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Review of A Native of Nowhere: the story of Nat Nakasa by Ryan Brown PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 31 March 2016 11:25

Review by Mandla Matsha

Nat Nakasa, and the Drum magazine with which he became associated, have without doubt marked the South African imaginary.  It is therefore with a sense of anticipation that I embarked on reading A Native of Nowhere, written by American journalist and editor Ryan Brown. Opening with Nakasa’s untimely death in 1965, only aged 27, Ryan’s biography of Nakasa aims to tell “the story of how a quiet, serious African boy growing up in the sleepy coastal city of Durban in the 1940s became part of the generation of outspoken black South African journalists in the 1950s and 1960s who challenged state-sponsored segregation in that way that only writers can, simply by keeping a detailed record of its existence”(xi). While the general aim is commendable to some extent, it also carries and reinforces several assumptions. Amongst others, Durban was – far from being a “sleepy coastal city” – a center of resistance, having been graced by several illustrious African leaders, including John Dube and Albert Luthuli, to name but a few.

While Nakasa’s biography reads well, it tends to dwell on the general history of South Africa, as widely known – and lived – by a South African readership.  Throughout the narrative, Nakasa’s personal history is diluted into broader South African history. His personal creative process and outlook on life, as a radical youth growing up in a repressive society, is neglected to the profit of general statements and information on the otherwise well-documented decade of the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa. In doing so, the author misses many opportunities to probe beyond the widely known, to challenge assumptions and explore lesser-known aspect of Nakasa’s otherwise complex personality. Also, Nakasa’s biography is a locally well known general story of South African black men and woman living their home towns and family in search of better prospects in the big city of Johannesburg. Some would come back as corpses, some settled well, while others lost their health and returned broke, and a few lived well and progressed, and some ended up going in exile, each having their own unique experience leading to similar outcomes. Unfortunately, the biography does not go beyond the general story of these men and women, for the reader to have grasp of Nakasa’s individual life. However, the biography is generally easy to read, and can serve as a good introduction to the apartheid period for a non-South African readership not familiar with South Africa’s recent history.