Sunday, 13 December 2009

Black S/Hero - South Africa: Hamilton Naki, the unsung hero

South Africa: Hamilton Naki, the unsung hero.

Did you know that a black man, Hamilton Naki, played a major role in the first human heart transplant heart transplant in 1967, but was forced by apartheid South Africa South Africa to pretend he was just a gardener? Yet, without Naki's surgical skills, that medical breakthrough might not have happened. Tom Mbakwe reports.

Hamilton Naki had no formal training in medicine, but he is one of Africa's best-kept medical secret. Thirty-seven years after the first human transplant that propelled the South African surgeon, Christiaan Barnard Christiaan into the limelight, the truth about Naki's role in that groundbreaking operation is finally coming to light and his achievements are now the centre of several accolades.

Last year, the British daily, The Guardian, interviewed Naki and aptly summed his amazing tale thus: "Two men transplanted the first human heart. One ended up rich and famous--the other had to pretend to be a gardener." Until now!

Today, as deserved praise and tribute pile up on this unpretentious 78-year-old pensioner, his reaction is as humble as the man himself:

"I want you to know that you have made me very happy, and may God bless you for that," he said in an acceptance speech to the London-based Black S/Heroes Award (BSA) committee, which recently honoured him for his services to medicine.

The BSA is an annual award set up in 2003 by the BTWSC, a London-based voluntary organisation that encourages the development of potential through the use of the creative arts. BTWSC stems from the initials of the organisation's first project, a writing competition called "Beyond The Will Smith Challenge" that encouraged young people to write poems, songs and articles with a positive theme.

The aim of the BSA award is to honour unsung contemporary men and women of African descent (both at home and in the Diaspora), who deserve recognition for acts that are inspirational to humankind. And no better candidate deserved the 2003 award than Hamilton Naki.

While most people associate Dr Christiaan Barnard, who died two years ago with the first successful human heart transplant in 1967, the role that Naki played at the Groote Schuur in Cape Town - on that momentous day and subsequent years--was kept secret. Those who attempted to reveal his crucial role were threatened with imprisonment.

As The Guardian put it: "With as photogenic a celebrity as Barnard, the journalists and photographers who crammed into Groote Schuur Hospital had little reason to notice a figure in a white coat lurking on the fringes. Had they asked, they would have been told that Hamilton Naki was a cleaner and gardener who washed floors and swept leaves (at the Hospital). What else, after all, would a black man be doing in a research institute in apartheid South Africa?

"Nobody thought to even ask the question and it is only now, almost four decades later, that the truth has emerged. Naki was not a gardener. The employment records (at Groote Schuur Hospital) which described him thus for 50 years were a lie, a fiction to fit the edicts of a racist state.

"Naki was a surgeon--a pioneering surgeon considered by colleagues to be the most technically gifted of the entire Hospital's medical team. Without him, the transplant might never have happened," The Guardian added for good measure.

Naki's story is one that exposes not only the worst ills and dehumanising schemes of the apartheid regime, but also proves how insecure members of the white-only government were towards embracing black people who were more intelligent and better skilled than them.

Naki was not only barred from training as a doctor, but in the whites-only operating theatre where he was considered an aberration, he was initially not allowed to slice white flesh. "Nobody was to say what I was doing," Naki revealed last year. "A black person was not supposed to be doing such things. That was the law of the land."

Although forced to be invisible at Groote Schuur Groote Schuur, Naki still proved his prowess as a natural surgeon by performing laboratory experiments on animals. He went on to teach white doctors and medical students lots of things about surgery - an unusual occurrence in the apartheid era.

But despite this discrimination, Naki was Dr Barnard's obvious choice for assistant when he introduced his ambitious new open-heart surgery open-heart surgery

Any surgical procedure opening the heart and exposing one or more of its chambers, most often to repair valve disease or correct congenital heart malformations (see congenital heart disease). techniques in 1967. Yet, even Barnard would not publicly acknowledge Naki's role. It was only towards the end of his life that Barnard (who died on 2 September 2001) revealed his admiration for Naki's skill and dexterity: "He probably had more technical skill than I had," Barnard finally admitted publicly in the evening of his life.

But it was all a hush-hush affair on 3 December 1967, when Barnard performed that famous first heart transplant on the 55-year-old diabetic patient, Louis Washkansky. It was Naki who led Barnard's team of medics for the 48-hour operation that removed the accident-victim Denise Darvall's heart to be transplanted into Washkansky.

Recalls Naki: "Your hands got tired. We were exhausted." But that was not all. When the news of the transplant broke out, the world media was all over Barnard. But where was Naki? "I was called one of the backroom boys. They put the white people out front. If people published pictures of me, they would go to jail," he says.

Is he bitter? "Not at all. It was the way things were. They pretended I was a cleaner." But not any more.

Naki was born in 1926 in Ngcingane, a small village in the Eastern Cape. At the age of 14, he went to Cape Town Cape Town to look for work and was lucky to be hired by the University of Cape Town as a gardener.

In 1954, he was chosen to help Dr Robert Goetz with laboratory animals. Dr Goetz was a Jewish doctor who had left Germany for South Africa. Naki loved his work. Arriving at 6 am every morning, and no matter how far he had to travel, he almost never missed a day at work. By the early 1960s, he was slicing, stitching and using drips on the laboratory animals.

Recalling his days with Dr Goetz, Naki says: "Ooh yes. At that time there was no one else you can see, no one else willing to do that sort of work ... It was difficult work but I wanted to learn."

His colleagues admired his steady hand, and many of the surgeons who trained in Cape Town learned from him. One such surgeon was Rosemary Hickman, who told The Guardian: "Despite his limited conventional education, he had an amazing ability to learn anatomical names and recognise anomalies."

Before the BTWSC award, Naki had already received the Order of the Mapungubwe -one of the highest honours in South Africa. His exploits are now the subject of a yet-to-be made documentary (and perhaps a feature) film proposed by the South African film company, Ad Astera, under the apt title: "Hands of a forgotten Hero".

The film producer, Dirk de Villiers, who was a friend of Dr Barnard's, says Barnard tipped him off about his (Barnard's) collaboration with Naki, and his outstanding role in heart surgery. "A lot of stories have been told about Barnard, but this (Naki's) is one that has not been told," says De Villiers.

But despite his achievements, Naki now lives on the pension of a gardener.

"When I read about him and the fact that not only had official recognition been withheld from this inspirational figure, but also that he was living on a gardener's pension, I decided to do something more than commiserate,” said the BTWSC co-ordinator and co-founder of the Black S/Heroes Award (BSA), Ms Serwah. "This is why we are publicly recognising Naki."

The award and a cheque for [pounds sterling]1,000 were received on behalf of Naki by the South African acting deputy high commissioner in London, Sisa Ncwana, who said he was honoured by the award.

L-R: Asante, Wadsworth, Cllr Nana Asante-Twumasi,
Ms Serwah, Kwaku, Mrs Matilda Asante, Ncwan

"Naki is a man who participated in the great history-making event," Ncwana said. "It was a great feat indeed and we will remember him for his humility. It is with the same humility that I today receive this award--not for the South African High Commission in London, but for the people of South Africa as a whole."

Speaking at the same event, K. B. Asante, one time Ghanaian high commissioner in London, said what disadvantaged people needed was the restoration of self-confidence and hope. "It is therefore right that the BTWSC, which inspires individuals to develop their potential, should at its first annual general meeting highlight the exploits of an unsung hero."

Asante continued: "Hamilton Naki had no formal medical training. Yet, he played a leading role in the first successful human heart transplant. But apartheid South Africa did not give him any recognition because that would be contrary to the stereotyped disparaging character imposed on the African people.

In honouring him, Asante said, the BTWSC was reminding all people of African descent that they had a history in which great black men and women played heroic roles, and of which they should be proud.

"Their history is not that of meaningless gyrations of the human torso as one former Oxford professor would have us believe," Asante said. "We have men and women from whom we can take inspiration and rise to great heights. It is necessary that, as we take pride in the achievements of our sung or unsung people, we should be inspired by their vision to attain heights of self-confidence and creativity."

Naki ended his acceptance note thus: "We, the people of South Africa, will never forget the day when we saw the moon, the sun and the stars all at the same time. That is the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. But for him, maybe I wouldn't be receiving this award today. Because of that, I dedicate this award to him and all other freedom fighters around Africa. Forward with Black S/Heroes!"

COPYRIGHT 2004 IC Publications Ltd.

Photos courtesy of BTWSC (

RIP: Hamilton Naki (26 June 1926 – 29 May 2005)


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