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Nathaniel Nakasa


By John D. Gerhart

The first time I met Nathaniel Nakasa was at a discussion following a speech by the prominent white South African exile, Ronald Segal. Segal was regally propped in a large, red arm-chair, and Nakasa, a Nieman fellow, was stretched out on the living room rug. The contrast between the two South Africans was startling.

Next to Segal's virulent radicalism and brilliant repartee, punctuated by chopping gestures and arrogant asides, Nakasa's questions and answers were hesitant, painfully searching. When Segal, the white South African, was cynical, Nakasa, the black South African, was sincere. When Segal lashed out in bitterness against the South Africans, Nakasa became more reflective, as if to ask whether South Africa didn't have enough bitterness already.

One might expect Nat Nakasa to be bitter about South Africa. As an African, he has experienced a lifetime of restrictions under a system that discriminates between the races so strictly that Africans are not allowed to touch or handle the South African flag. "However distinguished an African may become," says Nakasa, "there is no hope of escaping his black skin. In fact, outstanding success in business or education often brings increased frustration."

Nakasa's own life is a case in point. An editor of the South African magazine Drum, a weekly columnist, and possibly South Africa's leading African journalist, Nakasa was denied a passport by the South African government which would have enabled him to arrive at the University in time to accept a Nieman Fellowship. Instead, he was given an exit permit, allowing him to come (he arrived two months late), but at the expense of his citizenship. Should he try to return to South Africa, Nakasa faces trial and up to three years' imprisonment--all because of his journalistic success.

"Actually," says Nakasa, "jail would be a new experience for me. I've never been to jail and, if anything, I have qualms about it. In South Africa we live most of our lives outside the law, something inevitable in a country whose legislation affects living with one's own parents, drinking, looking for work, sex, and other human habits. How well you outwit the law contributes to your status in the community. People would think you were crazy if you lived a completely law-abiding life."

Journalism--A Way Out

Going to jail is, for the African, as for the American Negro, a way to assert his identity. Another way is to turn to journalism, a path shown to Nakasa by his father, a compositor and free lance newspaperman in Durban on South Africa's East Coast.

After dropping out of high school for lack of money, Nakasa worked for a year "running messages for white boys," before he got a job making tea in the offices of the local newspaper for Africans, the Natal Sun. Within a month he was writing stories, and after a year he travelled 400 miles north to the golden city of Johannesburg, where he went to work for a major South African paper, the Post, and its sister publication, Drum. In addition to his work there, Nakasa founded a literary quarterly, Crisis (with contributors ranging from Doris Lessing to Leopold Senghor), and started a weekly column for a prestigious white paper, the Rand Daily Mail, the first such column by an African.

"After work I often slept on a desk at the office or stayed overnight when friends invited me to dinner in their homes," he said. "This was not because of a Bohemian bent in me. Far from it. According to the law, 'native' bachelors have to live in hostels in Johannesburg, ten or more strange men to a room. I chose to be a wanderer."

But wandering brought depressing sights. "The newly-recruited 'mine boys' came, scores of men from all over Africa. They walked through town with blankets on their shoulders and loaves of bread under their armpits, to be housed in the hostels of the gold mines. They looked like prisoners to me. I resented them because I felt a responsibility towards them and I was doing nothing about it. They spoiled my image of Johannesburg as the throbbing giant which threw up smooth gangsters, brave politicians and intellectuals who challenged white authority."

The urban African, Nakasa argues, is the person most torn by apartheid. "I am supposed to be a Pondo," wrote Nakasa in one of his last articles before leaving South Africa, "but I don't even know the language of that tribe. I was brought up in a Zulu-speaking home, yet I can no longer think in Zulu because that language cannot cope with the demands of our day. I have never owned an assegai or any of those magnificent Zulu shields. Neither do I propose to wear tribal dress when I go to the U.S. I am just not a tribesman. I am, in escapably, a part of the city slums and the factory machines."

Nakasa is pessimistic about South Africa's chances for racial harmony, or for African majority rule--at least in the forseeable future. "Everything has been done which could have made for understanding," he says, "but the white man's conception of himself is based on hallucinations of superiority. As long as you have this element you destroy the very foundations on which you could build a settlement."

Nakasa also feels that the South African government, backed by American business, is too strong to be overthrown. "What happens in South Africa will be determined by power, not by who's right or wrong." He feels, black South Africans are not really preparing for revolution; they want reforms, not control of the power structure. "The only trouble comes when the government enacts a new law. Then there is protest. But overall, people are too concerned about having a good time and getting along. It will come all right--someday. But not for a long, long time."

On arriving in the U.S. in October, Nakasa at first felt that this country lived up to his highest expectations. "It's a little bewildering to have people treat you like a human being," he told a CRIMSON reporter. "There aren't any policemen around asking you questions, and there aren't any restrictions."

But his illusions were soon shattered. On a trip to Harlem to do an article for the New York Times magazine, he was given a copy of the Civil Rights photo-essay collection, The Movement. One picture particularly caught his attention: it showed the burned body of a Negro lynch-victim lying on a pile of embers while a crowd of grinning whites leered out of the darkness behind. "That picture upset me for weeks," said Nakasa. "I had never known such personal fear, not even in South Africa." Nakasa had planned to travel through the South reporting on Civil Rights activities, but he cancelled his plans.

That was in October. Since then Nakasa has watched the Civil Rights movement in the South closely--though from a safe distance. And though he says he is still afraid, he feels that what is happening in the South is too important to be ignored. "If you are going to be a reporter," he said once, referring to South Africa, "you have to be prepared to see unpleasant things. You have to look at things as they are and report them." On Friday he is leaving town for a few weeks--heading straight south.

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