Address by Minister Mthethwa at the reburial ceremony of Legendary Journalist & Writer, Nat Nakasa, Durban City Hall, Ethekwini

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13 Sep 2014

The Nakasa Family led by Ms Gladys Maphumulo

Members of the National & Provincial Government

The Premier of KwaZulu Natal

The Mayor of eThekwini

Members of the Diplomatic Corps

Academics and cultural activists

Members of the Media

Distinguished Guests

Ladies & Gentlemen

It is with sadness that in the week that we commemorate the brutal death of Steve Biko we have learned of the passing on of the poet and short story writer Pascal Mafika Gwala. We wish to express our condolences to the family and friends.

It is 108 years since a 28-year old African student, Pixley ka Isaka Seme delivered a resounding prophetic and visionary speech titled ‘The Regeneration of Africa’ at Columbia University in New York in April 1906.

I have chosen to begin by quoting from his speech “I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion.”

He was born here in KwaZulu Natal at the Inanda mission. Importantly, he was one of the original founders of the then South African Native National Congress in 1912.

This award-winning visionary speech echoes down the centuries when he continued to say, among other things:

“This all powerful contact (that has brought foreign nation into one civilized family) says even to the most backward race you cannot remain where you are; you cannot fall back, you must advance.

“The brighter day is upon Africa.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we who live and work in South Africa today stand at the dawn of a bright new day that Seme said is upon Africa. We are the beneficiaries of everything that has been accumulated through the struggles, dreams and self-sacrifice of generations gone before us. We are the beautiful ones who must make Seme’s dream a reality.

Thus I would like to speak to you today on the connection between what Seme said more than 100 years ago and what happened 50 years ago when Nat Nakasa was forced to leave his motherland on an exit permit. This has a direct impact on what is happening here and now, today, as we gather in this hall.

We have not come here to rebury Nat Nakasa or to praise him as an individual. Instead, we have gathered here to show how we are at the apex of a vast pyramid of African struggle, self-determination and development.

I believe the repatriation and reburial of Nakasa is a spiritually and culturally significant occasion because it marks the closing of a tragic chapter in the family and nation’s history. In its own way, it is a momentous occasion as the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the unbanning of the liberation movement and the return of exiles. It is an act of healing that signifies the dawn of a bright new day.

The forced departure of Nakasa for Harvard University in America tells the story of where we come from as a people and society. It evokes the memories of many members of the Sophiatown Renaissance who were forced to go into exile because of the political repression that followed the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.

This later saw the sprouting of a South African exile community in New York that included the likes of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa, Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya, among others.

Nakasa was the youngest and perhaps the last of the Drum Writers who ultimately ended up in exile in 1964 following the departure of Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Arthur Maimane, Bessie Head, Alex La Guma, and Dennis Brutus to name a few. They were part of an exodus of creative intellectuals before them that defied the system by choosing exile, including Xhosa language activist and writer AC Jordan and the great poet Mazisi Kunene, among others.

Today that glorious bright day, that light and beacon of hope has been reignited with the return of this intellectual and cultural star in the African firmament.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Nakasa -– cosmopolitan as he was later to become in Johannesburg - belongs to a line of African intellectuals that went before him. These include legends like B W Vilakazi, H I E Dhlomo and his brother RRR Dhlomo, Credo Mutwa, Anton Lembede and Kenneth Bhengu to name a few.

It is within this long line of prophetic writers and intellectuals that the return and reburial of Nakasa should be seen. We salute and celebrate these great creative souls that have always been part of our heritage. 

Seme said ‘this all powerful contact could not make us remain where we were. It was advancing our goals and dreams.

Thus we are very pleased and very happy that Nakasa is back home in South Africa after 49 years. This is the dawn of a bright new day. His reburial resonates on many levels. What we have always understood from his family, colleagues and friends is that he never wanted to leave.

It would have been fitting for him when he passed on, to be buried in the same national soil in which his ancestors, literary predecessors and intellectual heroes are buried.

In his own way, he has re-joined the great lineage of African creative intellectuals that are buried here on African soil and thus are part of the spiritual ambience of the new society they dreamt of. The act of reburial thus solidifies that he is part of our heritage.

One important highlight about the homecoming and reburial of Nakasa in our intellectual and literary history is that it marks the culmination of what Seme spoke about: we have not resisted and remained unaffected by this influence of contact and intercourse, the backward with the advanced.

In this his return, Nakasa is singularly unique in that he seems to have been chosen by history and fate to be at the centre of the revival of the conceptual historical idea espoused by Seme. This happens a few months after the passing away of his friend, colleague and comrade, Nobel Laureate for Literature, Nadine Gordimer. May her soul rest in peace.

It has to be said that we are now fully awakened to the realization of that extra-ordinary day that Seme dreamt and spoke of. Despite the fact that Nakasa’s tragic life epitomizes that moment of oppression and repression, we cannot deny that the repatriation signals an important victory.

We have overcome and defeated colonial domination in the form of political oppression.

In his live experience and writings, Nakasa was preoccupied with exposing the absurdity of the apartheid system and, at the same time, articulating the vision of a new society. It was in his contribution to Drum and the Rand Daily Mail, especially, that he was in the forefront of redefining and rearticulating the monumental nation building project espoused by Seme constituting of a ‘higher complex existence.’

Much as he was not politically affiliated as an individual, Nakasa was, unavoidably, a conduit of what Seme and the national liberation movement have always fought for: a free and democratic society that would be an inspirational example to the continent and the whole world. No doubt his writings were ideologically aligned to the vision of Seme and the liberation struggle that could not be determined by simple card carrying membership. He was a nation builder and an agent of social cohesion before this became a buzzword.

This is why he has been reburied in the same African soil that holds the sacred remains of John Langalibalele Dube, Solomon T. Plaatje, and RW Rubusana and an array of other intellectual stars who were writers and journalists and also members of the liberation movement.

Seme was a prophetic visionary and, above all, the founding father of the ANC. In fact, what he said in 1906 set the trend for the political expression of the words of all our creative intellectuals that came after him.

Although Nakasa lay as a heap of bloody broken bones on the pavements of New York in 1965, this mysterious and tragic event was not the end of his life. Today he is being resurrected to be remembered as one of the leading intellectual lights of his time.

Through his repatriation, we are witnessing and experiencing a historic moment to revive and realize the dream that Seme spoke of. We cannot remain where we were. We have advanced!

The pronouncement of that great son of the soil, Seme are coming full circle to reconnect our past with the present. We, the living, must realize this brighter future for all the children of Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have not come to rebury Nakasa but to re-ignite and implement the conceptual historical idea of the regeneration of Africa. This marks a historical and cultural turning point.

We have been called through the repatriation of Nakasa to complete the total liberation of African people by improving their material condition. One singular aim of Nakasa as a writer was the expression of the aspiration and hope for a new society with a clear definition of its identity.

In one of his memorable columns, It is difficult to decide my Identity, he wrote:  “My people are South Africans. Mine is the history of the Great Trek. Gandhi’s passive resistance in Johannesburg, the wars of Cetshwayo and the dawn raids which gave us treason trials of 1956. All these are South African things. They are part of me.”

We have now reached that point where we can be agents of what we want to see happen in the here and now. We are proud and caring South African citizens who have restored his identity and citizenship.

As a member of an unending lineage of prophetic writers and creative intellectuals, Nakasa was perhaps the youngest and among the last to leave in the 1960s. Despite his age, he possessed deep insight and critical skills that testified to the vision and commitment of those who had gone before him.

It is not an accident of history that it is these two young men, Seme and Nakasa - both at the age of 28 - who are our historical link with the past and the future.

Today, this country is a young democracy whose population comprises of largely young people. Our effort is to use his noble example not only to celebrate 20 years of democracy and freedom and inspire young people to tell their stories to move South Africa forward. It is the duty of the young to improve upon what has been left to them. Nakasa epitomized everything that Seme spoke about.

Concerning the historical idea of the ‘Regeneration of Africa,’ both Seme, first, and then Nakasa were, in their own ways, pivotal to defining the youth to fulfil their mission in the liberation of Africa’s regeneration. Thus we would like to urge the youth to take note of these young visionaries from our history and heritage. Let the young borrow from how they conducted themselves.

At the same time, it would be a serious historical mistake to think both Seme and Nakasa were the first to dream of the New South Africa that we all live in.

The reburial and resurrection of Nakasa should remind us of other prophets and intellectuals including Tiyo Soga, John Tengo Jabavu and Pambani Jeremiah Mzimba, among others.

To paraphrase Seme as he admonished us: we cannot remain where we are; we cannot fall back, we must advance.

The repatriation, reburial and, at the same time, the resurrection of Nakasa is a positive affirmation and testament to the role played by all our forebears who were prophetic visionaries and intellectuals. A glorious new day has come upon Africa!

As the government of the republic of South Africa and its people, we wish to express our thankfulness to all the people of the world, especially our visionaries, who have contributed to get us where we are.

In the same speech Seme says: The giant is awakening. From the four corners of the earth Africas sons, who have been proved through fire and sword, are marching to the future’s golden door bearing the records of deeds of valor done.”

We salute Pixley ka Isaka Seme.

We are proud to say to the world Nat Nakasa has returned 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.

Thank you! Ngiyabonga!