JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s “native of nowhere” is finally home.
The remains of Nat Nakasa, a Black anti-apartheid journalist from South Africa who died in the United States in 1965 and was buried there until his recent exhumation, arrived on Tuesday in the South African coastal city of Durban.
Nakasa’s casket was escorted on its long journey by a delegation including his sister, Gladys Maphumulo, and other members of his family. On arrival, soldiers marched beside the flag-draped coffin. At an airport ceremony, an animal skin lay underneath the casket in line with mourning tradition.
It was an elaborate homecoming for a talented, anguished man described by many as a victim of apartheid, the system of White minority rule that ended with South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994. Nakasa’s repatriation served as a sad reminder of the harsh racial politics of the time, but also as an opportunity to celebrate South Africa’s democratic advances since that era of conflict.
“Today Nakasa returns to a South Africa that is remarkably different from the one that he left fifty years ago,” Nathi Mthethwa, South Africa’s arts and culture minister, said in a speech. “He would be pleased to know that this year we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the freedom that he fought for so courageously.”
Nakasa’s family had viewed his remains and decided not to remove the soil from the bones, keeping a symbolic connection with the American people and the rest of the world, Mthethwa said.
Nakasa worked for DRUM magazine and other publications in Johannesburg half a century ago. He left South Africa in 1964 for a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. The South African government had not issued him a passport, making it impossible for him to return home.
In an article titled “A Native of Nowhere,” he wrote with sardonic humor about the implications of leaving South Africa with only a government-issued “exit permit.”
“According to reliable sources, I shall be classed as a prohibited immigrant if I ever try to return to South Africa. What this means is that self-confessed Europeans are in a position to declare me, an African, a prohibited immigrant, bang on African soil. Nothing intrigues me more.”
At the age of 28, Nakasa plunged from the seventh floor of a building in New York City. His death was ruled a suicide, and he was buried at Ferncliff cemetery in Hartsdale, north of the city.
Ryan Brown, author of “A Native of Nowhere: The Life of Nat Nakasa,” has reported how Nakasa felt increasingly alienated in the United States, partly because of his uncertain legal situation as a South African unable to return to his country. She also wrote that Nakasa was concerned for himself because of a history of mental illness in his family.
The U.S. and South African governments monitored Nakasa while he was in the United States, which was struggling with its own legacy of racism at the time, according to Brown.
There are conspiracy theories about his death despite a lack of evidence of foul play.
“He died under mysterious circumstances,” South Africa’s arts and culture ministry said in a statement.
The South African National Editors Forum said only that Nakasa died “tragically,” and has welcomed the return of his remains. Nakasa will be reburied on Sept. 13, ending a long repatriation effort that began in the late 1990s and eventually secured necessary resources and state involvement, it said.
“This is a proud moment for South African journalism and the nation as a whole that we have been able to give Nat his last wish, returning to the land of his birth and to rest eternally with his ancestors,” the editors’ forum said in a statement.
In the United States, the writer was buried in the same cemetery as Malcolm X, the civil rights activist assassinated a few months before Nakasa’s death. Nakasa’s new resting place will be the Heroes’ Acre cemetery in Chesterville, the Durban township where he was born.