The staff of Drum magazine

The press gang

Sophiatown in the 1950s was an energetic and pulsating freehold suburb, a “black spot” with racially mixed residents, about two-fifths of whom were black. Although “Kofifi”, as it was colloquially known, was fairly squalid and overcrowded, a close-knit, cosmopolitan community developed, and the suburb became a centre of artistic expression and social freedom. Its spirit filtered through on the strains of the saxophone escaping from jazz clubs, the rowdy laughter of drinkers at the illegal shebeens (taverns) and in the colourful hybrid language of tsotsitaal (gangster language) spoken by locals who emulated American gangsters and drove large American cars.

It was against this exuberant background that Africa Drum magazine launched in 1951. The magazine soon changed its focus; from offering an almost paternalistic account of life in the townships, the magazine began providing hard-hitting social commentary and tackling contemporary issues. This was largely due to the Drum staff, a host gifted black writers.

Henry “Mr Drum” Nxumalo showed early promise as a writer. After sending samples of his work to publications, he was offered a job by the Post in Johannesburg, where he worked before serving in the South African army in Egypt during the Second World War.

Nxumalo became assistant editor of Drum in 1951, which broke his frustration at being limited in his opportunities as a black man. At Drum, he focused on investigative reporting. He worked undercover on a potato farm to expose the appalling working conditions under which black labourers toiled; he was concerned with lawlessness in the city and wrote an exposé on conditions in Johannesburg’s Central Prison; he considered the role of the church in supporting apartheid. Nxumalo’s desire to root out the truth led to his murder in 1957, when he tried to expose an abortion scheme.

Todd Matshikiza came from a family of renowned musicians. He studied for a diploma in music before becoming a teacher. He was fondly nicknamed the “Pied Piper”, as he played various instruments as a student and teacher. Matshikiza was a jazz connoisseur and devoted to the Johannesburg jazz world. He was an original writer at the new Drum and was responsible for musical criticism and acute social commentary.

Can Themba graduated with an English degree and a teacher’s diploma. He entered and won Drum’s short story competition before working as one of the team, which lived by the credo, “live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse”. He is especially famous for his gritty short story, The Suit, which depicts the struggles of township life and received numerous accolades, including the 1953 Drum award.

Themba’s Sophiatown home was known as the “House of Truth” and from there he held forth, engaging the “Kofifi” community in intellectual dialogue. He was known as a “shebeen intellectual” and in his later days of heavy drinking his work revealed his disillusionment. It was sadly alcohol abuse that led to his early death in exile, in Swaziland in 1968.

Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi, William Bloke Modisane, Arthur Maimane and Casey Motsisi all contributed to the huge success of Drum. Other journalists who worked in the press room included Bessie Head, Lionel Ngakane, Richard Rive and Jenny Joseph.

Photographic images depicting the daily life and celebrations of the African people became a trademark of the magazine. Under the instruction of a young German immigrant, Jürgen Schadeberg, Ernest Cole and Bob Gosani were trained, and later Peter Magubane developed into a master photographer. Alf Kumalo was another renowned photographer who started out at Drum.

The political turbulence of the 1950s was building and, from 1950 to 1952, large-scale resistance against increasing segregationist legislation saw a commitment to African nationalism. All race groups engaged in strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience under the leadership of the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress.

The movement for the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter united anti-apartheid forces during the 1950s into the non-racial Congress Alliance. The objective was to promote equal opportunity. The Nationalist government responded by formalising apartheid under the leadership of Hendrik Verwoerd and passing 13 more segregationist acts.

In 1954 the Native Resettlement Act granted the government the power to remove black people from their homes and relocate them. On February 9, 1955, 2 000 armed policemen arrived in Sophiatown with 80 removal trucks. Between 1955 and 1968 some 65 000 people were relocated to Meadowlands and Diepkloof. The residences of Sophiatown were torn down – along with the colour, dreams, passion and defiance of the people. Many of the Drum journalists went into exile; many died, but some continued to write independently.

Drum magazine continues to be published in South and East Africa, but it is nothing like the edgy social representation of life in “Sof’town” it was in its heyday.