After Decades in Exile, a South African Writer’s Remains Will Head Home | By DANIEL MASSEY| AUGUST 8, 2014

Nat Nakasa in Harlem.

Nat Nakasa in Harlem.

On a July morning nearly half a century ago, Nat Nakasa, a black South African living in exile in New York, plummeted from a seventh-story window on Central Park West and 102nd Street in Manhattan, suffering multiple fractures and internal injuries. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Knickerbocker Hospital in Harlem. Mr. Nakasa was 28 years old.

Just 10 months earlier, he had left his home country to take a Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard University. Because he wrote articles the apartheid government abhorred, officials denied him a passport. They offered an exit permit — a one-way ticket out of the country — daring him to renounce his South African citizenship.

“If I shall leave this country and decide not to come back,” he wrote in 1964, “it will be because of a desire to avoid perishing in my own bitterness — a bitterness born of being reduced to a second-class citizen.”

With key leaders of the liberation movement, including Nelson Mandela, sent to prison, and the government cracking down on writers, Mr. Nakasa chose the exit permit. In his final column for The Rand Daily Mail, “A Native of Nowhere,” he wrote of “taking a grave step” and becoming “a stateless person, a wanderer.”

Less than a year later, he was dead.

The apartheid government wouldn’t allow his body to return home, so Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, the South African musicians then living in the New York area, and the photographer Peter Magubane collected funds from South African exiles and buried Mr. Nakasa at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, N.Y., just feet from where Malcolm X had been laid to rest five months earlier.

In the decades since, apartheid fell and Mr. Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. As the country has struggled to heal vast social and economic scars left by minority rule, a reminder of that wretched past remains buried in the soil in New York.

Over the years, journalists and Mr. Nakasa’s family have tried to bring his remains back to South Africa, but bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of funds have stymied them. Now, with the country celebrating its 20th anniversary of freedom, with the 50th anniversary of Mr. Nakasa’s death approaching, and with a 2013 biography generating renewed interest in his story, he is finally headed home.

On Aug. 15, Mr. Nakasa’s remains will be exhumed, and on Aug. 16, government officials and members of the Nakasa family will gather for a public memorial service at Broadway Presbyterian Church on West 114th Street. His remains will then be returned to South Africa for burial in September near his childhood home in Chesterville, a township outside Durban.

“This will hopefully bring closure to a horrific chapter that has remained a blight in our history for almost 50 years,” said Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, who is leading a delegation to New York in the coming week. “His homecoming is the restoration of his citizenship and dignity as a human being.”

Mr. Nakasa was short and skinny, with a boyish, mischievous face. He never finished high school, but became a top writer for South Africa’s most popular black magazine, the first black editor of a South African literary journal and the first black columnist at a leading white newspaper. But the circumstances surrounding his death often overshadow his all-too-brief life. To understand how he wound up crashing to the pavement on the Upper West Side on the morning of July 14, 1965, is to grasp both the cruelty and the absurdity of apartheid.

“Nat is a symbol of what it was like and what it should never, ever be like again,” Joe Thloloe, a former colleague, said in a telephone interview.

Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa was born on May 12, 1937, the second of five children of Alvina, a teacher, and Chamberlain, a typesetter and a freelance writer. His parents, educated at mission schools, were relatively well off for black South Africans, but Alvina fell into a deep depression after the birth of their last child and had to be institutionalized. With his family squeezed financially, Mr. Nakasa never finished high school. After completing the 10th grade, he began to search for work.

His career started at Durban’s Zulu-language newspaper, The Natal Sun, where he worked as a tea boy and then as a reporter. He parlayed that into a job at Drum, a magazine that covered urban black life, and moved to Johannesburg.

“He came, I remember, in the morning with a suitcase and a tennis racket — ye gods, a tennis racket!” his colleague Can Themba wrote in a tribute to Mr. Nakasa published after his death.

Mr. Nakasa didn’t exactly fit in with his hard-charging co-workers, who liked their drinks neat and moved about the townships freely. He preferred his brandy with Coke, and favored the leafy white suburbs over the dusty black townships.

One way Mr. Nakasa could cope with living under apartheid was to laugh about it, to see the dark humor in it. He mocked the system by flouting it.

“Nat engaged in a one-man defiance campaign,” the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile said in a telephone interview. “In spite of what the laws said, in spite of the terrorism of the police, the racism, the mechanisms of control they had in place, he was going to go ahead and live his life the way he wanted to.”

Or, as Mr. Nakasa wrote, “We believed that the best way to live with the colour bar in Johannesburg was to ignore it.”

He dated white women, went to mixed-race parties, and even put an ad in the paper seeking a white maid.

“He was a rainbow man before the rainbow nation existed,” said his sister, Gladys Maphumulo, in a telephone interview. The author Nadine Gordimer wrote in a tribute to Mr. Nakasa that he “belonged not between two worlds, but to both. And in him one could see the hope of one world.”

With a sarcastic, biting tone, Mr. Nakasa tore into the irrationality of apartheid. He wrote of forced removals of blacks from their land, of a woman who hadn’t had milk for her child for three years, and a black man whose son was beaten to death by white farmers.

He profiled Mr. Mandela’s wife, Winnie, writing that “nothing it seems can kill her smile” — not even the banning order that prevented him from quoting her.

“The very conditions under which we live incite us to insubordination,” Mr. Nakasa wrote. “Just being African in itself is almost illegal.”

Apartheid marched on in increasingly draconian fashion. On March 21, 1960, the police gunned down protesters in Sharpeville, killing 69. The government declared the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress illegal organizations. Political activists left the country or went underground, and many writers fled into exile to avoid being banned.

After Sharpeville, The New York Times Magazine commissioned Mr. Nakasa to write about the human toll of apartheid. In the article, published on Sept. 24, 1961, he described the evils of the pass laws (which required black South Africans to carry passbooks when traveling away from home) and the preposterousness of government-sponsored segregation, including signs on government buildings that read, “Dogs and Natives Not Allowed.”

In 1963, the situation grew more desperate when authorities raided a farm and detained leaders of the A.N.C.’s armed wing, including Mr. Mandela. With resisters imprisoned and writers silenced or exiled, Mr. Nakasa was one of the last remaining voices of dissent inside the country.

As Drum struggled to cope with heightened government restrictions, Mr. Nakasa turned to a new project. At one of the mixed-race parties he frequented, he had met John Thompson, known as Jack, an American who led the Farfield Foundation, an organization that claimed to support international cultural endeavors. The two kept in touch. Mr. Thompson suggested that Mr. Nakasa start a literary quarterly featuring black writers. He brought the idea to his Drum colleagues at their favorite bar, the Classic, and during the ninth round of drinks, The Classic magazine was born, Mr. Themba wrote in his tribute to Mr. Nakasa.

With a Farfield grant, Mr. Nakasa founded the publication in 1963, the first in sub-Saharan Africa to largely showcase black writers, and he eventually left Drum to run it full time. The Classic featured the work of stars like Mr. Themba and Es’kia Mphahlele, creating a portrait of black South Africa impossible to find elsewhere.

In 1964, Allister Sparks, editorial page editor of The Rand Daily Mail, the leading white, liberal paper, hired Mr. Nakasa as its first black columnist. But just as he should have been at the pinnacle of his career, the tightening noose of apartheid made it increasingly difficult for him to work and to live.

“Nat Nakasa was a black South African writer,” the poet Mongane Wally Serote wrote in an introduction to Mr. Nakasa’s writings. “That is a bloody combination.”

He was arrested while investigating farm labor conditions, and the daily grind of apartheid began to wear him down. “Bitterness threatens to swallow me,” he wrote in The Daily Mail. “There are moments when I feel like giving in and letting this country go the way of its choice.”

He applied to the Nieman Foundation, which awards yearlong fellowships at Harvard for journalists from around the world, and was accepted. Mr. Thompson’s Farfield Foundation stepped in to help with funding.

As Mr. Nakasa grappled with whether to leave South Africa for good, the government prepared to ban him. He was accused of furthering communism, according to a government file first cited by Heather Acott, who wrote her University of South Africa master’s dissertation on Mr. Nakasa. “He is known everywhere as an enemy of the ruling government,” a police report said. It is unclear if he knew it, but the South African authorities had been following him for years.

In September 1964, before the banning order could be signed, which would have severely restricted his movement and writing for five years, Mr. Nakasa left the country. “He said he was like a child when he first came here, full of excitement of being able to walk freely,” his friend Kathleen Conwell wrote in The Harvard Crimson shortly after his death.

Mr. Nakasa’s first stop in the United States was New York City. He was struck by the drab red brick buildings that “looked more like giant filing cabinets” than homes. Ms. Makeba hosted a welcome gathering, where Mr. Nakasa found a small but tight-knit community of exiles. That weekend, they chatted about politics and went to a club where they listened to Mr. Masekela play tunes from back home.

Mr. Nakasa left for Harvard after the weekend. He would return to New York frequently, both to record his impressions of Harlem for The Times Magazine and to work on a biography of Ms. Makeba.

He arrived believing that America was not riven by racism as South Africa was, recalled Mr. Kgositsile, who lived in New York at the time. “I would try to argue that the U.S. was just bigger and a bit more sophisticated than South Africa and, therefore, more dangerous,” he said. “He would argue that I had been misled by reading too much Richard Wright.”

On assignment in Harlem for The Times Magazine, Mr. Nakasa stayed at the Hotel Theresa. “Harlemites are like the South African refugees who are desperate for a change back home, but remain irrevocably in love with the country,” he wrote in The Times on Feb. 7, 1965.

A Harlem shopkeeper showed him a photo of the burned body of a lynching victim with a crowd of grinning whites looking on. “I had never known such personal fear, not even in South Africa,” Mr. Nakasa told The Harvard Crimson.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Nakasa’s dream of freedom in America to be shattered by reality, especially during a reporting trip to Alabama for The Times Magazine. “There were moments when I wanted to bow to a tenant farmer in Alabama,” he said, according to Ms. Conwell, “because I understood the miracle of his survival. They took away his identity and yet he has survived.”

When Mr. Nakasa returned from Alabama in April 1965, he grew increasingly despondent. An editor at The Times Magazine returned a draft of his article seeking major revisions, but he thought any changes would diminish its honesty. It was never published.

Ryan Brown, who studied Mr. Nakasa’s life while on a Fulbright scholarship, explained that Mr. Nakasa had learned to cope with South Africa’s abnormalities, and how they even helped establish his identity as a writer. But he had no outlet to deal with the racism that confronted him in America, and it confounded him.

He found little respite in the classroom, writing in his final Nieman report that “the racial problem in the world is one that has emotional and personal rather than intellectual implications.” Mr. Nakasa grew increasingly homesick, with his banishment from South Africa troubling him more as time passed, the Nieman fellow and newspaperman Ray Jenkins wrote in an unpublished essay.

“It became very clear toward the end of the year that he recognized he made a horrible mistake by taking this exit visa, and he deeply regretted it,” Mr. Jenkins said in a telephone interview.

When the Nieman fellowship ended at the end of the 1965 academic year, Mr. Nakasa moved to Harlem and found an apartment on Lenox Avenue, near 118th Street. Not much is known about the brief time he spent there. He was unemployed and his visa was about to expire, and his mood continued to sink. Mr. Nakasa had petitioned the government to extend his visa, but he was denied. He informed an immigration official he might head to Canada, and told Mr. Jenkins he hoped to go to Tanzania, start a magazine and smuggle it into South Africa.

He attended small gatherings of exiles at the homes of Ms. Makeba and the musician Jonas Gwangwa, Mr. Kgositsile said. Mr. Magubane, the photographer, recalled in a telephone interview that Mr. Nakasa incessantly walked up a down subway escalator. In July, he sent Mr. Sparks, his Daily Mail editor, two one-line telegrams saying he needed to speak with him right away, but Mr. Sparks had no way of contacting him, he said in an interview for a 1999 documentary.

Mr. Nakasa told a friend, “I can’t laugh anymore, and when I can’t laugh I can’t write.”

Two days later, Mr. Thompson, his benefactor, who was also living in New York, heard Mr. Nakasa was in bad shape and invited him to spend the night at his Central Park West apartment. Over a drink, Mr. Nakasa said he was worried — both about finances and that he was becoming mentally ill like his mother, Mr. Thompson said in the documentary.

Mr. Thompson thought he had succeeded in calming him down, he told the police, but the next morning, shortly after 9, a disturbance in the street awakened him. Mr. Nakasa had plunged out of the window. He “literally died of homesickness,” Mr. Thompson said in The New York Herald Tribune.

The police noted that he “jumped or fell,” and ruled the death a suicide, according to a report first obtained by a George Mason University graduate student. There has been no evidence that it was anything but a suicide. Nearly 50 years later, however, his family and friends cling to other theories, fed by their suspicion of the South African and United States governments.

The roots of their belief lie both in cultural taboos about suicide, and in the unraveling over time of the web in which Mr. Nakasa’s work and life entangled him. The year after he died, newspaper reports revealed that Farfield was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency — part of an effort to combat communism around the world via cultural warfare. Mr. Thompson served as executive director from 1956 through 1965. It is not clear if Mr. Nakasa ever realized the C.I.A.’s role in his work.

Ms. Brown detailed the agency’s interest in Mr. Nakasa in “A Native of Nowhere,” her 2013 biography of him. As the South African government clamped down on his writing because officials thought his words would foster communism, the United States government was funding it because they thought it would stop communism’s spread. The C.I.A. denied Ms. Brown’s request to review Mr. Nakasa’s file, citing national security, she said.

The South Africans continued watching Mr. Nakasa in America, according to documents, along with the F.B.I., which began monitoring him shortly after his arrival. An immigration agent in Boston suggested he would be “of interest” to the bureau, documents declassified at Ms. Brown’s request showed. “It’s important to remember that we as a country were not blameless,” Ms. Brown said in an interview. “Nat Nakasa came to the States and was not welcomed here by our government.”

For his family, questions linger, but more important is that Mr. Nakasa’s remains are coming home. “Whoever did something wrong to Nat or pushed him or killed him, we can’t do anything,” Ms. Maphumulo, his sister, said. “We cannot live on rumors. They cannot raise up Nat.”

The night of her brother’s death is seared in her memory. She remembers a phone call from her brother Moses, breaking the news, and her father’s anguished response. “My father woke up at night and cried, ‘Where’s my son? Where’s my son? I can’t bury my son,’ ” she said. “So we’re very happy that at last the remainders are coming back home.”

New York Times

Menzi Kulati.

#BringBackOurGirls

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