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.
Nakasa became assistant editor of Drum, and founded the Classic literary magazine and wrote a column for the Rand Daily Mail. A colleague of Nakasa at the time, well-known journalist Joe Thloloe, says while many journalists of the time were men of the bottle, Nakasa would come to the Classic shebeen where they drank, have his half nip of brandy, and leave. ‘Nat was a natty dresser, he would always be neat while we smelled of booze and were unwashed,’ Thloloe says. It was after this shebeen that Nakasa named the literary magazine he helped found. Nakasa had a way with words and all who read his work were impressed by his command of the language and his biting criticism of the system of apartheid. In 1964, Nakasa applied for the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in the USA and was turned down. When the nominated recipient, Eastern Cape Herald parliamentary correspondent D.K. Prosser, could not go, this became Nakasa’s break and the beginning of his problems. Government refused him a passport. Nakasa had not expected this. In a letter to the Nieman Foundation curator Dwight Sargent in early 1964, Nakasa wrote: ‘As I have never been active in politics except as a journalist, I expect no difficulty in obtaining a passport from the South African government’. When told he would not get a passport, without even the courtesy of a reason, Nakasa said he was completely bewildered. ‘I can only assume that the government has refused me a passport because some of my writings have opposed apartheid – which is surprising after the minister of Justice recently stressed that action would be taken against people who opposed apartheid.’
Nakasa took an exit permit which meant he would never be able to get back to his home country. When he eventually arrived in Cambridge, Massachussets two months after the programme had started, after getting travel documents from the Tanzanian government, he settled into his studies. Nakasa’s studies at Harvard included Intellectual History, Social Structure of Modern Africa, History of the American South and Negro History, which he said he had found ‘to have direct relevance to my own preoccupations. I found it possible to draw parallels between the Negro’s exclusion from the mainstream of society and the more vicious degradation of my own people in South Africa’. Nakasa confessed to a tendency to holler whenever people, mainly White academics who were invited to address Nieman seminars, spoke of the problems of race in detached and intellectual fashion. A story is recorded in the Nieman history of how one day Nakasa had challenged a social psychologist for about two hours, in between shouting and screaming about judging civilizations and ‘how the White man can never really understand what goes on inside a Black man’. When the programme ended, Nakasa went to New York where he wrote articles for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times. But his mind was in Africa and he was known to brood about home. As it became clear he would never be able to return home, he committed suicide on 14 July 1965 by jumping from a window of a high-rise building. Attempts to bring his body home bore no fruit, and he was buried at the Ferncliff cemetery in upstate New York.
A head – stone placed by the Nieman Foundation 30 years later simply reads: Nathaniel Nakasa May 12 1937 – July 14 1965. Journalist, Nieman Fellow, South African. 1038 (the tombstone number). 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. Nakasa died on 14 July 1965 in New York.