'To the many thousands of Europeans who will read this magazine we offer the excitement and richness of a new literary and artistic discovery, and greater reward still, the intimate and unparalleled knowledge of the great African world all about them.' Jim Bailey, Drum magazine, launch issue, March 1951
Who knows exactly what the retired British World War 2 fighter pilot, Jim Bailey was thinking when he took his money in 1951 and sunk it into a magazine that was to become a vehicle for what he termed 'sound black opinion'. Drum magazine launched just three years after the establishment of the apartheid state; a time when black people, by law, weren't supposed to have opinions on anything. But Drum was a magazine that flaunted the rules from the start, born in a time of struggle and giving voice to the chaotic urban African experience in the townships of apartheid South Africa. Drum writers and photographers belonged to their milieu, born of the ghettoes, they drank in shebeens (illegal taverns), ran with criminal gangs, were heavily into jazz music and reported with all the be-bop style of hardboiled crime writers in the US. Only the context was Sophiatown, Soweto and District Six. Drum writers like Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Casey Motsisi and Todd Matshikiza belonged to the township underworld in a time when the corrupt apartheid system pushed freedom underground. All of the Drum writers went on to carve literary careers for themselves. All except for Nxumalo who was killed while investigating one of his trademark exposÚs. The writing of Drum magazine from this era is now taught in universities across the country. Students marvel at the surreality of the prose and the life it evokes of hungover journos on the run from tsotsis (gangsters) or being arrested by the police while investigating the haphazard trails of abuse suffered by 'the working man'. Nowadays students investigate the axes of class, race and sex in a magazine that on one hand embodied and represented the urban African experience, hopes and dreams and on the other was sponsored by advertisements for skin lightening cream and hair straightener. Drum also had it's fair share of bikini girls and glam jazz singers, scantily dressed and pouting seductively from covers and centrefolds. The magazine infamously referred to rape as 'love by force' with the telling coverline: 'Reef Girls Forced Into Love!'
Despite the zeitgeist of 1950s South Africa, so prevalent in Drum and it's hard boiled journalist breed, the ethos of investigative journalism that Drum established and the raw, bleeding slice of life the magazine served up to a public that had never been represented in media before, resulted in the magazine expanding its operations to cover all of Anglophone Africa from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya to the Central African Republic.
This seminal magazine captured the esprit and socio-cultural life of South Africa from the 50s until '84 when the title was bought out by Naspers, a big South African publisher, and subsequently turned into a fortnightly tabloid. It is sadly amusing that this groundbreaking title is still available in South Africa, now only touting the international celeb goss of David Beckham and Beyonce Knowles.A recent film, still in post-production, simply entitled Drum, deals with the Henry Nxumalo story, and is the first attempt to capture the Drum story on celluloid. Dumi Dlamini, the film's South African producer comments: 'It's a tiny budget film. But for South African standards, it's a big budget for a first time black director. The story is really a celebration of investigative journalism and a tribute to the irrepressible talent of the day. It's not so much about what happened to Henry Nxumalo but rather about how this guy put his whole life in jeopardy and went out of his way to do all these exposÚs.'