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25 Aug 2014 14:37
To this day, we cannot account for the real manner of Nat Nakasa's death – he committed suicide in 1965, aged 28, in the United States, writes Bennie Bunsee.
It is fitting that Nat Nakasa’s remains are
being brought back home and that he is being given the funeral honours due to
him as one of South Africa’s most promising writers, a talent that was not
allowed to flourish to its fullest extent.
To this day, we cannot account for
the real manner of his death – he committed suicide in 1965, aged 28, in
the United States. It would be a truism to say that the colonial conditions in South
Africa, which made him seek opportunity abroad, were responsible for what
happened to him in exile.
Nakasa was one of many who went into exile,
only to find that exile was another form of blight upon their dreams of promising
For many, the choice was between imprisonment for long terms in Robben
Island or lesser jails, with the threat of torture, persecution, broken
families and careers destroyed.
Nakasa was not heavily involved in activist
politics – or not during the period in which I knew him. Drum crowd,
to which Nakasa initially belonged, and through which he found his way forward
as a journalist and writer, others such as Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi had
also left South Africa, and Arthur Maimane would soon follow suit.
After Sharpeville, when thousands were
rounded up and sent into prison, the brutality of apartheid was clear. One of my
lasting memories is to have seen a group of about six Africans sentenced to
death for the murder of a white person. I was at the time the court reporter for
Golden City Post in Johannesburg. I can’t recall the exact circumstances of
the case, but I do recall the grim atmosphere in the court as the sentence was
passed. Those found guilty were young, still in the prime of life.
Abroad, it was not easy to fit into the
life of foreign countries. Most of those who left had few qualifications and
finding employment was difficult. The South African community in exile was not united,
either politically or through social or cultural organisations. Just about
every other immigrant community had some kind of organisation, but we did not.
The reason for this must be that a British
body, the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), had taken over the solidarity movement
of the apartheid struggle. They also acted as a branch of the ANC and the South
African Communist Party (SACP). It was largely white-controlled, with a staff of
mainly British workers. The Defence and Aid Fund had a similar nature.
It is important to note these factors to
have some understanding of the kind of environment into which exiles went and which
Nakasa would have faced. Whatever the
exiles’ talents, they had little opportunity to find nurture abroad. The
opportunities were not there. We were not economic migrants; we hoped to resume
the struggle from abroad, to get training in armed struggle and return home. But
exile threw up problems we had not anticipated, not least serious problems with
the leaderships of the exile movements.
Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and myself left Durban
about the same time to find our fortunes in Johannesburg.
Drum magazine and the
Golden City Post opened up great opportunities for some black
journalists. I was close to both of them, but more so to Nakasa. We were a bit
like vagabonds in those days, finding our feet in the world of journalism and
literature, a world that interested all of us. Nakasa and Nkosi would often
rock up at my small room late at night looking for a place to stay. When we had
some money, Nakasa and I would help one another out, sometimes with a cinema
Nkosi and I spent a bit of time at the
American Embassy, reading American literature and journals such as
Look. There was no library we could go to. Nkosi would insert naughty pieces of writing into the magazines, sexy but
insulting to white people.
One day Nakasa surprised me. I had been in
Cape Town for a long spell. Back in Johannesburg, I was met by Nakasa at an
Indian restaurant. He arrived in a large white car like a limousine. It took me
aback. Moreover, he told me that he had joined the Liberal Party! I knew some
people involved in that group, but the way politics were developing meant I
could not conceive of belonging to it. Nakasa looked at me a bit guiltily. He had
read my views about that.
In the social situation of the time, there
was no hope for black advancement in any professional field, even in
universities. Only liberal whites could assist us. They had the money and
privileges. They could open some doors. I say this because Nakasa has been accused
of being influenced by white liberals in his opinions. This held a certain
amount of truth, but to get away from the drabness of township life, despite
its buzz, was something we sought.
To some extent, white influence played a
role in Nakasa’s getting a Niemann Fellowship to study in the US, as it probably
did for Nkosi too. The
Drum staff were not much liked by ANC/SACP politicos;
they were accused of being “apolitical” in the organisational sense of the word.
That probably influenced Nakasa’s view that he did not subscribe to any tribe
but was a independent individual in himself, his politics being somewhat closer
to a liberal point of view and embracing a kind of cosmopolitanism.
When Nakasa went to the US, he did experience
culture shock – he had not expected to see such racism in the US. Many of
us who went abroad to European countries, with the idea of the great liberal
traditions in those countries, were shocked at the racism in those countries.
It is difficult to know what was going
through Nakasa’s mind in 1965, the time of his suicide. Nkosi’s view was that Nakasa
was afraid of the streak of madness that ran in his family. Did the sense of
isolation in the US get too much for him? Not knowing when he might be able to
return home must have added to that. Alienation in our new environments beset
many of us in exile, especially black people who found it difficult to get
jobs. Racial discrimination in employment was rife. I was never able to get a
job as a journalist. All I could get was a job as a bus conductor.
Nkosi later returned to South Africa a few
times, and I met him when he did. He was already then lost to South African
politics and life by the years of being away. He tried to write his autobiography
but could not get beyond a few pages. He was drinking heavily, but he still had
a sharp mind and accurately described the situation in the country as a new
form of colonialism in the name of reconciliation. He died in 2010.
Life both at home and in exile took its
toll. Nakasa’s suicide summarises much of what happened in exile. The lives we
led were largely lives of alienation. The burst of talent that
Drum encouraged petered
out in the alienation.
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