Drum becomes an online-only magazine this month, almost 70 years after launching as an African print publication.
The magazine is now a celebrity-focused human interest magazine. But it played a very different role in the 1950s and 1960s, when it is widely seen as having created new possibilities of identity for black South Africans. It was also crucial for the development of South African literature.
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“The Drum Boys,” a group of young writers employed by the magazine in its early days, served an emerging urban black readership during the first decade of apartheid, which came into effect in 1948. Their lively chronicles of urban adventures made them popular characters, while also contributing to Drum’s commercial success.
The magazine became the largest circulation publication for black South African readers, and expanded to include East and West African editions.
The ‘drum era’ of the 1950s has been fictionalized as ‘the fabulous decade’ through posters, photographs, films and exhibits. The Drum look has found its way into fashion (T-shirts printed with Drum blankets), home decor and television, commercials, and game shows such as Strictly Come Dancing.
Despite the nostalgia, many South Africans were unfamiliar with the early journalism of Drum. But magazines, as media scholar Tim Holmes notes, are essential to building identities because of their intense focus on readers and reading communities.
Such journalism, despite its light appearance, tells us complex stories about culture. Magazines also provide space for creative forms of journalism.
Through their use of storytelling, personal narration, local lingo and vivid scenes from everyday life, Drum’s writers have embarked on an ongoing construction of a cosmopolitan identity for the townspeople of Johannesburg. Literature scholar Michael Titlestad called this process “improvisation,” comparing drumming with the improvisation in local jazz that took place in the 1950s.
As countries across Africa moved towards independence in the 1950s, in South Africa the National Party introduced draconian apartheid laws. Migration to cities has also increased. Africans could not own property, but could obtain freehold rights in certain areas, such as Sophiatown, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Sophiatown was a place where people could mingle through the color bar. Its shebeens (informal taverns), music, celebrities and gangsters were the source of many drumming stories.
The African Drum was launched in 1951. After three lackluster months, the owner, Jim bailey, brought in a friend from England, Anthony Sampson, to edit the magazine. They did some informal research and were told that black readers wanted sports, jazz, celebrities, and “hot ladies.”
“Tell us what’s going on here, man, on the reef!” ”
Henri nxumalo, a former serviceman with some experience as a journalist, was very influential in the development of Drum’s style as the magazine sought to attract black readers. The writers came from diverse backgrounds.
Todd Matshikiza was a musician (and went on to compose the musical King Kong). Can Themba, a teacher, won a fiction contest organized by the magazine in 1952. Arthur Maimane was a schoolboy at St Peter’s High School in Sophiatown with a passion for American detective writing. A young German, Jürgen Schadeberg, took the photos, later joined by Bob Gosani and Peter Magubane.
Most with no journalism training, Drum writers began to experiment with stories of everyday life in black townships. Nxumalo and Matshikiza, as early Drum writers, were instrumental in creating inventiveness in both reporting and writing.
Matshikiza developed a lively style for writing about jazz, which has come to be nicknamed “Matshikese”. He has been described as typing on his typewriter like a musician playing the keyboard.
Maimane wrote serialized fictions in the style of American detective novels. Others have recounted first-person adventures in shebeens and clubs, wrote denominational stories on behalf of characters they interviewed, or offered their own opinions.
In their stories, they used fictional writing styles more than current affairs reporting, as many Drum writers also wrote short stories and novels. As Todd’s son John Matshikiza noted years later in the preface to a collection of articles on Drum:
What is surprising is that there is no real line between the two styles of writing: the journalistic and the fictional.
At first, traffic was slow to pick up. Next, Nxumalo told a story about the mistreatment of workers on the farms in Bethal. Nxumalo and photographer Schadeberg pretended to be a visiting journalist and his servant to gain access to the farms. The magazine published an eight page article describing the abuse, titled “Mr Drum”.
The edition sold out and the public response reached Parliament.
After that, Drum conducted regular surveys, mostly conducted by Nxumalo. He got arrested so he could write about the conditions of detention and took a job on a farm where a worker was killed. “Mr Drum” has become a celebrity, and his exploits in investigative journalism have rarely been matched in South Africa.
Drum sales reached 73,657 in 1955, making it the most widely distributed magazine in Africa in all languages. The evil spirit of the drum writers, however, was difficult to maintain as the structures of apartheid descended upon them.
In 1956, the black residents of Sophiatown were being withdrawn, to make way for an exclusively white suburb, in line with apartheid policies which prohibited the mixing of “races”.
In December 1956, Nxumalo was stabbed to death during an investigation. His death deeply affected his fellow writers.
The growing repression of the 1960s destroyed the journalists at the “Drum school”. Most of them went into exile. Drum was banned and ceased to appear for a few years. The title was eventually relaunched and sold in 1984 to Nasionale Pers, an Afrikaans media company closely linked to the apartheid government.
In the 1980s, many of the early Drum writers were not banned, releasing their writings into the public domain of South Africa. Mike Nicol, who wrote a book on 1950s Drum, describes the impact of that moment as history moving beneath our feet, revealing a ‘lost land’. There has been a resurgence of interest from literature researchers. Michael Chapman, in the 1980s, argued that
Drum’s stories mark the substantial start in South Africa of the modern black short story.
Lewis Nkosi, for his part, lamented the fleeting potential of the Drum Generation and the production of what he called “journalism of an insignificant genre”.
Mphahlele felt that Drum did not take social issues seriously. Others argued that Drum was not explicitly engaged in the liberation struggle.
Many researchers argue that the authors of Drum, by detailing the day-to-day experience, showed quite powerfully the violent impact of the apartheid system on black South Africans. Nkosi noted:
No newspaper article … could ever meaningfully convey the deep sense of entrapment black people feel under apartheid.
Their inventive style of using fictional tactics to tell non-fiction stories predated New Journalism of America by a decade – touted by Tom Wolfe as a whole new take on journalism.
This edited excerpt is adapted from Echoes of an African Drum: The Lost Literary Journalism of the 1950s in South Africa, in literary journalism studies.
Lesley Cowling, Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism, University of the Witwatersrand