Durban, South Africa – On the morning of September 13, Gladys Maphumulo rose, put on a black taffeta dress and a wide-brimmed hat, and headed to the funeral of a brother she had not seen in 50 years.
Indeed, no one had – not since the warm July morning in 1965 when the body of a 28-year-old South African journalist named Nat Nakasa was discovered below the open window of a seventh floor apartment near Central Park, just 10 months after he had fled apartheid rule for exile in the United States.
The New York City police report at the time described his death in terse, clinical terms: Fall from height. Multiple fractures and internal injuries. Undetermined circumstances. Pending investigation.
But for those who knew Nakasa, including Maphumulo, the news was electric.
“He was the first in exile with us to die and we all cried,” said South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, a friend of Nakasa’s. “I think part of the crying was the realisation that we might die overseas too.”
Since then, the combination of Nakasa’s dizzying professional success and sudden death have meant he is often pointed to as a symbol of the destructive path apartheid cut through South Africa’s intellectual community. There is even a South African media award given annually in his name.
But more recently, Nakasa has also become a part of another highly politicised movement in contemporary South Africa – to repatriate the bodies of apartheid-era historical figures who died either abroad or far from home, and in doing so quite literally bury the country’s dark past.
“We are called on to respond to what history has imposed on us,” said South African Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa, who led a government delegation to exhume Nakasa’s body in New York last month.
“As we celebrate 20 years of democracy, we have brought closure to the family’s anguish and to the suffering of a nation.”
A long walk home
For Maphumulo, however, that small measure of closure has been a very long time coming.
The thought that she would probably never be able to properly bury her brother is one that has shadowed her across the last five decades. It consumed her during long hours working as a domestic in the suburbia of white South Africa, as she attempted to unspool how and why her brother – a rising star in the South African literary world – had died so young and so far from home.
It followed her too across the frontier of South Africa’s political transition in 1994, which saw many of Nakasa’s fellow exiled intellectuals at last return home to begin lives in a country that now proclaimed to embrace them.
And it stalked her well into the twilight of her own life, as one by one many of those who had known her brother – including his other siblings – quietly passed away, leaving him flickering on the edge of her memory.
“I nearly lost hope,” Maphumulo said. “But some people kept telling me, it can still happen.”
We are called on to respond to what history has imposed on us. As we celebrate 20 years of democracy, we have brought closure to the family's anguish and to the suffering of a nation.
Indeed, after the end of apartheid, several groups made attempts to repatriate the body. But it was not until early this year that a team from the local provincial government and the national Department of Arts and Culture came to Maphumulo and the rest of the family at their home in the Durban township of Umlazi with a promise.
They were going to fly them to New York to exhume Nakasa’s body. And then, together, they were going to bring him home.
There is a photograph of Nat Nakasa taken by photojournalist Peter Magubane in the early 1960s, walking in stride with the president of the African National Congress (ANC) and the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Albert Luthuli. Nakasa cannot be much older than 25 in the photo, but he looks relaxed, not at all unnerved by his proximity to celebrity.
That, say the writer’s friends and colleagues, was Nat – a sharply curious mind unbowed by power.
“When the law said you must not be out in white areas after 10pm, he chose to stay all night,” said Joe Thloloe, a colleague and friend of Nakasa’s. “When the law said no black man shall jump into bed with a white woman, he did anyway.”
Nakasa moved from the eastern coastal city of Durban to Africa’s wealthiest metropolis, Johannesburg, in 1957 at the age of 20, to take up a job as a reporter at Africa’s most widely circulated news magazine, a splashy monthly called Drum.
The job also took him into the heart of what he described as South Africa’s “fringe country”, a multiracial underworld of writers, artists, and intellectuals.
But it was not long before the cracks in that world began to show. As the apartheid government tightened its grip on dissidents in the early 1960s, throwing political leaders like Nelson Mandela in jail for life, journalists too began fleeing the country.
In 1964, Nakasa was awarded a prestigious Nieman journalism Fellowship to study at Harvard University. But the apartheid government had other ideas.
It refused Nakasa a passport, forcing him to leave on a sinister travel document innocuously called an “exit permit” – which allowed him to leave only as long as he promised never to return.
Still, he went for the fellowship. But his time in the US fell flat. Desperately homesick and being tailed by the FBI, Nakasa fell into a foggy depression. Less than 10 months after he arrived in Boston, he jumped from a friend’s apartment in New York.
“We have paid again,” raged South African playwright Athol Fugard, a contemporary of Nakasa’s, just after his death. “Let us make no mistake: This was another installment in the terrible price and South Africa – that profligate spender of human lives – paid it.”
Although the Nakasa family came to the memorial service to mourn a long lost brother and uncle, most of the hundreds who gathered in Durban’s soaring colonial-era city hall had other reasons for attending.
“I am here to celebrate the ANC,” said Zanele Luthuli. She joined a large crowd who came to the memorial service draped in the vivid yellow, black, and green of South Africa’s governing party, many of them bussed in by local ANC wards.
For those familiar with Nakasa’s story, however, the vast ANC presence created a jarring juxtaposition between past and present.
After all, in life Nakasa had steadfastly refused to join the party, and Thabo Mbeki – who succeeded Mandela as South Africa’s second black president – once scoffed to his biographer Mark Gevisser that the young writer was wildly disconnected from the political realities of the era.
‘My machine gun’
That seemed to matter little, however, to mourners gathered at the gravesite in the hilly township of Chesterville, who, after the coffin was lowered, broke spontaneously into a rendition of the famous anti-apartheid song Awuleth’ Umashini Wami – literally “bring me my machine gun” – re-popularised by Jacob Zuma in the years leading up to his 2009 presidential campaign.
“Nat Nakasa was not a member of the ANC, but his beliefs were the beliefs of the ANC, so we are owning him as a comrade,” said Bheki Ntuli, a member of the regional executive committee for the ANC in Durban.
Those attempts to grasp at Nakasa’s legacy are part of a wider movement by the ANC in recent years to sweep any historical figure who opposed apartheid into its embrace – no matter what they thought of the ANC in life, said Elizabeth Gunner, a senior researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Anthropological Research.
“There is this unwillingness to let culture be unruly and a desire to control it,” she said.
That was an impulse that Nakasa himself understood well.
“The writer can take his choice,” he once wrote, “bow to social conventions … or refuse to let officialdom regulate his personal life, face the consequences, and be damned.”