

Sometimes there’s an unexplained presence that raises suspicions. But this year, there were no Sanef outsiders, apart from guest speaker Prof Harold MacDougall, an American community rights organiser. He told us how his life as a Harvard student had changed in the 1960s after meeting Nakasa. (From the South African he learnt the appreciative exclamation “Utsho! [You say!]”.

MacDougall was unable to deliver his speech at several moments, choked up as he was by the recall—not least when he spoke of returning to Harvard after an absence to find that “Nat was no longer there”.

The story is that Nakasa had left South Africa on a permanent exit permit (the only way he could take up a Nieman fellowship at Harvard). But the stresses of exile were too much: having become in his own words “a native of nowhere”, the 28-year-old committed suicide in New York in 1965.

A supremely insightful observer who would have turned 69 this year, Nakasa’s journalism spoke across South Africa’s great divides. He avowedly embraced fellow writers with causes to fight for and who could also perceive a common humanity in their stories.

The ranks of Sanef include many worthy candidates for an award in Nakasa’s name. Most of them are senior journalists and editorial people. Those senior educators (mainly middle-aged white South Africans) who are in the forum hold back in deference to their (mixed) colleagues who are, after all, the people on the front line.

In fact, it is not easy being a journalism teacher in Sanef. On the one hand, you feel enormous solidarity with the professionals, and you want to give as much support to them as you can. On the other, as Colombia University president Lee Bollinger has said about his own institution’s famous journalism school, it is also important for journalism educators to keep “a certain distance from the profession itself”.

Media people are often sensitive to crits from those quarters they feel should be helping them, not adding to their pressures. And, when they get unsuitable students from the training sector, this only exacerbates their sense of annoyance.

I have sought to generate graduates who can add value to the media. But I am also the first to admit that it remains an uphill task to match today’s needs of employers with the skills and preferences of tomorrow’s university-educated communicators.

At the same time, I have also been harsh in criticising my media colleagues for tolerating plagiarism, falling prey to politicking, or forfeiting the chance to invent a kind of tabloid journalism that would do the country proud.

I guess this is part of what the judges in the Nakasa competition considered, when they spoke about “bravery”. I’ve even persisted notwithstanding the Sowetan retorting with a double-page spread about “the nutty professor”.

Considered more broadly, therefore, in giving me the Nakasa award the media signalled recognition of the role of those, nutty or not, who are based in higher education. This is a positive development for both institutions.

My personal history, however, amounts less to “bravery and integrity” than simply a belief of what journalism could and should be doing. It is also a function of the South African struggle years, which inspired a lifelong commitment to activism—whether via this column, the academy, media policy, the media environment around the continent more widely, or Sanef itself.

Yet, it is clear that none of this is comparable to the bravery shown by previous winners of this award—editors such as Mathatha Tsedu, and of course Nakasa himself. Nonetheless, it is certainly enormously inspiring to be associated with such figures.

This award brings home, in a very personal way, the lines penned by Nakasa: “My people are South Africans. Mine is the history of the Great Trek. Gandhi’s passive resistance in Johannesburg, the wars of Cetewayo and the dawn raids which gave us the treason trials of 1956. All these are South African things. They are part of me.”

This award is also now a part of me. Yet it is also part of you: countless people, in one way or another, share in seeking to shape the South African story positively.

Therefore my wish is that you, the reader of these words, will also feel encouraged by the annual remembrances of Nat Nakasa—a person whose legacy reminds us of our past and which also takes us forward.

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