Address by South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa at Nat Nakasa Memorial Service; Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York, USA

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16 Aug 2014

Nakasa Family, represented by Mrs Gladys Maphumulo and other relatives

Reverend Doctor Mankenkolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo

Members of the Diplomatic Corps

Academics present here

Members of the Media

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In his award winning speech titled “The Regeneration of Africa,” as the young African visionary and intellectual, Pixley ka Isaka Seme - who was a student at Colombia university, not too far from here boldly asserted, “I am an African”. Furthermore he had this to say:

“This all powerful contact [that has brought foreign nations into one civilized family] says even to the most backward race you cannot remain where you are; you cannot  fall back, you must advance. A great century has come upon us. No race possessing the inherent capacity to survive can resist and remain unafftected by this influence of contact and intercourse, the backward with the advanced.”  

When ka Isaka Seme said these profound words in 1906, he was only 28 years old, the age at which Nat Nakasa died in 1965. What is common about these two, is that they were young South Africans who came to America to advance their horizons of knowledge.


Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered here this morning to pay our respects and honour the memory of Nathaniel Ndazana Nakasa, who epitomized the prophetic words of ka Isaka  Seme. This memorial service is the culmination of many years of struggle and perseverance to ensure that Nat Nakasa’s mortal remains are returned to his ancestral land. We will accord him a dignified reburial, befitting a patriot of his stature and ensure that his name is entrenched in our collective memory.

This moment also offers us an opportunity to reflect on the journey that Nakasa and many other activists of his time travelled for us to be where we are today. The dawn of South Africa’s freedom in 1994, marked the first phase of our transition into a democratic society. As we celebrate twenty years of South Africa’s freedom and democracy this year, we are conscious of the fact that we are reaping the rewards of the sacrifices that stalwarts like Nakasa made for our country to be liberated.

Through the might of his pen, Nakasa pioneered nation building and social cohesion, articulating the vision of a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and just society. At a very young age, he used his writing talent to point out the contradictions of the apartheid regime and articulate the aspirations and anxieties of the oppressed in South Africa. Like Pixley who said, “I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion” Nakasa defended and asserted the right to artistic and media freedom regardless of the hostility against him by the authorities. The SA National Editors’ Forum appropriately named the most prestigious journalism award in South Africa after Nat Nakasa, in recognition of his courageous mind.  

When Nakasa came to the United States to take up the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1964, he was in defiance of the apartheid regime impositions. He advanced the ideals of the Regeneration of Africa, which ka Isaka Seme had espoused.  

After the completion of his fellowship, he relocated to New York, where there was a sprouting community of exiled South African activists. The likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Willie Kgositsile, Jonas Gwangwa, and many other prominent South African artists were already living in New York at the time. South African artists occupied the frontline trenches in the liberation struggle and used their art to raise global awareness about the plight of the oppressed in their country of birth.

The United States of America was a destination of choice for many exiled South African artists. They were embraced by the civil rights movements in the US, and became part of the fabric of the American society. As we pay homage to Nat Nakasa this morning, we also celebrate the whole gamut of writers, journalists, musicians, and other activists who established cordial relations between the peoples of South Africa and the United States. It was through their active participation and support of our cause of freedom that today the two countries share common histories.

Among the writers and intellectuals who created this special bond between the two nations, I can think of the interactions between W.E.B. Du Bois and Sol T. Plaatje, which date as far back as the early 20th century. Langston Hughes was an active contributor to the development of the South African literary landscape in the 1950s. Among other interventions, he was the judge of the Drum Short Story Competition, which produced literary giants like Can Themba.

One of the turning points in the global struggle for solidarity against the apartheid regime took place here in New York in July 1963. This was when a young South African musician, Miriam Makeba, addressed the United Nations General Assembly and appealed to the international community to denounce racism and the apartheid government. It was shortly after this that the UN recognized apartheid as a crime against humanity. We are indebted to individuals, the various civil rights movements and other interest groups that supported the South African liberation struggle.

Nat Nakasa is today part of the public discourse in the US and other countries around the world, much as he is a great symbol of nation building and social cohesion in South Africa. When he was forced out of his ancestral land, he described himself as “A Native of Nowhere.” He had a way of mocking the segregationist apartheid laws in a nonchalant manner.

He once called the train ticket office and, speaking in a deep English accent, booked himself a first class ticket. The first class compartment was exclusively reserved for whites and they realised only when he came to collect his ticket that a terrible mistake had happened. Another remarkable incident was when he and his flatmate, Lewis Nkosi, decided to put up an advert in a newspaper, looking for a white maid for two black journalists living in Hillbrow. “She must not mind sleeping in,” they said.  This stunt earned them expulsion from the flat.

Today’s ceremony marks the culmination of the process of reclamation of Nakasa’s citizenry. We are proud to say to the world Nat Nakasa will return to his ancestral land not as a native of nowhere, but as a true South African patriot, an African, and as a citizen of the world.

With this effort we simultaneously strive to uphold the vision of the founding President of our democratic nation, the late Nelson Mandela, that: "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." As part of our nation building project, we have to heal the wounds of the past so that we can move forward together as a nation.

The importance of returning Nakasa's remains is to reconcile with his desire to be a recognized citizen of his motherland and to fulfil the wishes of his family. The Nakasa family has been afforded an opportunity, for the first time in 49 years, to see the place where Nakasa was buried. This will hopefully bring closure to a horrific chapter in our history. To us as the government of the Republic of South Africa, this means we have fulfilled an important part of our mandate. This is part of our intervention strategies to reclaim our history and preserve our heritage for future generations.

Ladies and Gentleman, I am delighted to inform you that Nakasa’s remains will be reburied in the Heroes’ Acre in Chesterville, KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, on Saturday, 13 September 2014.

The President of the Republic of South Africa, H.E. Mr Jacob Zuma, will preside over this auspicious occasion.

We are embarking in all these efforts with the objective of telling our own stories to celebrate unsung heroes and heroines. The story of Nakasa’s repatriation will entrench his name in our history. Nakasa will be remembered as one of the selfless Africans who exemplified through lived experience the ideals of the regeneration of Africa as espoused by ka Isaka Seme. His brilliance, boldness and bravery should be an inspiration of the historical responsibility that lies before us: to be agents of the society we want to live in 2030.

The repatriation of Nakasa is a positive testament to nation building and social cohesion that he wrote about. This is an important victory for everyone who has supported the struggle for democracy and freedom in South Africa. This is also a vital step in redefining our purpose and fostering positive change in society.

We wish to express our thankfulness to all the people of the world, including Americans, who have supported and pledged solidarity with our struggle for a just and equal society. In conclusion, let us pay heed to the words of ka Isaka Seme that echo down the centuries: “you cannot remain where you are; you cannot  fall back, you must advance.”

Thank you.