Nat Nakasa’s Johannesburg

The exiled ‘fringe countryman’ wrote intimate essays about black experiences in apartheid Joburg, creating an insightful retrospective of the city in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the years following the arrival of democracy in 1994, writer and journalist Nat Nakasa’s name had become shorthand for the evils enacted by the apartheid regime. The beats of his life – criticising the actions of the Nationalist Party and being forced into exile, then dying in exile – were used to dramatise how multiple sacrifices were undertaken by ordinary South Africans on the road to freedom.

About 30 years earlier, Nakasa had left the country on an exit permit to take up a fellowship at Harvard University in the United States after the Bantu Affairs Commissioner’s Office denied him a passport. On 14 July 1965, he died by suicide after jumping seven stories from a friend’s apartment in Central Park West, New York City. He was 28.

The tragedy of a promising life cut short because of the cruelty of apartheid fits into the archive of struggle narratives used by the ANC-led government to honour the memory of those who lost their lives in the fight for a free and equal society.

Though Nakasa rejected the ideas of segregation and separate development, he never pledged allegiance to any party or system of ideas, opting to express a cool indignance at the discriminatory laws and practices taking shape in the country. He chose to write and reside in the grey areas of an increasingly black and white world, which seemed to disorient him as he attempted to survive and even thrive in it.

However, the circumstances of his death, coupled with his well-documented skirting of apartheid laws in the name of personal freedom and resistance to convention, have seen Nakasa turned into something of a revolutionary.

The retouching of Nasaka

While most of his writing suggests a sensibility that was more Beatnik than Bolshevik, a large symbolic net has been cast over his legacy, placing on him a martyrdom that he may have resisted or challenged. And when the government announced that Nakasa’s remains would be repatriated from upstate New York in June 2014, newspapers and politicians were quick to declare him an “activist” and “radical” without pausing to assess whether those classifications fit the legacy he left behind.

There’s a simple explanation for this late retouching of Nakasa. Apartheid forces the most basic elements of the personal lives of black South Africans into the realm of illegality, making it nearly impossible for them not to do something criminal.

When Nakasa was hired as a journalist for Drum magazine in 1957, he joined a group of superbly talented writers like Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba and Bloke Modisane, who catalogued the black urban experience in a breakneck, colourful style of writing that made the publication the most popular black weekly in the country.

Nakasa’s prose style was less flamboyant and racy than his peers, but this group shared a world view and approach to life that was characterised by a love of language, adventure, hedonism and women, unsurprisingly. Nakasa referred to this state of being as “fringe country” in an article Drum published 1961.

Fringe countrymen traversed the streets of Johannesburg, Sophiatown and the white northern suburbs with little regard for curfews and the police. They had sexual and romantic relationships with white women, even though they were punishable by law. And they pushed the boundaries of what they could publish under growing censorship laws.

These men didn’t just seek to cross the Nationalist Party’s colour line, for a few brief but thrilling moments they wanted to completely and utterly erase it.

‘Incredible experiment’

In revisiting his columns for the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, first collected in a commemorative edition of literary magazine The Classic in 1966 and later in the book The World of Nat Nakasa, published in 1975, it becomes clear that Nakasa did anything but live on the fringes of society – despite his own assertions.

He appeared to charge, pen first, into every crevice of Johannesburg, confronting the ordinariness, intensity and horror of a city he called “some incredible experiment [of] a quack scientist”. In the midst of massive political, cultural and social change, Nakasa wrote about the City of Gold with the keen observation of a newcomer, but the breezy detachment of a native.

Nakasa provided, among other things, an account of the ego-busting exercise of going shopping as a black man, the choking violence taking the lives of innocent people on the city’s streets and the inhumanity of the Bantu Laws Amendment Bill, later Act, that banished black South Africans from areas reserved for white farmers.

These Joburg-centred articles and essays, which appear in The World of Nat Nakasa, offer an important retrospective of the city during the mid-20th century. They capture the intersection of different lives – those categorised then as black, white, Indian and coloured – under the watchful eye of the apartheid government.

Nakasa wasn’t seeking to promote a sunny, multicultural image that glossed over the structural imbalances among the country’s racial groups. Instead, he revealed just how much the lives of South Africans were interconnected and mutually dependent, in spite of the physical and social barriers erected to keep them divided.

In Johannesburg, Johannesburg, a lean personal essay mixed with sharp cultural commentary, Nakasa opens with a passage likely to ring familiar to those who have spent time in Jozi: “People who have the best time in Johannesburg are the visitors. People who stay in town for a month or two then fly out to their homes across the seas, with memories as their only link with Johannesburg.”

Nakasa was clearly referring to the tourists. In his view, they not only had the ability to appreciate Joburg with the comfort of leaving but could also escape the tyranny of apartheid South Africa. Nakasa tries to adopt “the attitude of a disengaged visitor” but quickly discovers he’s too steeped in the city’s fabric to pull this off.

State of limbo

Nakasa spent his first 18 months in the city homeless, either sleeping at work or staying at the houses of friends. At the time, the apartheid government forced “native bachelors” to stay in hostels where they would share a “dormitory with 10 or more strange men”, Nakasa writes. This state of limbo allowed him to shapeshift according to the environment around him, honing his skills as a “wanderer” who could adapt accordingly to any situation in front of him. Indeed, Nakasa spends much of the essay loitering around the city’s nooks and crannies, admitting to loving Johannesburg best in the black of night.

By the time the sun would come up, Nakasa’s opinion of the city would change. He writes that the most depressing sight for him were the black men brought to work in the gold mines, the ones who “walked through town with blankets on their shoulders and loaves of bread under their armpits”.

Nakasa confesses to being disdainful because he “felt a responsibility towards them” but was “doing nothing about it”. These feelings of scathing paternalism were undoubtedly rooted in Nakasa’s middle-class upbringing in Durban.

By the time Nakasa arrived in Johannesburg, he’d already distanced himself from the bourgeois values of his childhood. This sense of duty he felt towards the miners may have had something to do with politics. Perhaps Nakasa was insecure about his lack of participation in the struggle for liberation and projected his feelings of failure on to men who were simply en route to their jobs.

Snatching at the Good Life is arguably the most intriguing of the Joburg pieces, as it offers an account of the early days of Soweto.

Nakasa writes that on first glance, Soweto looks “dull and lifeless” with “matchbox cottages separated from each other by wire fencing”. Yet he says that in spite of this jarring uniformity, the place possessed a life and heart.

His optimism may have seemed misplaced at the time, given that the township accommodated former Sophiatown residents who preferred not to be there. But, as Nakasa wrote, the township still lived “precariously, sometimes dangerously, but with relentless will to survive and make the best of what I think is an impossible job”.

Assaults on dignity

To some of his critics, Nakasa underestimated the violence of white supremacy in South Africa. In The Nakasa World, a critical essay published in the 2005 edition of The World of Nat Nakasa, writer Mongane Serote doesn’t mince his words when describing his feelings about the writer. Nat “tommed while we were rat-racing for survival”, he writes.

In his book, A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, journalist Mark Gevisser writes about asking the former president if he ever considered himself a member of Nakasa’s “fringe country”. Mbeki used the opportunity to distinguish himself from the “rebellious” fringe countrymen whose interests, he suggested, were never with the black collective.

What Nakasa was attempting to show was how much apartheid exhausted the black South African in an extremely personal, yet communal way.

In Trying to Avoid Bitterness, one of the latter essays in the book, he writes about being arrested for reporting on farm labour conditions alongside photographer Peter Magubane. The incident obviously upset Nakasa, but it is Magubane’s decision to play the submissive native that sends him over the edge.

He calls the police officers “baas” and tricks them into thinking a piece of his equipment is a radio transmitter used to keep his white bosses in Johannesburg in the loop. In the essay, Magubane appears pleased with his successful deception, but Nakasa is clearly stirred. It’s enough of an affront to be arrested for doing your job. It’s an entirely different matter to watch your friend and colleague humiliate himself (and you, effectively) to avoid being beaten up, or left for dead.

This combination of public and private assaults on the dignity of black South Africans was expressed consistently in Nakasa’s work. And as the fight against apartheid saw arts and culture become a “weapon of struggle”, Nakasa’s writing was unique in the way it captured both the magic and terror of Johannesburg, and expressed a sensitive interest in the public and private black self.

Nakasa was more than a young and gifted black man who happened to die in exile. In his portraits of Johannesburg, he is revealed to be an attentive and patient writer who wrote, in the clearest and liveliest of terms, about an extraordinary place with a complex and fraught history. Through reading Nakasa this way, he emerges as one of the most important social documentarians of this city and country.

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