Friday Feature

Ndazana Nathaniel Nakasa
Journalist & Author
(1937– 1965)

“As long as the ideas remain unchanged within me, there will always be the possibility that, one day, I shall burst out and say everything that I wish to say in a loud and thunderous voice.” - Nat Nakasa

Ndazana Nathaniel (Nat) Nakasa was born on 12 May 1937 in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape. Nakasa was the second of three children of Joseph Nakasa and his wife, Alvina Nakasa. As a child from a working-class family in an impoverished rural area, Nakasa was forced by poverty to leave school in 1954 without matriculating. He moved to Durban where he worked as a reporter for Ilanga newspaper, published in Zulu and English. He later moved to Johannesburg where he joined Post and later Drum magazine. He also freelanced for publications in Germany, Sweden, the USA and Britain.

After leaving school, aged seventeen he returned to Durban and after many jobs, two friends helped him find a job a year later as a junior reporter at the Ilanga Lase Natal, a Zulu language weekly. After his reporting attracted the attention of Sylvester Stein of the Drum magazine, he joined the magazine in 1957. He and the other journalists writings at the Drum were influenced by the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950 and had to show the effects of Apartheid indirectly on black lives without condemning it directly for fear of being banned from practising journalism.

With the Sharpville Massacre of 1960, the world took an interest in South Africa and so in 1961, he was asked to write an article entitled The Human Meaning of Apartheid for The New York Times. Drum struggled to keep its black writers due to the severe restriction they found themselves in and many went into exile in Europe of America. In 1963, he announced the formation of a quarterly literary magazine called The Classic, a magazine in English for African intellectual writers and poets from any race around Africa.

The first years printing would be funded by Professor John Thompson of the Farfield Foundation, that unknown to Nakasa was funded by the CIA in order to cultivate a pro-American intellectual elite around the world. It first published in June 1963 and would feature writers such as Can Themba, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Casey Motsisi. Doris Lessing and Leopold Senghor would feature in other issues and would later be edited by writer Barney Simon. In 1963, the Publications and Entertainment Act was passed which allowed the South African government broad powers to ban or censor content it deemed unfavourable to the interest of the country, further hindering Nakasa's work as he attempted to stay within the law.

In 1964, Nakasa applied for a Nieman Fellowship, a journalism program at Harvard University out of fear for his future employment prospects in South Africa and was accepted for 1965 intake. At the same time, Allister Sparks, editorial page editor of the white anti-apartheid newspaper the Rand Daily Mail invited Nakasa to write a black perspective column for the paper. On accepting a Nieman Fellowship, Nakasa applied for a passport, but like many other black intellectuals, was refused and would have to accept an exit permit instead which meant relinquishing his citizenship and not being allowed to return to South Africa. Unbeknown to Nakasa, the South African police had been monitoring him since 1959 and were about to issue him with a five-year banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act when left for the United States in October 1964.

Nakasa soon found that racism existed in America as well, albeit more subtly. Nakasa didn't like New York City and soon moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he spent his time at Harvard steeped in the somber business of education. While attending the Nieman Fellowship, he participated in protest meetings against Apartheid at Cambridge, Massachusetts and in Washington DC and unsuccessfully attempted again to write an article for The New York Times.

He completed his Nieman Fellowship at the end of June 1965, by which time he was short of money and his attempted to extend his visa beyond August seemed unsuccessful. Now living in Harlem, he wrote articles for several newspapers after leaving Harvard, appeared in the television film The Fruit of Fear and was planning to write a biography of Miriam Makeba. But two days before his death he told a friend, “I can't laugh anymore and when I can't laugh I can't write”. Nakasa seemed homesick, unable to return to South Africa, unsettled and drinking, he became depressed and confessed to friend Nadine Gordimer that he was worried he had inherited his mother’s mental illness. On 14 July 1965, he committed suicide when he jumped from his friend’s New York seven story apartment.

Nakasa's writings were compiled into a book ‘The World of Nat Nakasa’. He was an influential writer and had an impact on many black people and writers. The Print Media Association, the South African Nieman Alumni, and the South African National Editors' Forum have established an annual award for courageous journalism, which is named after him. Its first recipient was Jon Qwelane.

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