Let’s bring back the bodies of all our fallen comrades who were not allowed to live and die on home soil
Ndazana Nathaniel “Nat” Nakasa’s remains came home this week, marking the beginning of the end of a long journey of pain caused by a system that saw him as a threat to the domination of the Afrikaner community over everyone else. Ironically, Nakasa, who was declared persona non grata by the apartheid government, returns thanks to two Afrikaner journalists whose involvement has been obscured by the festivities accompanying his return.
In 1993, a then young Afrikaans journalist, Dana Snyman, traced Nakasa’s grave to Ferncliff Cemetery outside New York, and then wrote a story for Beeld newspaper saying so. This was nearly 30 years after Nakasa’s death.
A Nieman fellow of the class of 1993, Tim du Plessis, translated the article into English and sent it to the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University where curator Bill Kovach, after some basic research, mandated that a headstone be placed on the grave. That marker simply read “Nathaniel Nakasa, Journalist, Nieman Fellow, South African”.
It was this act of giving Nat some identity in death that kindled the thoughts in some Nieman fellows about bringing his remains back home. That work, which started in 1997, went through loops of high activity, and at one point involved South Africa-born Massachusetts Judge Margaret Marshall, who offered to do all the legal work needed on the US side. Marshall is a former president of the National Union of SA Students, and was married to a former Nieman fellow Anthony Lewis.
But there were many low points, and the lack of basic resources was the main stumbling block. When the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef ) decided to introduce an award, the debate was heated – why not name it after Henry Nxumalo, Percy Qoboza and many others. The Nat Nakasa Award was first given to Jon Qwelane in 1998.
The breakthrough came two years ago at the awards ceremony in Durban, when Nakasa’s sister Maam Gladys Maphumulo cornered then premier of KwaZulu-Natal Zweli Mkhize and poured her heart out about the need to bring her brother home.
Maam Gladys had attended every Nat Nakasa Award ceremony, and each time her question would be the same: “When is he coming home? When are you bringing him home?” Mkhize listened and decided on the spot that his office would get involved.
And so the work began in earnest. With the government now in, the consulate in New York could also assist. It took numerous applications to various bodies, including the Supreme Court of New York, to get the permit to exhume and repatriate. That decision came in June, thus paving the way for the exhumation last week, and the return of Nakasa’s remains to Mother Africa this week.
I have been involved with the process at various levels since 1997, so watching Maam Gladys on Tuesday as she hobbled with the aid of crutches at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport was an emotional moment. I had stood with my family at Nakasa’s grave at Ferncliff, fist in the air, and pledged to do my bit to ensure he returned home.
I had read his writing in the book, The World of Nat Nakasa, and had perused his Nieman file when I was a fellow in 1997. The longing for home, coupled with the impossibility of such a simple thing, came through quite strongly. Nakasa did not want to be a wandering soul, a citizen of nowhere – he wanted to be back home.
And he is now.
In the return of Nakasa, I saw the other return – that of Saartjie Baartman, who had been turned into a freak for a show in Europe.
We as south Africans, as soon as we were free, confronted the French about this and said that as long as she is out there, we are not free.
She was returned home in 2002 and buried in the Gamtoos River Valley in the Eastern Cape. Diana Ferrus recited her poem in Paris as the remains were packaged and at the burial, telling Baartman: I have come to take you home… I have come to soothe your heavy heart I offer my bosom to your weary soul I will cover your face with the palms of my hands I will run my lips over lines in your neck I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you and I will sing for you for I have come to bring you peace It is the soothing and granting of peace to broken hearts that is at the centre of the significance of Nakasa’s return this week. We rejoice as the journalism fraternity because we refused to forget. We rejoice as a nation because one of us, our own son, has been given back his identity, his citizenship and his dignity.
His return marks a point of collective exhalation for the family, those involved in the logistics of the return, and for the nation as a whole. For his return holds the prospect of the return of so many more, who lie in strange and not so strange lands in marked and unmarked graves. It marks a moment of cheer for us all, knowing that we have gone to the end of the world to bring our own back.
His internment will happen a day after the 37th anniversary of the brutal killing by the same apartheid government of Steve Biko. When Nakasa left the country in 1964, he was politically liberal, but for the regime, if you were black and did not accept your imposed inferiority, you were a communist.
Ryan Brown, in an article about her book A Native of Nowhere, The Life of Nat Nakasa, says records of the justice department at the time showed that banning orders had already been prepared for Nakasa because he was deemed to be associating with communists, and therefore by extension, was one himself.
As we gather on September 13 in Chesterville, another restoration of our people’s humanity will occur. It is part of the painstaking restoration of dignity that we have to do, almost one soul at a time. And it has to be done.
You only have to look at Maam Gladys’ radiant face and smile now to know it is worth doing.
HERO’S WELCOME Members of the SA Police Service receive the coffin carrying Nat Nakasa’s remains this week