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Emancipation episodes

By Terry Joseph
July 22, 2005

Part III

Except for the medium in which they both work, the Great Blacks in Wax museum in Baltimore, Maryland is nothing like Madame Tussaud's in neighbouring New York, the latter adding glamour to famous and notorious figures alike, while the former delivers a no-frills version, highlighting historical and contemporary images of African ancestry.

The distinguishing variance, though, is the effect on visitors, the New York focus being entertainment while Baltimore concentrates on education, by chronological sequencing of events - from Ancient Africa through the Middle Passage to present day milestones-eschewing the lure of displaying gangsta rappers or basketball heroes as a mechanism for increasing revenue.

Unfortunately, Great Blacks in Wax confines its tutorial to the history of African Americans, which is why the story and figure of Hamilton Naki, perhaps the most compelling tale of our time on the subject of racially-inspired oppression, is not likely to ever be on show in Baltimore alongside Rosa Parks, Henry "Box" Brown, George Washington Carver or Guion Bluford; a pity of monumental proportions.

Carried in the June 9 edition of The Economist, an obituary to Mr Naki, who died on May 29 at age 78, shed new light on 20th Century cruelty against South African blacks, not the whipping and jailing but the most outrageous case of identity theft, for it was Mr Naki's work that made possible the world's first heart transplant, although Dr Christiaan Barnard singularly reveled in resulting global fame for more than 30 years before admitting the deception.

On December 3, 1967, the body of a young white woman, victim of a traffic accident, was brought to Groote Schuur hospital in Capetown and Mr Naki assigned to do post-mortem dissection. She was brain dead but her heart remained pumping. It was as lucky as Dr Barnard could get, since a patient in an adjacent operating theatre, Louis Washkansky, desperately needed a heart.

While the young white doctor was preparing the patient in a blaze of publicity, a mere 15 metres away, behind a screen, Mr Naki's skilled black hands plucked the white heart from the corpse and for hours, worked at the most critical aspect of the procedure; replacing every trace of blood in it with Washkansky's. The heart, set pumping again with electrodes, was passed to the other side of the screen and overnight, Dr Barnard became the most celebrated surgeon in history.

According to The Economist: "In some of the post-operation photographs Mr Naki inadvertently appeared, smiling broadly in his white coat at Dr Barnard's side. He was a cleaner, the hospital explained, or a gardener. Hospital records listed him that way, though his pay, a few hundred dollars a month, was actually that of a senior lab technician. It was the most they could give, officials later explained, to someone who had no diploma."

Pulled out of school at 14 when his family could no longer afford it, Mr Naki seemed set to be a cattle-herd but defied destiny by hitchhiking to Cape Town to find a job, at first cleaning animal cages at the medical school, then trusted to help administer anaesthetic to pigs, before being allowed to perform surgery on them, specialising in even more intricate procedures like liver transplants and eventually becoming a lecturer to aspiring doctors.

As Mr Naki remembered to an interviewer shortly after Dr Barnard admitted to trickery: "I was told 'You are black. Nobody must know what you are doing." He kept the secret intact for more than three decades. Mr Naki had no formal training in medicine. The nearest he had come to an MD degree was while tending lawns and rolling tennis courts at the University of Cape Town Medical School. As he put it: "I stole (the information) with my eyes."

Nor was it purely apartheid that oppressed Mr Naki. Even after South Africa was under black rule from 1994, no one sought to right this terrible injustice until Dr Barnard died. After retiring in 1991 on a gardener's pension, which could send only one of his five children to high school, Mr Naki still exploited his medical contacts to raise funds for a rural school and mobile clinic in his hometown but never thought of personal reward.

Recognition did not come until 2003, with the National Order of Mapungubwe and an Honorary Degree in Medicine from the University of Cape Town but throughout his adult life, Mr Naki carried that burden with personal dignity.

The lessons we can distill from Mr Naki's story are many and varied but the most striking has to be that bitterness was not in his nature. It is an example that can guide us all as we ponder the various residuals of Emancipation.

Part I | Part II

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