South Africa: Hamilton Naki, the unsung hero.

Author:Mbakwe, Tom

Did you know that a black man, Hamilton Naki, played a major role in the first human heart transplant in 1967, but was forced by apartheid 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, 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 Hospital 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...

To continue reading