By Bonginkosi ‘Rock’ Zuma
Subsequent to an address by the then Premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Zweli Mkhize, to the South African National Editors Forum during November 2012, opportunities for the repatriation and reburial of Nat Nakasa, journalist, activist and one of the great South Africans, began to surface. In September 2014 the National Department of Arts and Culture, Office of the Premier in KZN and eThekwini Municipality took tremendous pride in welcoming back this son of our city and region, as he had remained far too long in a foreign country.
Before reaching his thirties, Nat Nakasa was already a stalwart of Drum magazine in the company of writers like Henry Nxumalo, Lewis Nkosi, Casey Motsisi and Can Themba. Amazingly too, at a time when it must have been virtually unthinkable, he soon became a regular columnist with a byline in the Rand Daily Mail. This was years before the paper became a hardnosed critic of the reigning political order of the day. And in addition he found the time to establish an influential literary journal, The Classic.
In 1964 Nat received a prestigious Nieman Fellowship, which was the scholarship given to a very select group of American and world journalists to attend whatever courses they chose for an academic year at Harvard University in the United States. Without a valid passport, however, Nakasa couldn’t apply for a US visa (or any other visa, for that matter), let alone depart for Harvard and his Nieman Fellowship. Instead, he left South Africa on a one-way exit permit. Things appear to have gone wrong for Nakasa once he arrived in America. After completing his studies, on 14 July 1965 it was reported that he had jumped to his death from the window of a seventh floor apartment in Manhattan. He was buried in Fern Cliff Cemetery in New York City, close to where Malcolm X had been buried five months earlier.
In the year 2014, nearly 50 years after Nat plunged to his death, the national Department of Arts and Culture, Office of the Premier in KwaZulu-Natal and eThekwini municipality, in association with a group of South African writers and journalists, reached a decision to repatriate Nat’s remains for reburial in his native land, South Africa. This closed the chapter on his being a “native of nowhere”, as he once described himself. The petition to exhume his remains was filed in the New York State Supreme Court and the various parties were now assured that it was possible that he would be reburied in Heroes Acre in Chesterville, KwaZulu-Natal, where he grew up.
The significance of his remains returning to this city, and to the province, is that we have an opportunity to honour this great prophetic voice of non-racialism and radical equality in the place where he was born. In reality Nakasa was not only a dedicated opponent of apartheid and segregation, he also advocated a vision of the future we still aspire to, at a time when the ‘rainbow nation’ was not only unimaginable in practice, but disparaged among his own friends as being a naïve fantasy. He was a courageous person who stood up for what he believed in, not only to his enemies but also to his friends, which is a much more difficult thing to do.
At the service on Saturday 13 September 2014, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa stated that he believed this was a momentous occasion, both culturally and spiritually. He continued tht the day signified healing and a bright new day. He went on to describe Nakasa as a visionary who must be saluted. Upon arrival at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport on 19 August, Nat’s flag-draped casket was led by a procession of Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans and police, followed closely by his family. Nat was hailed an unsung soldier who could finally come home. A week earlier, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa had led a delegation to New York to escort Nat’s exhumed body home. The eThekwini Municipality’s Head of Parks, Recreation and Culture Unit Mr Thembinkosi Ngcobo said, ‘Nat’s writings are still shaping our society so he is forever going to be living because of his writings and teachings to us’. In the build-up to the reburial, various events were held in honour of Nat, including a church service at Chesterville Hall and a lecture at Moses Mabhida Stadium’s Presidential Atrium.
Beyond Nat’s reputation through his work, a national journalism award bearing his name is now given annually to individuals ‘working in the broadcast, online or print media who show exceptional integrity and courage in their work’. Presented by Print Media SA, the SA National Editors’ Forum and the Nieman Society, it is in recognition of Nat’s unique place in the nation’s journalism tradition. At the conception of the idea it was agreed that this annual award should recognise any media practitioner – journalist, editor, manager or owner – who has shown integrity and fearless reporting and has displayed a commitment to serve the people of South Africa through their work as a journalist. The Award is open to all journalists irrespective of whether they serve a community or national newspaper, magazine or an electronic medium (including online publishers). The winner receives R20 000 in prize money and a certificate.