Nat Nakasa, 'rest well my brother'

Nat Nakasa's memorial service on September 11 2014 in Chesterville. (Gallo)

Nat Nakasa's memorial service on September 11 2014 in Chesterville. (Gallo)

When legendary journalist Nathaniel “Nat” Ndazana Nakasa fell to his death from a building in New York 50 years ago, his funeral service at the Ferncliff Cemetery – in New York – was a simple affair.

But the memorial service held at Durban’s City Hall on Saturday to honour Nakasa, whose remains were repatriated to South Africa in August, was fit for a dignitary. 

A South African flag hung half mast against a banner bearing a photograph of him, together with the words “Bringing a hero home”, while a choir clad in black sung before a string of politicians, family members and religious leaders addressed an audience of hundreds of people.

Nakasa’s remains lay in a coffin bearing the South African flag and a bouquet of flowers at the service, which was attended by various politicians including KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu and Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa (both whom addressed the gathering), as well as Inkatha Freedom Party president Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

“You’re home now bro,”  said executive director of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) Mathatha Tsedu, who, like Nakasa, was a Nieman Fellow. 

“Nat’s story evokes anger, but today it feels good to be African,” said Tsedu.

“It feels good because today is the physical manifestation of our humanity, ubuntu, which is encapsulated in the care that we give to each other. Today was only possible because the proverbial village joined hands to raise Nat from the far-away lands and bring him home.

“We, who as a nation can sometimes behave like fighting cats, seemingly unable to find a cause to coalesce around, have found our humanity through Nat and with that an ability to work oh so well to bring the intangible closure of open wounds this much closer,” said Tsedu.

“That is because Nat’s short life and his tragic death evoke the best in us. And that comes from a sense ignited by the revulsion that one so young could be treated so cruelly by a system claiming to be custodians of some brand of civilisation merely because he wanted to learn and improve himself.

“And so, Ndazana Nakasa, through our collective effort, deserves the glory of today’s homecoming and eternal afterglow of a thousand tomorrows.”

Sanef collaborated with the South African government to repatriate the journalist’s remains for reburial in South Africa. “Your sister Mama Gladys, your colleagues, your government have brought you home where your heart longed to be; rest well my brother,” said Tsedu.

good story
Tsedu also said that the repatriation bore testament to the fact that the country’s government and media are still able to work together to produce a good story.

Dr S Masondo, a representative of the Nakasa family, told the audience that he did not believe that the 28-year-old had taken his own life. “I met Miriam Makeba in 1993, and she told me that Nat was at her apartment the evening before he died, together with Hugh Masakela and others. He received a phone call and left. 

“The next morning he lay fatally sprawled on the pavement of a street near Central Park,” he said. “I don’t accept that he had committed suicide. I accept that he was a casualty of the Cold War. He may have started asking questions which led him to a tragic death.”

He added that the team responsible for exhuming Nakasa’s remains was unable to cleanse it of the soil from the Ferncliff Cemetery. “They tried but they were unable to – this is strange but it tells us that he is for South Africa and America – he is loved on both sides of the Atlantic.”

A neighbour of the family, Don Mkhwanazi, said that if Nakasa was alive today he would have used his “mighty pen” to protest the fact that hundreds of South African children are unable to access education because their families live in poverty.  

“He would have said it’s unacceptable.” He urged the local government to name a road in Durban after Nakasa.

Nakasa was born in Durban in 1937 and 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.   

According to Mary Papaya, the convener of “Bringing a Hero Home”, the name given to the project to return Nakasa’s remains to South Africa, Nakasa’s sister Gladys Maphumulo had approached the South African government as early as 1994 asking that this be done. “Today is a beautiful recognition of a young man who contributed so much to the media,” she told the Mail & Guardian

“His life is being celebrated and his family is being given the closure they deserve.” 

Nakasa’s remains will be reburied in Heroes Acre Cemetry in Chesterville of which he was a native, later this afternoon.

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