Known for his literary prowess, immaculate dress sense, and “quiet rage” against the apartheid machine, journalist Ndazana Nathaniel Nakasa was a scholar with a wit as sharp as his pen. He took his own life at the young age of 28 while in permanent exile in New York but achieved much in his literary career. He showcased an eminent example of the power of words to speak unspoken truths and illuminate people’s plight. 

Through his reflection on everyday moments – a man arrested for not carrying his pass, the brewing of illegal alcohol in townships after the state-sanctioned prohibitions, fights between rival taxi lords, government buildings and their commonplace racist signs such as “dogs and natives not allowed” – Nat Nakasa illustrated the horror of apartheid rather than simply telling it. In doing so, he found an effective way to circumnavigate the political writing bans, all the while illuminating the ghastly reality of life under the apartheid regime.

A journalistic triumph

Nakasa was born into a working-class family on the outskirts of Durban in 1937. His parents were mission-educated and moved to Durban in the early 1930s to search for better employment opportunities. His father, Chamberlain, was a writer and typist and his mother, Alvina, a teacher. The love of words and education aptly shaped Nkasa’s formative years. Although he was enrolled in a missionary school the apartheid state would soon hinder his ability to complete his studies. In 1953, two years after his enrollment at the Zulu Lutheran High School, the National Party implemented their Bantu Education Act, an insidious piece of legislation known for:

“codifying apartheid in the realm of education and dictating a series of crippling regulations for black mission schools.”

After finishing his Junior Certificate, Nakasa decided to leave school in search of work. Through his friends, the young writers Theo Zindela and Lewis Nkosi, he obtained a position as a junior reporter for Durban’s Zulu weekly publication Ilanga Lase Natal. Showcasing his talent as a reporter, he was soon headhunted by Sylvester Stein of Drum Magazine and moved to Johannesburg. This position marked a shift in his journalistic career and ensured his literary talent would reach a wider audience. Of Drum, and its meaning, Fulbright Researcher Ryan Lenora Brown has written:

Drum was a young player on the black journalistic scene. White-owned but nearly entirely black-written, it came of age with Nakasa’s generation and expressed the escalating anger of young Africans living under apartheid. By the time Nakasa came to Stein’s attention, the magazine was the most widely circulated publication of its kind on the African continent with 240,000 copies of each issue printed. 

While the Suppression of Communism Act sought to prevent any political writings, witty and cutting commentary by Nakasa and his colleagues at Drum, under the guise of journalism, revealed the daily struggles for black South Africans under the repressive system. He also began writing for The Rand Daily and in 1961, Nakasa penned an article for the New York Times entitled The Meaning of Apartheid. His observations were now reaching the global stage, and in turn, the world was starting to understand the true horro of apartheid. In 1963 he founded his own literary magazine, entitled The Classic, named after his local shebeen. It aimed to showcase the work of African writers. He used the term broadly to define anyone who hailed from the continent, regardless of their exile status or race.

The Classic, Volume 1, 1963

One way ticket to New York

 In 1964 Nakasa set his sights on Harvard University and the prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalism. He was initially turned down, but when D.K. Prosser – a parliamentary correspondent of the Herald in the Eastern Cape – could not attend the university, he received his big break. Nakasa applied for a passport but was turned down without reason. Nakasa then realised that an exit permit would be his only way to reach New York, and he obtained travel documentation from the Tanzanian government. This meant that he could never return home, the gravity of which he felt only later, when he was alone in a foreign country and so far from those he loved. Nakasa soon enrolled in courses including Intellectual History and was known to boldly call out white American lecturers when they attempted to speak for black experiences, stating:

“The White man can never really understand what goes on inside a Black man.”

Despite his aptitude for rigorous debate and integration into the US literary scene – writing for a few local publications – the reality of being stuck in the USA became unbearable. A few days before his death, he shared with a friend, “I can’t laugh anymore and when I can’t laugh I can’t write.” He also told fellow writer Nadine Gordimer that he feared he suffered from mental illness as did his mother.

Alone, financially struggling, and depressed, Nakasa died by suicide on the 14th of July 1965, after jumping from the seventh story of his friend’s Harlem high-rise building. Attempts to bring his body home so that he could finally rest in his homeland failed and he was buried in New York’s Ferncliffe Cemetery – a place where he would spend the next five decades before returning home. A headstone was also erected at the Nieman Foundation some 30 years later.

Nieman Foundation

A final resting place

In 2014, Nakasa’s remains were finally brought back home and he was buried in his childhood village of Chesterville, Durban. Minister of Arts and Culture at the time, Nathi Mthethwa, state:

This will hopefully bring closure to a horrific chapter that has remained a blight in our history for almost 50 years. His homecoming is the restoration of his citizenship and dignity as a human being.

Nat Nakasa returned to Durban, August 2014

Abraham Lincon once famously wrote:

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.”

This quote is particularly pertinent when we reflect on the brief, but powerful, life of Nat Nakasa, a true icon who should be remembered for his courage, talent, resistance, and power.

Images courtesy of Drum, The New York Times, WITS Historical Papers, and IOL.