Com­ing home

Let’s bring back the bod­ies of all our fallen com­rades who were not al­lowed to live and die on home soil

CityPress - - Voices - Mathatha Tsedu Tsedu is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Sanef

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

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