By Anton Harber
From African Muckrakers, 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa, edited by Anya Shiffrin and George Lugadambi (Jacana, 2017)
Founded in 1951, Drum magazine captured the emerging spirit of defiance in post-war South Africa, giving a voice to a new urban culture that was radicalizing black opposition politics and expressing itself in a burst of creativity in writing, music, and dance. As the apartheid government, which had come to power in 1948, tightened its grip, the African National Congress turned to protest and defiance under the youthful influence of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others. The few racially mixed areas around the big cities were cauldrons of political and cultural activity through the 1950s and Sophiatown, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, was one such area.
Under the patronage of Jim Bailey, heir to a mining fortune, and the editorship of Anthony Sampson, later to become Mandela’s biographer, Drum captured this Sophiatown spirit. It was a commercial venture, which came out monthly, but was driven by the maverick Bailey’s passion for black journalism, Sampson’s knack for finding talent, and a brilliant team of writers and photographers, such as Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Casey Motsitsi, Lewis Nkosi, and Bob Gosani.
The magazine’s pages carried a heady mix of American-style gangsters, radical politicians, illegal taverns, jazz singers, sex across the colour line, and tough exposés in print and picture. It was a pioneer expression of an exuberant and confident African perspective, celebrating African leadership, achievement, and creativity. East and West African editions turned it into an early pan-African venture, distributed in eight countries, with considerable success.
One man in particular, Henry Nxumalo, who often wrote under the name Mr. Drum, pioneered first-hand investigative reporting, immersing himself in stories to give vivid descriptions of life under white minority rule. He tackled the toughest stories, such as prison, labour conditions, and church segregation, with extraordinary courage.
In 1954, to experience and write about harsh conditions in a Johannesburg prison, Nxumalo set out to have himself arrested for not carrying the notorious “pass book” which all black men were obliged to have with them at all times. After a few days of frustration, he broke a shop window to get the attention of the police.
Since authorities had denied previous reports of the conditions in the jail, “we believed that only by sending a member of our own staff to jail could we be certain of an accurate report,” the editor wrote.
Nxumalo told his story of racism, violence, and degradation in deadpan language: “I was kicked and thrashed every day. I saw many other prisoners being thrashed daily. I was never told what was expected of me. Sometimes I guessed wrong and got into trouble . . . all prisoners were called Kaffirs at all times.”
He described the “tausa,” a strange dance that naked prisoners returning from work had to go through to show they were not hiding anything on their bodies. Drum photographer Jürgen Schadeberg, a German who was himself to become a legend at the magazine, pretended to be doing a fashion shoot with an office secretary on top of a nearby building to get a picture that remains one of the most unforgettable images of the indignities of apartheid. There was an outcry, and shortly afterward a new law was passed with severe penalties for publishing “false information” about prisons.
Nxumalo’s most politically significant work, however, was in exposing brutal labour conditions on farms. In 1952 he focused on Bethal, a major farming area east of Johannesburg known for its use of prison labour and a series of convictions of farmers for assault and brutality. He interviewed workers who told of being tricked into signing contracts to work in slave-like conditions, and to confirm the details he signed up himself. Pictures showed prisoners being transported in wire cages on the back of trucks to work on the farm.
Others wrote about farm conditions, but Nxumalo was the only one to go in and experience it himself. In 1955, he wrote a piece headlined I worked on Snyman’s farm. Snyman was a notorious farmer in Rustenberg, west of Johannesburg, who had been repeatedly convicted for assaulting his workers. Nxumalo wrote of back-breaking corn-picking with bare hands, numerous assaults by the farmer, and how workers were kept against their will: when he felt he could work no longer, he was told: “On this farm you
don’t just quit when you want to.” He was asked for his pass. “He tore it up into little pieces and threw them away on the lawn. “Now you can’t leave without my permission: I can have you arrested and imprisoned . . .”
Mr. Drum fled in the dead of night.
Again, this was accompanied by an extraordinary set of photographs, taken covertly, including a silhouette of a guard on a horse wielding a whip.
Nxumalo was stabbed to death in 1957 while on his way to meet a source while investigating an illegal abortion racket by a well-known doctor. His murderer was never identified, but it was widely presumed to be related to the story.
Repeated coverage of these labour conditions by Drum and others led to an organized potato boycott in 1959, a critical moment in the mobilization of the ANC. But the severe security clampdown during the state of emergency in 1960 and the arrest of most political leaders drove many of the Drum writers into exile, and the magazine never recovered.
The residents of Sophiatown were forcibly removed in 1964. Bailey soldiered on until he was forced to sell the magazine in the 1980s. It is still published, now owned by Media24, though the current version bears little resemblance to the magazine of the 1950s.
In 2005, Nxumalo was given the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver and a Johannesburg street was named after him. Drum is remembered as a high moment in the history of black journalism, and a symbol of what might have been if apartheid had not crushed its spirit.
Full copies of the magazine can be found at Bailey’s African History Archives: www.baha.co.za. The story was captured in the 2004 film Drum, and the stage production Sophiatown. For further reading, see Sampson’s memoir, Drum: The Making of a Magazine ( Jonathan Ball, 1983), and Mike Nicol’s A Good-Looking Corpse: The World of Drum—Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance (Secker & Warburg, 1991).