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Nat Nakasa PDF Print E-mail

Nathaniel Ndzana Nakasa (1937-1965) was a journalist and short story writer born in Durban.  Coming from a working class family, he was forced to leave school in 1954 without matriculating. While in Durban, he worked as a journalist for John Dube’s newspaper Ilanga Lase Natal.  He later moved to Johannesburg to work as a regular contributor for Drum and Golden City Post.  He was also the first black journalist to work at the Rand Daily Mail.  In 1963 he founded The Classic, a literary magazine that served as a publishing outlet for emerging black writers.  Fellow Drum writer, Can Themba was a regular contributor to the magazine.  It was during this time that Nakasa began to work closely with winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, Nadine Gordimer.  Gordimer would later go on to write the foreword for Essop Patel’s The World of Nat Nakasa (1975), which contains a selection of Nakasa’s writings.

In 1964, Nakasa was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism at Harvard in the USA.  He was forced to leave South Africa on an exit permit as the apartheid government rejected his application for a passport.  Nakasa’s experience of racism in America was recorded in “Mr Nakasa goes to Harlem”, which was commissioned by the New York Times in 1965.  That same year, Nakasa died after falling from a high-rise building on July 14.  Before his death, he had begun to express feelings of homesickness and isolation.  He was buried at the Ferncliff cemetery in upstate New York.  This cemetery is also the resting place of African American essayist and novelist, James Baldwin, and jazz musician, Thelonious Monk.  Nakasa’s headstone was placed by the Neiman Foundation in 1995 and reads:

Nathaniel Nakasa May 12 1937-July 14 1965.  Journalist, Nieman Fellow, South African.

- 1038 (tombstone number)

The year 2014 has seen a resurgence in interest in Nakasa as plans were set in motion to return his remains to South Africa for re-interment.  The burial site will be at Heroes Acre in Chesterville, Durban.  Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa has suggested: “This will hopefully bring closure to a horrific chapter that has remained a blight in our history for almost 50 years.  His homecoming is the restoration of his citizenship and dignity as a human being”.

The Print Media Association, the South African Nieman Alumni, and the South African National Editors' Forum have established an annual award for courageous journalism, which is named after him.

Excerpt from “The Life and Death of King Kong” (1959)

Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dhlamini – that rugged, ever-unkempt giant with the iron muscles of a Durban rickshaw puller – is back in the limelight.  Within two years a legend has emerged around the man who threw himself into a dam rather than face the grey sameness of prison life.

That is as he would have wished.  That the whole land should remember his death.  That the whole land should remember the strange, fabulous incidents that crowded the 32-year life of ‘Lightning Marshal’.

Right this moment, here in Johannesburg, King Kong’s gorilla face is on red posters pasted on to walls, his name in the papers and pasted on to car windows.  A musical elephant-size job with over fifty men and women on the stage is being made on King’s life.  The estimated cost of the opera’s production is £6000.

The ‘Spice Smasher’, the ‘King Marshal’ – Mandlenkosi Dhlamini if you want to be official – met his first boyhood days in the district of Vryheid, Natal, around the year 1925.  After showing up, fairly regularly, in a Roman Catholic school for two years, King Marshal turned his back for the last time in a classroom.

Only about fourteen then, according to his brother Elliot, King Kong went to work in Vryheid, herding a white family’s milk-cow and keeping their little vegetable garden in lookable condition.  There wasn’t much in the way of pay.  But what a pleasure to be away from his father’s whip in the family fields!

Only a few months hurried by and King Kong was gone.  Nobody had any idea where he was.  The next to be heard of him was when he wrote – at least supervised in the writing of a letter to his mother – reporting that he was in Durban.  But Durban was too quiet for this tall Tarzan-youth.

So without much waste of time, King Kong took his exit from Durban.  Off to the wild, stabbing, over-populated Johannesburg.  Much, much further away from his parents.  He also left behind his three brothers and two sisters, all his junior.

Not bothered for one moment about getting himself a job and a boss, King Kong tried his big hands at gambling with cards and shooting dice – just to knock together some kind of a living.  It was a gambling argument that landed the King in jail after a man had been battered to death.  King was acquitted, and staggered back straight back into his old life.

In those days he used to visit places like raining gyms and singing or dancing hangouts since he had tons of time on his hands – which ‘won’t work’ hasn’t?  He found his way to sparring rooms at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre – a den with hard-hitting boys under the famous hand of William ‘Baby Batter’ Mbatha.

Those who tell the story of King’s first day in the gym have now turned it into a joke for entertaining guests at the township parties.  He is sad to have laughed himself sick at the sight of people fighting with ‘cushion’s round their fists.

‘Why don’t they use bare fists, these chaps?’ King is said to have asked.

To King Kong the whole thing looked silly.  He told the boys he could lick them all in a row, gloves or no gloves on.  What’s more, when he was shown the trainer, he repeated his words: I can lick your bows any time all in a row, including you their boss.

The trainer laughed it off and went his way.  But when King insisted, getting more insulting and aggressive, trainer Mbatha got into a pair of gloves and flung two to King Kong.  In two or three rounds Mbatha sent this Goliath to the ground, proving his point.

(Chapman 1989: 166)



Patel, E (ed).  1975.  The World of Nat Nakasa.  Johannesburg: Ravan Press.