After nearly 50 years, a South African journalist's remains are coming home

South African journalist Nat Nakasa (Photo: Jurgen Schadeberg 1958

South African journalist Nat Nakasa (Photo: Jurgen Schadeberg 1958


Nat Nakasa was a journalist in South Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, and a prominent advocate of black writing in the segregated nation. In 1964 he went to the US on a Nieman Fellowship, knowing the South African government of the time would never let him return.

A year later he was dead and apartheid South Africa refused to let his body come back home. Tomorrow, nearly five decades after his death, Nat Nakasa's remains will be exhumed from upstate New York and returned to his homeland next month.

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Nat Nakasa in 1958 (Photo: Jurgen Schadeberg

Former Fulbright scholar, Ryan Brown, has studied the life of Nat Nakasa, and she has written a book about him titled 'A Native of Nowhere'. She tells As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch that Nat Nakasa was an important journalist in the anti-apartheid struggle.

"He was one of a very small and very brave group of black journalists," she tells Laura, "who basically wrote the first draft of the history of apartheid."

Nakasa was a staff writer for Drum, the most widely circulated magazine in Africa at the time, and was also editor of 'The Classic, South Africa's first black run literary journal. Over time his writings brought Nakasa to the attention of the authorities. Brown has seen the South Africa police file on Nakasa.

"For years and years they followed him around," Brown says to Laura, "and at the very back of this police file is what's called a banning order. When you were banned in apartheid South Africa it meant that no writing could be published under his name and you could not be seen in a gathering of more than two people."

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Nakasa at Harvard (2nd from right) with his other Nieman Fellowship members (Photo: Nieman Foundation/ Ryan Brown)

Nakasa's order was never signed, because in 1964 Nakasa was awarded the prestigious Nieman Fellowship, an award for journalists to study at Harvard University for a year. His decision to go to Harvard was one Nakasa didn't make lightly. The government rejected his application for a passport, so he had one option, an exit permit.

 "What an exit permit allowed," Brown explains to Laura, "it permitted you to leave, to exit the country, so long as you agreed never to come back."

Nakasa did go the U.S. in 1964, but a year after that he was dead.

"The longer he was in the U.S. the more deeply he slipped into this depression," says Brown, "He couldn't return to South Africa, but also by order of the U.S. government, he couldn't stay in the United States. So I think he just felt a huge sense of desperation about his future."

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Nakasa's gravestone in Ferncliff Cemetery in upstate New York (Photo: Reuters)

On July 14th, 1965, Nat Nakasa fell out of the 7th floor window of a friend's apartment. His death was ruled a suicide. But not everyone agreed.

"There have been a number of theories advanced about who might have been involved, the U.S. government, the South African government," Brown tells Laura, "But I think really what all those rumours and conspiracies speak to is just what Nat's death symbolized for people. He was an artist, writer, killed by apartheid."

The South African government at the time refused to allow his body to be returned, but now, nearly half a century after his death, Nakasa's remains will head back to his homeland. His remains will be exhumed on August 15th and then returned to South Africa in September.

Brown's interest in Nakasa's life helped spark this recent effort to have his remains returned home. She says, "Given how symbolic he has always been to South African journalism, it will bring closure to the family and to the country."

Writer Ryan Brown, author of the book about Nat Nakasa 'A Native of Nowhere' (Photo: Ryan Brown) 

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