The Unkindest Cut; of All the Extraordinary Tales from Apartheid South Africa, None Is More Incredible Than That of Hamilton Naki, a Humble Gardener Who Became a Brilliant Surgeon, Helping Christiaan Barnard with the First Heart Transplant ... Only to Be Erased from History Because He Was Black, REVIEW

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Unkindest Cut; of All the Extraordinary Tales from Apartheid South Africa, None Is More Incredible Than That of Hamilton Naki, a Humble Gardener Who Became a Brilliant Surgeon, Helping Christiaan Barnard with the First Heart Transplant ... Only to Be Erased from History Because He Was Black, REVIEW


Byline: BARBARA JONES

When residents of Langa gather in church next week to say their final farewell to Hamilton Naki, it will be a short, basic funeral, apparently indistinguishable from hundreds taking place every day in the poor black townships of South Africa. But, in fact, they will be commemorating the life of one of the most extraordinary figures in modern African history.

Naki is a man whose vast contribution to humanity could never be acknowledged during the cruel years of apartheid and was so nearly forgotten altogether. For until his death last week, aged 78, official records show Naki was employed as a cleaner and gardener at Cape Town University's Medical School.

Which, indeed, he was. But the incredible truth is that, despite a poor education and virtual illiteracy, Naki acquired such brilliant skills in surgery and anaesthetics that he became part of the team that carried out the world's first human heart transplant in 1967 at the side of Christiaan Barnard. 'Naki had better technical skills than I did,' said Barnard.

Naki went on to perform transplant operations himself and earned an international reputation as a lecturer in anatomy. Thanks to the man with 'magic surgical hands', many of his students later became professors of surgery and heads of medical departments around the world.

So how did someone with no formal skills manage to rise to such revered medical heights? Through extraordinary talent and sheer hard graft, say those who worked with him.

'Despite his limited conventional education, he had an amazing ability to learn anatomical names and recognise anomalies,' said Rosemary Hickman, one of the many surgeons who learned from him at Cape Town.

'Hamilton arrived at work at 6am come rain, shine, or strike and no matter how far he had to travel.' Yet shamefully, his achievements could never be acknowledged. Successive apartheid governments decreed medicine a whiteonly profession, refusing to allow black people any formal training, let alone recognition for their work.

When Naki retired in 1991, he received a paltry government pension as a gardener - the equivalent of [pounds sterling]70 a month - and returned to Langa where he struggled to the end to support his family. He died there last week in the tiny three-bedroom house where he raised his four sons and a daughter, having spent his last days tending his vegetable patch.

Naki was born in the village of Ngcingane, in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, on June 13, 1926.

His parents, like millions of blacks in rural South Africa, were desperately poor and unable to provide their son with a secondary education.

His only schooling was in a classroom under a baobab tree which he left, virtually illiterate, at 12. But even by then, he had somehow acquired an innate knowledge of anatomy.

At 14, he went to Cape Town to look for work, eventually becoming an assistant gardener at the renowned whites-only university. By day he would tend the beautifully preserved lawns and flowerbeds, returning at night to one of Langa's notorious hostels, where there was no electricity or running water. But his quiet diligence soon brought him to the attention of the senior medic, Dr Robert Goetz, who was looking for a strong man to help with the laboratory animals at the university's medical facility.

'It was a job nobody wanted to do,' Naki later recalled.

'Cleaning out cages and keeping the dogs and baboons and pigs healthy so that they could be operated on.' Nonetheless, he arrived in Goetz's office in his usual working clothes - a crisp white shirt, tie, neatly pressed trousers, polished shoes and Homburg. Within minutes, he was taken on as an assistant.

Goetz quickly noticed Naki's abilities. Naki said: 'He saw I was good with animals, I understood them. He encouraged me and word got around.' Soon Naki was performing animal experiments himself. …

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The Unkindest Cut; of All the Extraordinary Tales from Apartheid South Africa, None Is More Incredible Than That of Hamilton Naki, a Humble Gardener Who Became a Brilliant Surgeon, Helping Christiaan Barnard with the First Heart Transplant ... Only to Be Erased from History Because He Was Black, REVIEW
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