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South African Fellows

South African Fellowships: A History of Hope and Pain

Nieman Curator Louis Lyons recalled that the Nieman Foundation’s acceptance of foreign journalists began at the end of World War II with a few South Americans “under some arrangement that Nelson Rockefeller talked us into.”Word of the opportunity spread and soon the dozen American fellows were joined by journalists from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and, in 1960, South Africa.

The foreign journalists, originally called associate fellows,  were supported by various foundations. For South Africans, the sponsor was the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program (USSALEP).

The Nieman Foundation’s first brush with the harsh reality of apartheid came in the first year of the South African relationship. In 1960, USSALEP selected Aubrey Sussens, a white editor at The Rand Daily Mail, for the fellowship. At the same time Lewis Nkosi, a black South African, heard of the program and wrote for information. Lyons put him in touch with the Farfield Foundation, which sponsored U.S.-South African cultural exchanges. Farfield agreed to underwrite a fellowship for the 23-year-old Nkosi, a writer for Drum, a magazine for black South Africans.

Nkosi’s problems then began. A forceful critic of his nation’s racial policies, he wrote in one article that South Africa was “terribly sick” and its citizens were “terrorized” by security police. He applied for a passport on July 1 and waited. He learned in November that his request has been denied. Angry and bitter, he applied for an exit visa. He obtained it and left—forbidden by law to return. The South African government banned his writings. After his Nieman year, he went to England and continued his career.

White South Africans came to Harvard in subsequent years. However, the next black South African to apply suffered the same experience as Nkosi.

Nathaniel Nakasa, editor of a Johannesburg literary magazine, applied in 1964 with support from the eminent writer Nadine Gordimer and Helen Suzman, a liberal member of his nation’s parliament. When the white journalist selected by USSALEP was unable to leave his newspaper, the organization agreed to sponsor Nakasa.

Nakasa, too, had strongly criticized apartheid and was refused a passport. The South African Society of Journalists objected. The government would not relent. Because USSALEP funding was available only to recipients who would return to South Africa, Nakasa, too, secured support from Farfield and took an exit visa — a one-way pass.

At Harvard, Nakasa retreated into drinking and melancholy. He explained some of his problems in a year-end report to the Nieman curator. “I may never fit comfortably into the world of scholars,” he wrote, because “the racial problem in the world is one that has emotional and personal rather than intellectual implications... Rather than be calm and objective, I was apt to respond with a scream to disagreeable views, a disastrous tendency in any scholarly pursuit...”

Beset by emotional and financial problems, he visited the New York home of John Thompson, executive director of the Farfield Foundation. Thompson assured him that the foundation would provide financial help. But Nakasa was despondent over his exile. That evening, he leaped to his death from Thompson’s seventh-floor apartment. At his burial in Westchester County, N.Y., another South African exile, Miriam Makeba, sang a sad farewell song.

Over time, Nieman alumni and others worked to remove the racial barrier. For years the fellowships have alternated between blacks and whites and the Nieman Society of South Africa has taken responsibility for vetting applicants. South Africa has sent 53 journalists to Harvard, the largest contingent of Nieman Fellows from a single country outside the United States.

Ed Williams
Editorial page editor, The Charlotte Observer
Nieman Fellow 1973

Williams originally wrote much of this report for a class he took while a fellow at Harvard.