Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Monday, June 13, 2005

The gravest of injustices
It's appalling that most of us have never heard of Hamilton Naki. Naki died two weeks ago and took with him the chance of true retribution from South African society. Naki is a man failed by Apartheid, and failed again by us all.

Hamilton Naki was the surgeon who's team performed the first half of the famed Christiaan Barnard heart transplant at Groote Schuur hospital in 1967. Under the Apartheid regime, he was not allowed to study medicine, was not allowed into a white hospital's operating theatre, and was not allowed to operate on a white person.

Naki had been self taught during his adolescence. At the age of fourteen he was hired by the University of Cape Town to maintain the tennis courts on the university grounds. In 1954 he was promoted to helping with the care of laboratory animals. He soon progressed from cleaning cages to more advanced laboratory work. Such was his skill, that he was drafted in early in the heart transplant team and the majority of the research and testing carried out on animals preceding the surgery was undertaken by Naki. Naki was drawn into the actual surgery team, and was responsible for taking the heart out of the recently deceased Denise Darvall, which was then given to Barnard to transplant.

But given that a lauded black heart surgeon was never something the Apartheid state would tolerate, Naki was kept under wraps and was listed only as the hospital's gardener. Whilst Barnard went on to milk international fame and recognition, Naki returned to his one-room shack in Langa without electricity or running water. When he retired, he was paid a gardener's pension.

In 2002, Naki was given the Bronze Order of Mapungubwe, one of South Africa's highest honours, but it did little to bring him the widespread fame that he so richly deserved. Ironically enough, it seems that he has continued to be markedly celebrated internationally, putting our own media and culture to shame. Headline obituaries can be found in the print editions of The Economist, The New York Times, The LA Times, The Telegraph and the The Independent. In South Africa, all I can find are passing articles noting his death.

A 2003 interview with Naki is carried in the Guardian quotes the heralded Dr Barnard as saying "[Naki] probably had more technical skill than I had."

I salute 'Doctor' Hamilton Naki.