Johannesburg, 1951: The magazine Drum fights against the apartheid regime with sharp words and provocative images, becoming the antithesis of the entire South African press. The numerous exposés by investigative journalist Henry “Mr. Drum” Nxumalo on the working and living conditions of blacks culminate in an international uproar.
The waves break elegantly as a group of young boys paddle out into the open ocean on their longboards. Toddlers dive into the incoming surf and run after the white water as it retreats from the shore. On this serene Sunday afternoon, the beach of Muizenberg in the Cape is flooded by dozens of families. And hoisted along the seaside boulevard, plain metal signs herald an unmistakable truth: “This beach and the amenities thereof have been reserved for whites only”. In the 1950s, South Africa wallows in the mire of the apartheid regime.
Throughout the country, mainstream newspapers remain constrained by the policies of racial segregation, in times particularly challenging for non-white journalists. Black newspapers are either very small or, if larger, then controlled by white-dominated social and business interests; the content they offer is either trivial or driven by “safe” sensationalism. Independent investigative journalism has no place in the country’s media landscape in those troubled days.
The area of Johannesburg – the square mile of sin – is still being invaded by white investors whose ancestors arrived during the Witwatersrand gold rush of 1886 on the discovery of a vein that remains the world’s largest to date, and the sky-scraped city now serves as a main stronghold of white supremacy. After the Afrikaner-dominated National Party gains power in 1948, it tightens the implementation of racial segregation by law: the status “employee”, for example, excludes blacks a priori. The Group Areas Act of 1950 enforces the eviction of the black population from now legally designated white areas. It is during that short period of time that the government constructs a massive agglomeration of townships outside the city limits, for blacks only, and still known today as Soweto – the South Western Townships. But amidst the havoc of apartheid, a thorny rose emerges from the concrete of Jo’burg: Drum is born in 1951.
Millionaire and former Royal Air Force pilot Jim Bailey establishes the Drum Magazine under the editorship of the British journalist Anthony Sampson. They invite Henry Nxumalo to become assistant editor. Although Drum does not embark as a political magazine, it provides a racy and irreverent blend of humor and sentiment mixed with weighty commentaries on African continental affairs by renowned intellectuals. In 1952, Time Magazine writes: “In the teeming Negro […] shantytowns of Johannesburg, where newspapers and magazines are a rarity, a truck piled high with magazines rumbled through the unpaved streets last week. Wherever it stopped, hundreds of people swarmed about it, buying the magazine. A 5 cent life-size monthly, Drum has in less than three years become the leading spokesman for South Africa’s 9,000,000 Negro and colored population”.
In the early days, Nxumalo reports on sports events and South Africa’s music scene. He is among the first to savor Miriam Makeba in the jazz clubs of the townships – before she, “Mama Afrika”, becomes an internationally known, Grammy-winning singer. But it does not take long before the 34-year old journalist dives into a series of more critical articles addressing South Africa’s devastating labor abuses and political injustices. The stakes are high, and the police omnipresent. In 1952, for example, a disguised Nxumalo acting undercover as a reporter is hired by a potato farmer near Bethal in today’s Mpumalanga Province. Based on this rare, first-hand information, his article vividly portrays the slave-like conditions afflicting many black workers. A year later, Nxumalo purposefully violates an official curfew and gets arrested. He spends five days in Jo’burg’s Central Prison and afterwards publishes an internationally acclaimed account of the “black man’s death” in its cells.
Nxumalo soon teams up with German photographer Jürgen Schadeberg. While investigating the Western Native Townships, they discover the practices of a well-known medical doctor who is conducting illegal abortions for black women – many of whom die. In the course of that enquiry, 40-year old “Mr. Drum” is mortally stabbed by unknown assailants and dies December 31, 1957.
The era of consequential racial segregation expanded over a period of 84 years in South Africa, and was ruthlessly exploited as both a political and economic tool. The legacy of the now legendary Drum magazine and of its crew, like Henry Nxumalo, continues to inspire investigative journalism even today. In 2005, 48 years after his death, Henry Nxumalo was posthumously awarded the “Order of Ikhamanga in Silver” for excellence in South African journalism.