A Native of Nowhere: The Life of Nat Nakasa

A Native of Nowhere: The Life of Nat Nakasa

by Ryan Brown


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Tracing the life of South African writer Nat Nakasa, this biography tells the story of how a quiet, serious African boy growing up in the sleepy coastal city of Durban in the 1940s became part of the generation of outspoken black South African journalists in the 1950s and 1960s. He challenged state-sponsored segregation in that way that only writers can, simply by keeping a detailed record of its existence. On a warm July morning in 1965, he stood facing the window of a friend’s seventh floor apartment in Central Park West. Less than a year earlier, Nakasa had taken an “exit permit” from the apartheid government—a one-way ticket out of the country of his birth—and come to Harvard University on a journalism fellowship. Now he was caught in a precarious limbo, unable to return to South Africa but lacking citizenship in the United States, a place that he was beginning to feel offered little respite from the brutal racism of his own country. Standing in that New York City apartment building, he faced the alien city and the next thing anyone knew, he was lying on the pavement below. He was 28 years old. In a short but vibrant career as a writer and editor in the apartheid South Africa of the 1950s and early 1960s, Nakasa penned features for the country’s most influential black news magazine, Drum; became the first black columnist for the Rand Daily Mail, a Johannesburg daily newspaper with an antiapartheid editorial stance; and founded a literary journal, the Classic, to publish African writing. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had written for the New York Times and been invited to Harvard to study journalism. But like so many South African intellectuals of his generation, leaving his homeland was not simply a matter of deciding to go. It was also a matter of deciding never to come back.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781431405343
Publisher: Jacana Media
Publication date: 02/01/2014
Pages: 225
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ryan Brown is a journalist and editor, most recently with the Christian Science Monitor. She was a 2011 Fulbright Fellow to South Africa.

Read an Excerpt

A Native of Nowhere

The Life of Nat Nakasa

By Ryan Brown

Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Ryan Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4314-0537-4


To get from the suburbs north of Durban to the house where Nat Nakasa was born, now as in his time, you must cross a tightly partitioned city. The route sweeps westward, away from the ocean, through manicured, security-patrolled suburbs – an unbroken line of concrete walls boxing off the houses and swimming pools of the upper class, where the quiet is broken only by the buzz of electric fences and dogs barking at passersby. This neighbourhood eventually rambles into an industrial district, and beyond that the city gives way to township – clusters of small, brightly painted houses and shacks leaning up against the steep hills that flank the city.

I am travelling to Nat's old house with his sister, Gladys, and her stepdaughter, Jabu, who have brought me here to meet Nat and Gladys's stepmother, Mabel. Seventy years after Nat and Gladys's parents moved to Chesterville in the 1930s, she owns the house where they grew up, and Gladys wants me to see it. We brake for a chicken bobbing slowly across the road as a rusted white van barrels toward us on the wrong side of the street, its tinny speakers blasting house music in Zulu. As Jabu drives, Gladys calls out directions – left at the roadside stall painted with the vibrant red logo of a local cellphone company, then right at an elementary school, again at a vivid blue house – until the car pulls to a stop in front of a stout brick house with a pawpaw tree in the yard. A dog is pawing at the trunk as we step out, that kind of dog that seems to exist everywhere in the world – wiry and brown, with sharp-tipped ears – and greet the knot of Nakasas who have come out to meet us.

'Sawubona,' they say to me, laughing as my tongue trips over the response. 'Yebo, sawubona.' Inside, in a small living room they motion for us to sit, and for several minutes I sit mutely as Zulu pings back and forth all around me – pleasantries and family gossip flying by in a language I can't understand. At some point, noticing my silence, someone hands me a thick wedge of a photo album. It is filled with mundane and private family moments. There are birthday parties and teenage girls striking silly poses against brick walls, babies and weddings, and unidentified black-and-white photos of city streets and young men leaning against vintage cars.

Then, tucked between two pages in the album, I come across a stern, posed portrait of Nat and Gladys's father, Chamberlain. He looks to be about 50 and he is writing, his face bent into an expression of deep concentration. I flip over the photo. On the back, in red marker in all capital letters, is the following inscription: 'The father of the house who was a journalist and please don't take him otherwise because his dreams had come true. He died of a heart attack because his children were in overseas so he stressed if his children are still alive or not died in 1977 January 15 we'll always love u.' The words tumble out in one nearly unpunctuated stream, a curt but strangely poignant eulogy.

Reading that photo caption I am struck, not for the first time, by the vicious downward spiral that apartheid visited on Nat's family. When this photo of Chamberlain was taken sometime in the 1940s, he was a successful writer and religious pundit with a regular column in Durban's elite black newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal. He had five children and a house that, while small, was his own. And he was in the process of grooming his children for missionary education and a white-collar future. Stern and moralising, he lectured them to study hard and stay away from township hooligans. 'He wanted a youth that could work for themselves, rather than just running around,' Gladys told me. 'He wanted them to wake up and do something.'

Not long after, however, his wife was permanently institutionalised for an unknown mental illness, leaving him alone to raise his four sons and daughter. And some years after that, two of those boys – Nat and the youngest, Moses – left the country to continue their education, but within a year of leaving, Nat was dead and Moses had disappeared, never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, in South Africa itself, apartheid battered the black middle class of which the Nakasas had been part, starving off their economic opportunities and carefully guarding the boundaries of their movements. The Nakasa siblings, ambitious and educated, still had to be out of the city by dark and were technically citizens of a separate 'homeland' that had been set up by the apartheid government for their ethnic group.

Today Gladys, the only living member of that Nakasa nuclear family, is a retired domestic worker living in a two-room government-provided house on the fringes of the township of Umlazi – twelve miles further from the city than the home where she grew up. Seventy years old, she is heavyset and must limp thirty minutes with her cane to catch the nearest bus to reach the city centre, where, when I meet her, her husband is dying in a private hospital. 'I am tired,' she tells me again and again, over dinner and in my car and through staticky phone connections, 'I am so tired.'

She speaks to me about Nat willingly but listlessly. Yes, she says, she remembers him as a child, serious and careful. He helped care for his siblings and tried to impress their father with his writing prowess. And she remembers how proud of him the family were when he went off to Johannesburg, how crushed they were when they heard of his death. But what she really wants me to pay attention to are the fissures running down the wall of her house, the unfinished rafters above us. When it rains, she tells me, the house leaks, spilling water onto their bed, their kitchen counter. No one is coming to fix it – the family waited nearly a decade on an applicant list to get this house in the first place. Retired and living on a government pension of R1,000 (about $100) each month, Gladys can usually afford to buy food for the month, a few bus rides and a bit of airtime for her cell phone. But the money frequently runs out long before the month does. When I ask her if she has kept any photographs of Nat, she stares at me silently. 'We moved so many times,' she says wearily. 'I don't know what became of them.' He is gone, her irritation with me seems to say, and whatever we remember of him, he is never coming back to help us.

* * *

On 12 May 1937, London erupted in celebration. That morning, King George VI and his wife Elizabeth were crowned in a lavish ceremony that the New York Times declared was 'the most expensive one-day show in the history of modern society'. From Manchester to Hong Kong, in the metropole and its farthest-flung possessions, streets jammed with cheering crowds, celebrating the newest figureheads of the British Empire. That same day, at the outer reach of the empire, in a township outside Durban, South Africa, Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa was born.

That Nat's life began at a moment of global importance seems in retrospect almost prophetic, for his youth was shaped in large part by the tremendous historical moments that intersected it. Born on the cusp of World War II, he was 11 years old in 1948 when South Africa's National Party (NP) came to power on the platform of apartheid – literally 'separateness' in Afrikaans – an event that profoundly transformed the direction of the next fifty years of the country's history, and his life with it.

However, just as one would never view Nat's legacy solely through the lens of his death, to see South Africa at the moment of his birth as a country careering uncontrollably toward apartheid misses the deep political and social contingency of that era. Even the early years of National Party rule offered little reason to believe that this new entity known as apartheid would last beyond the next election – or that its ideology of rigid racial separation would cohere into a tangible political programme at all. For several years apartheid staggered forward with no fully realised destination, defining itself one election, one piece of legislation, one fiery personality at a time. Just as the young Nat's life pitched and swerved in relation to its own particular turmoil and opportunities, the country around him grew into the era of apartheid only by narrowly dodging its own potential futures.

Nat came of age in this world, his own future as undefined as that of South Africa itself. Born into the rare privilege of the black middle class, he grew up in the coastal city of Durban among the small minority of Africans in his generation with horizons that could reasonably extend beyond menial labour. But he was also the son of a mother who spent most of his childhood locked away in a mental asylum, a bright student who lacked the financial means to finish his education and, later, a black journalist without the editorial freedom to confront his country's institutionalised racism.

In a wider sense, he was also part of the last generation of South Africans for fifty years to know its country before apartheid, a place that, while rife with inequality, allowed a degree of openness and multiracialism that would never again be witnessed over the following half-century. That South Africa slowly faded away just as he came of age, and it was within this shifting of registers that his own perspectives on race took shape. His complex views on the subject as an adult – the receptiveness to stepping across racial lines, the anger at the profound unfairness of being born black – grew directly from this childhood reality. As a young man then, he stood astride two South Africas, bracing himself as the ground began to shift beneath him.

* * *

Nat and Gladys's parents, Alvina and Chamberlain Nakasa, were newly-weds when they moved to Durban in the 1930s, joining an influx of upwardly mobile Africans pouring into South Africa's metropolitan areas in the pre-war years. Hugging the Indian Ocean on South Africa's east coast, their new city was both a gritty trade hub and a pleasant – if not particularly exotic – beach town. The city centre was flanked by hills, which rolled inland toward the lush coastal province of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).

The sleepy port city was in many ways a curious microcosm of the British colonial project. Settled first in the mid-nineteenth century by British traders from the western Cape Colony, the town quickly grew into a hub for the emerging sugar industry in the region. But to the great chagrin of its settlers, the African people already living in the region – commonly lumped together as 'Zulus' – had little interest in working their new plantations. So they turned to another far-flung corner of the growing British Empire, India, for a new source of cheap labour. Arriving by boat on 25-year contracts as indentured servants, Indians fanned out across the new province of Natal, and when their contracts were up, many moved to the city of Durban. By the early years of the twentieth century, the city's population was nearly 30 per cent South Asian.

By the time the Nakasas arrived, many of the local Africans who once refused to work the Natal plantations had followed as well, pushed and pulled by rural poverty and the economic lure of Durban, crammed as it was with jobs in the shipyards, factories and gleaming homes of the white population, waiting to be cleaned and gardened. And though the municipal government built barrack-like 'workers' hostels' for the single men and 'native locations' for families, the pace of migration quickly strained the city's resources, forcing new arrivals to improvise, setting up shanty towns and cramming into Indian and coloured neighbourhoods.

As for the Nakasas, they moved to the fringes of the district west of the city quaintly known as Cato Manor. A series of rolling hillsides cluttered with wooden shacks, makeshift businesses, European-style houses and small farms, the neighbourhood seemed to awkwardly straddle urban and rural. But Cato Manor's scattered layout followed a certain historical logic. Once a vast farm on the fringes of Durban owned by a British colonial official (and later first mayor of the city) named George Christopher Cato, the land that became Cato Manor was gradually sold off in the second half of the nineteenth century, primarily to formerly indentured Indians who bought small plots to farm. By the early years of the twentieth century, Africans too had developed a vested interest in the neighbourhood. In addition to being one of the few places in the city where they were legally allowed to reside, it also had the advantage of open space for new migrants, far from the prying eyes of city police. Meanwhile, a large population of Indian South Africans, forced out of the city centre by increasingly racialised housing laws, joined the Indian community already living in the area, built houses and began renting plots to middle-class Africans.

The Nakasas were one such family of tenants, renters of the boxy, one-storey brick house with a flat metal roof at 572 Road II, Chesterville, a nearby suburb. The house may have been a simple one, but the very fact that the family could afford it at all attests to their social status. In Durban, as with other South African cities, most Africans lived in the houses where they worked as domestic employees, crowded hostels set up for day labourers, or sprawling slums at the city's edges. Municipal authorities calculated in 1947 that nearly 60 per cent of the African population in Durban were illegal squatters.

What was more, most of the city's African population, legal or otherwise, worked as unskilled labourers, jobs that paid pitifully and rarely left funds for incidental extras like paying for a place to live. In 1956, domestic labourers in Durban – the most popular occupation for Africans – received an average of £72 per year, approximately 13 per cent of the median wage for whites in the city. As a geographical survey conducted in the city a few years later condescendingly explained, 'a few Natives who have achieved a modest financial competence have settled down to a Western style of living, but the majority retain contact with the country and are culturally poised in a limbo between discredited tribalism and unattainable Westernism'. For many of these low-paid service workers, jobs in a city remained simply the means to a different end altogether, a more comfortable life for the families they had left behind in their rural home.

Nat's parents, however, came from the tiny moderately educated African middle class and arrived in Durban with a different set of hopes and objectives. Both had attended rural missionary schools, the dominant educational institutions open to Africans of their generation, which offered a rigorous Christian education to the few who could afford it. Nearly 3,000 such schools dotted the 'native' areas of the country in the 1920s, when the Nakasas were students, educating some 216,000 pupils each year. By contrast, the state ran only 68 schools for Africans and had just 7,700 students. Even combined, however, mission and government schools educated only a small proportion of the country's five million Africans. Nat's parents, then, occupied a tiny, privileged niche in black society.

Born of a lifetime of upward mobility, izifundiswa, or 'educated ones', as they were known, lived with a particular sense of possibility unknown to other urban migrants. Unlike the city's dockworkers and domestics, they held jobs for which they had been hired on the basis of their own skills and intellect. When the young Nakasa couple settled in Durban in the early 1930s, Alvina found work as a teacher, one of the few skilled professions open to African women in the mid-twentieth century, and Chamberlain became a typesetter and freelance writer. And at night, Durban offered an array of leisure activities for moneyed Africans like them, from the mixed-race cinemas on Victoria Street to the legendary downtown tearooms – Chili's, Luthuli's, the Ngoma Club – where black professionals huddled over cups of tea to gossip and talk politics. There were dances and concerts at the acclaimed Bantu Social Centre, night school classes and symphony performances. For middle-class Africans in the city in those years, segregation remained a cumbersome reality, but not one that could completely derail the sense of possibility that the city presented.


Excerpted from A Native of Nowhere by Ryan Brown. Copyright © 2013 Ryan Brown. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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