Nat Nakasa

Nat Nakasa’s own life story shows the effects of Apartheid on people trying to live a normal life and the very difficult choices it forced them to make. He was born in 1937 in Durban. He moved to Johannesburg and worked as a journalist, writing for Drum and the Rand Daily Mail (he was the first black journalist on their staff). He also started and edited The Classic, a magazine for black writers. In 1964 he was awarded a scholarship to study journalism at Harvard University in the USA. A lot of Apartheid was about the government controlling black South Africans’ movements, and so it was very difficult for them to travel overseas. As an intellectual and a critic of Apartheid, Nakasa was denied a passport. The only way he could leave the country was on an exit permit, which meant he was never allowed to come back. Knowing that he was about to be banned by the government, he chose to leave behind everything he knew, and travel to America. However, the thought that he could never return home upset him greatly, and in 1965 he jumped to his death from the window of a tall building in New York, USA.

The two pieces of writing here show the absurd absurd Senseless, ridiculous, or illogical. and destructive limits that Apartheid placed on black lives. In the first, Nakasa talks about the kind of jobs that black people were expected to have – as ‘houseboys’ and miners – and how difficult his life was when he tried to be something else. In the second, he visits Pretoria and experiences things like ‘whites-only’ benches and buildings, and talks to a supporter of the Apartheid Government.

As you read, be on the lookout for Nakasa’s use of irony and sarcasm. The stories that follow are full of points where he says one thing but means the opposite. For example, he explains how a mining boss ‘convinced [him] that Africans on the mine were a happy lot’. Reading deeply and carefully will help you notice these points. Think about why Nakasa might have used all this irony instead of writing more simply.

Oh, to Be an Anonymous Houseboy!

Author: Nat Nakasa

despair Hopelessness. oblivion Nothingness.

On my side of the colour line, the easiest thing to do is to sink into despair. This country has laid on all the facilities for that sort of thing. In my case, I could do it by disappearing into oblivion quietly, cheerfully.

I could stop writing for newspapers and find a comfortable job somewhere in the northern suburbs. I’m sure some ‘madam’ would declare me intelligent and give me one of those incredible ‘kitchen-boy’ suits – the ones with pants that never fit anyone. I would like mine white, with scarlet scarlet Red. stripes around the neck and knees – below the knees really for, as I say, it is impossible to find one that fits. …one that fits Nakasa does not say exactly what he means here. He does not really want the uniform of a domestic worker. He is using sarcasm, harsh and mocking irony, to criticise the humiliating work that white people demanded of their black employees.

The madam wouldn’t have to worry about shoes for me. The shoes I use for playing tennis now could become my everyday footwear. They are still neat and white. In them, and inside my white and scarlet suit, I could bathe poodles and take fox terriers for walks in white suburbia. suburbia Residential areas, in this case white. Nobody would know me.

If for any reason I failed to find a job like this, I could join the mines or anything. I could become a ‘pipe boy’, like the man I met this week. He and I drank some concoction concoction Strange mixture. the Rhodesias The old name for Zimbabwe and Zambia. together out of a gallon tin which once contained paint or paraffin. The man told me he was from Mozambique. His black face had a touch of blue in it. He had beautiful, healthy teeth, like most Africans I have met from Mozambique or the Rhodesias.

Lourenço Marques The old name of Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique.

He said, smiling proudly: ‘I am a pipe-boy at the mine … I come from Lourenço Marques … I have a family at home, a wife and child … My daughter doesn’t go to school yet, she’s only two years old … She doesn’t know me because I left home for the mines when she was one month old ….’

For a moment I envied envied Was jealous of. this man. He seemed to be at peace with the world. When I asked after his educational background he answered simply, without bitterness: ‘I left school before I could write my name.’

I could become anonymous like this man. He reminded me of an evening I spent arguing anonymous Nameless, unknown, or unidentifiable. with a friend who holds an executive position in one of the mining houses of Johannesburg.

We talked into the early hours of the morning and he convinced me that Africans on the mine were a happy lot. His point was that, regardless of what African miners earned or should earn, they were at peace with the world. They wore clothes with bright colours and played guitars and concertinas during their leisure time.

I remembered this when I spoke to the man from Mozambique. There was a sense of security and confidence about the man. He looked forward to the day when he would arrive in Lourenco Marques and be introduced to his daughter who would say ‘papa’ to him for the first time.

impertinent Disrespectful or rude.

The man from Lourenco Marques is not in the files of the Security Branch. He is not likely to be raided as some impertinent journalists may be. I doubt whether he will ever be involved with hire-purchase, passport applications, or job reservation.

His job as a pipe-boy is reserved for him. I’m sure there is one for me too, somewhere. For South Africa is a powerful country with a booming economy. If you haven’t got airs, airs Pride or self-importance. if you know your station station Place. in life as a black man, you need not be without a job. …without a job Again Nakasa uses sarcasm. He is saying that the only jobs available to black men are the worst, most undignified, low-paying jobs in the economy.

Several of the boys I grew up with found their way into the mines. I nearly went that way myself when, on leaving school, I set out to look for a job. But I was turned away at the gates of the recruiting depot. The recruiting officer told me I was still a ‘piccanin’. piccanin A negative word for a small (usually black) child.

I could go back there now and get a job. After all, I am no longer a piccanin.

That would be sinking to the depths of despair on my part. But then I am trying to show just how easy it is for a black man to do so in this country. Besides, it happens to be true that my experiences in this country are steadily dragging me into the darkness of despair.

Those of my friends who are white, those of them who have felt as I do now, have been able to do something about it. Some went to the Israeli kibbutzim. kibbutzim Collective farms. Others hitch-hiked up Africa to the Mediterranean and Europe. Like me today, they felt disillusioned disillusioned Disappointment that something is not as good as it seemed. and sick at heart. They were bored with conversation about Apartheid. But being white, they found no difficulty in getting away from it all. The facilities were laid on for them to quit.

For me, the facilities laid on are of a different kind. They are designed to lead me into despair. To that extent, the powers that be have won a battle over me.


  1. Why does Nakasa say it is easy for him to lose hope?
  2. Look at the ways in which Apartheid and the migrant labour system affected the man from Lourenco Marques’ life. Does he seem as happy as the mining boss claims?
  3. What difficulties did Nakasa face as a black intellectual under Apartheid?
  4. Why do you think the mine boss would say that the black miners were happy?
  5. Why didn’t white South Africans who were against Apartheid lose hope in the same way?
    1. Explain the title of this piece: does Nat Nakasa really want to be a houseboy?
    2. Look for a few other points where Nakasa uses sarcasm or irony. What is he really saying? What point do you think he is making by writing like this?

A Visit to Pretoria

Author: Nat Nakasa

This week I decided to visit Pretoria. I did so for the purpose of trying to gauge gauge Measure or assess; to get a sense for. the atmosphere and feel the heartbeat of the capital city.

There were many things which caught my attention immediately, like the benches in the City Hall gardens which are apparently set aside for whites only but which do not have the familiar ‘Whites only’ sign painted on them. Apparently Pretoria takes it for granted that no black man would ever dream of sitting on them.

But it was something else which struck me most forcibly. This was that the Afrikaner people of Pretoria seem to be more at home than anywhere else in the country. They seem to walk with a particular kind of dignity, confidence and sense of pride on the pavements of Pretoria.

The non-whites on the other hand are different. There is a shuffle in their walk and they carry about with them an air of uncertainty, even apprehensiveness, apprehensiveness Worry. as though they are wondering what the next day has in store for them. After a while I began to learn something about this feeling of uncertainty. For the more I tried to make some kind of contact with the city, the more I found it to be utterly impenetrable impenetrable Thick; impossible to get into. for me.

This really began before I left Johannesburg. I telephoned the Pretoria Municipality and spoke to an official. I told him I would be visiting Pretoria for two days and asked which hotel I could stay at.

After asking me to hold the line for some time, the official explained that, unfortunately, no hotel could take me. There was, however, a hostel for Bantu men somewhere out of town. I was later told by the hostel manager that my accommodation would cost ten cents for the night, and that I would have to bring my own blankets and make my own arrangements for meals.

This was clearly unacceptable. And so, short of turning a friend’s home into a boarding house, there was nowhere for me to stay in this city. On that level alone, Pretoria was impenetrable. Then I telephoned the Mayor’s secretary and asked if I could have an interview with the Mayor. All seemed to be well until I gave my name: then I was promptly asked what my nationality was, and informed that I could only see the Mayor in three months’ time.

After this I tried to get an appointment with the chairman of the Students’ Representative Council of Pretoria University. He came to the ‘phone and I gave my name. Switching from English to Zulu he asked: ‘Ufunani wena?’ (What do you want?) I had scarcely answered him when he went off the line.

I telephoned him again immediately, only to be told that he had left the office and would be out for the day. There was nobody else I could speak to, I was told.

It seemed all of Pretoria wanted to keep me at arm’s length. All these wonderfully confident people were refusing to let me come near them. Surely they couldn’t be afraid, I kept saying to myself.

Yet even the fine buildings seemed to have no place for me. Take the new, blue-faced Provincial Administration building. It is the pride of Pretoria. To look at it must raise an Afrikaner’s spirits to great heights. Yet my heart sank when I saw it. Out of all the offices on its 13 floors none could ever be a black man’s office – no matter how qualified he may be.

I nevertheless walked into the place. The middle-aged white man on the ground floor looked at me oddly.

‘May I have a look at this building inside, please?’ I asked.


‘I just want to have a look at this nice building inside.’

‘Well, you can go and see,’ he said, ‘but if they catch you, I didn’t see you’.

‘If who catches me?’

‘If the other bosses catch you.’

And then at last I was able to break through and come closer to the spirit of the volk. volk Afrikaans people or nation. This was when I found myself talking to a young Pretoria University lecturer. For me it was a thrill to hear this honest man state his beliefs honestly, in spite of world-wide opposition to what he stands for.

‘Even if we want to shoot each other,’ I started, ‘surely we can talk about it first.’ His head nodded and I knew we had found common ground.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘I just want a place where my people – waar die Boere – will be left alone by themselves, with their own Government, their own schools, their culture and their own ways.’

‘But where will you find a place like that?’ I asked.

‘That’s another matter,’ he said. ‘The point is that that’s what we want.’

aspirations Hopes and dreams.

He later told me that he hoped to enter politics one day and contribute what he could to the achievement of his people’s aspirations.

‘Which party will you support?’ I asked.

‘The National Party, of course. There are only two parties which matter. The Liberal Party and the National Party. Integration, which the Liberal Party wants, and Apartheid as put forward by the National Party.

‘The United Party has no policy. Progressives want snob Apartheid. They want the intellectuals and the rich among the Jews, the Afrikaners, the English-speaking, and the Xhosas to be grouped together and given the vote. But not the poor and the less educated of these groups. That is why the Progressives are strongest in Houghton and Hillbrow, where the rich and the idle are.’

After this, he told me that the Afrikaners did not trek from the Cape to look for gold and diamonds in the Transvaal and the Free State. They were in pursuit pursuit Search. of freedom from the English. But the English wanted gold and diamonds; it was they who didn’t care about the land.

Quoting figures to show that the Afrikaner families were larger than those of English-speaking whites, he assured me that there would come a time when the English would ‘grow into the Afrikaner community.’ He clearly did not want the two groups to exist side by side. There would never be enough understanding on that basis.

‘If ever there were two different groups of people who could get on together,’ he said, ‘it is the Afrikaners and the Bantu.’ But even that had too many complications and was, therefore, undesirable. undesirable Not wanted.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen hatred against me in the eyes of a Bantu,’ he said, ‘but I have seen it in the Jews, American Negroes, English South Africans, Englishmen, the people of the Netherlands, Germans and others. Not in the eyes of the Bantu – perhaps I have been lucky, but then I have never met Mandela.’

‘You’ll be surprised,’ I said. ‘I know Mandela. He used to give me lifts in his car when he lived near my place. And I know that he has no hatred in his eyes. He has friends who are Afrikaners.’

‘Those Afrikaners probably think like him,’ he said. ‘You do find Afrikaners like that.’

I don’t remember how we switched from this to Robben Island. But I remember my friend saying: ‘This is life. Today you are sitting there and I am sitting here. In ten or 30 years’ time I may be on Robben Island and someone else will be ruling this country.’


  1. Compare how the Afrikaans people and black people act while in Pretoria. What is the reason for this difference?
  2. The Afrikaans lecturer Nakasa talks to says he ‘just’ wants a place where the Afrikaners will be left on their own. Was Apartheid about total separation of races? Think of ways in which it meant inequality, not separation.
  3. Compare the way the Afrikaans lecturer talks to Nakasa and what he says he wants politically. Do you think there is a contradiction (disagreement) here?
  4. What does the Afrikaans lecturer think of Mandela? How does he explain the fact that Mandela had Afrikaans friends?


Try to find someone who lived through the early years of Apartheid in your community. Ask them what life was like then, and write down what they tell you.