'Welcome back home' - The return of Nat Nakasa
“The native of nowhere is back where he belongs” – this was the overriding sentiment expressed by family members, compatriots and government officials soon after exiled journalist Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa’s remains touched down in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday afternoon.
“Welcome back home – welcome to your fatherland, welcome to our fatherland,” said renowned journalist Joe Thloloe, who once worked with Nakasa, at a media briefing held at the King Shaka International Airport to mark the occasion.
“You are now back with your ancestors on African soil; you are no longer a native of nowhere.” Earlier Nakasa’s coffin – draped in the South African flag – was greeted by an Umkhonto we Sizwe guard of honour at the cargo section of the airport, where various individuals ranging from politicians to family members paid tribute to him.
Nakasa who was born in Durban in 1937, worked for various publications including Drum magazine, the Rand Daily Mail and the Golden City Post, before being awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism at Harvard College in the US in 1964.
When the apartheid government rejected his application for a passport, he left the country on an exit permit, which meant that he could not return. He died after a fall from a high rise building in New York in 1965, and was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery, not far away from the grave of Malcolm X.
‘Native of nowhere’
While the cause of his death was never conclusively established, it is widely speculated that he had committed suicide because he became depressed in exile, and longed to return home. He once wrote that he was a “native of nowhere …a stateless man [and] a permanent wanderer”.
Nakasa’s remains were repatriated from the US, after a South African delegation led by Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa obtained permission to exhume them from the Supreme Court of the State of New York earlier this year.
Mathatha Tsedu, the executive director of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) – which also played a crucial role in the project – described the moment as a “proud” one.
“It vindicates our efforts to keep his name alive over the years with the Nat Nakasa award for Courageous Journalism,” he said. “This shows we will go to end of the world to give peace to South African souls lying in foreign lands.”
Tsedu – also a Nieman fellow – said that one of the first things he did when he arrived at Harvard University was to read what Nakasa had written. “It was touching stuff, of a man who was long for home,” he recalled. “A a few months down the line, I went to the cemetery to see where he was lying and that’s where I realised that his grave was situated just a few metres away from that of Malcom X; the two of them had met in Tanzania.
“On that day as I stood at his grave, I made a pact that when I got home, I was going to try and see if we could get him home, because from everything I read, his body was there, but his heart was here, and he was not happy with that situation.”
Reflect on Nakasa’s work
Thloloe meanwhile advised journalists to reflect on Nakasa’s work and to continue asking difficult questions, even “if it becomes dangerous to ask those questions”.
“I remember Nat speaking at a conference at Wits University in 1963,” according to Thloloe. He said a writer can take his chance: he can either bow to social pressures and conventions and the letter of the law or he could refuse to confine himself and refuse to allow officialdom to regulate his life. The tough will face the consequences he said, and the rest be damned. He made his choice and he faced the consequences like a courageous writer would.”
Mthetwa said he felt proud that the South African government “restored” Nakasa’s citizenship. “I hope that the fulfilment of this dream brings closure to the family.” He added that various debates and writing competitions involving journalism students were being planned ahead of the reburial of the remains, which will take place on September 13 in Heroes’ Acre in Chesterville, Nakasa’s hometown.
Nkasa’s closest surviving relative is his sister Gladys Maphumulo. She told the Mail & Guardian that while she rued the fact that her brother died young, she was extremely happy he was finally being laid to rest in South Africa.
“If he was living today, he would have done a lot,” she said. “He would have been a great man.”
In a previous version of this story, we incorrectly stated that the Sanef statement was read by Mpumelelo Mkhabela. It was in fact read by executive director Mathatha Tsedu.