"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Wednesday, January 25, 2006,10:36 AM
Drum Magazine
By Struan Douglas

From the coffee plantations of the Gold Coast to the jazz-stung nightspots of Nigeria, from the slow pomp of Uganda's royal ceremonies to the livid frenzy of Kenya's turmoils; in the dreaming hamlets of Zululand; among Cape Town's fun-filled coon life, and Johannesburg's teeming, thrilling thousands - everywhere, every month Drum is read and relished." Henry Nxumalo Jan '56.

Drum was the great African success story. It was popular and prestigious media, that linked and shared ideologies, beliefs and abilities across the country and part of the continent. It was influential and entertaining bringing voice to an at times voiceless people. Drum became synonymous with the fringe city slum Sophiatown. It took the bustle, the culture and the colour; it represented the hopes, the struggles, the dreams of the 'Non-European'; and romanticised the fun, the battle, vibrant frenzy and diversity of a racy and dynamic urban existence. Drum was an icon of courage, beauty and high life - ' the best of times, the worst of times - so full of events,' claimed Can Themba.

But, South Africa of that period was a land of bitter contrast, and ultimately a land of complete tragedy. With the inflexible and immovable rock that was apartheid, the job of the social commentator and cultural historian became impossible and the romanticism of the period turned to heartbreak, frustration, angst and finally despair. Drum slowly faded eventually selling out to the Nationale Pers in the Eighties.

Publisher, Jim Bailey maintains that this offered the regime a stake and a sensitivity to black culture and hence retained peace in the politically fragile South Africa. We will never know how close we came to a crippling revolution, however what this move certainly did achieve was maintaining the longevity of the magazine - an ideal that Drum never wavered from the moment it became the unique and desperately needed vehicle of expression for black culture.

Drum was a perfectly timed literary renaissance which created the opportunity for a disparate cast of young, gifted and courageous black writers to engage and contribute on a higher level than the political dispensation allowed. It was a brief and exuberant moment where their interests and lives touched - feeding off the cultural indestructibility of the period, blossoming in the challenge of the ridiculous political regime, nobly promoting black identity and capturing the excitement of a racy period.

Drum was the greatest role-call of alumni - the initiation of many a distinguished literary career. Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and Es'kia Mphahlele's work have been made permanent between hard covers or as plays on the stage. Photographers, Peter Magubane, Jurgen Schadeberg and Bob Gosanie have turned out major pictorial books. Arthur Maimane was a senior news director at British TV. And of the white editors, Anthony Sampson and Sir Tom Hopkinson are among the great figures in British newspaper history, and this week Sylvester Stein releases his novel, 'Who killed Mr Drum'.

Mr Drum, Henry Nxumalo, was the first journalist for the magazine, and the first to employ the mass of extraordinary material the polar opposites of South African politics offered the non-white world. He risked everything to bear the truth and maintain the integrity of the exploited people. Mr Drum
was the good, fighting courageously and liberally, swallowing tough and dangerous assignments for the cause - to uncover the scoop, provoke change and strengthen the will off the righteous. He was every bit as suave, sassy and heroic as the British Bond, continually at the cutting edge of danger,
controversy, mistreatment and inequity. He knew what was going down, and he supplied the details.

His working stint on the potato farms rocked parliament exposing the poor conditions under which Africans laboured. The clean up the reef campaign identified the great area of lawlessness, 'the square mile of sin' and cried for support from the police. He conspired to get himself into Johannesburg central prison, and created an international scoop with the ward conditions and the belittling naked native search. He arrived barefoot and unshaven to beg employment on a farm where an African labourer was flogged to death with a hose-pipe. And his investigation into church apartheid was fascinating in its juxtaposition of icy prejudice and the will for 'brotherly love'.

Crime and investigative reporting joined the more frivolous and entertaining material - sex (preferably across the colour line) and sport as the content formula for the magazine, whilst explicit and provocative photography was the romantic shine. In every issue, there were sweet and coy picture love stories - girl meets boy, a lonely love song, a sensitive man and Cupids strike. Dolly's heartbreak column appealed to all unrequited, footloose, inexperienced or confused lovers to write in for advice. Todd Matshikiza with his rhythmical infectious jazz writing brought the personal victories of many artists to the public.

Drum illustrated the tragic paradox of apartheid life - the blatant racism and chilling inhumanities juxtaposed against a class-less and culture-less vision of life that aspired to the ideal that all people were inherently good.

Township life was a life of insecurity racked with a violent endemic - and the journalists laughed at it to live with it, creating an enthusiastic, light hearted and romantic vision of a bohemian life where the moment, the now was what mattered. Lofty ideals and political projections were misplaced in this fast talking, fast living, brash kind of race to enjoy life now, while you could. It was "live fast, die young - and have a good-looking corpse" as Mike Nicol described it - a heroic period where gangsters were movie stars, artists were sex-icons and journalists were crusaders. Drum was a brilliant mirror of society, preserving cultural pride and identity, injecting a self confidence into the heart of the people, enabling them to fight with courage. It was popular media for an integrated era that captured all aspects of township life in its drudgery, exhilaration, wildness and sadness.

And with all these emotions the journalists became a huge presence in the community. They brought an effervescence from the variety of cultural hot-spots and an earnestness from the social issues. Their lives were a dedication, a mission, almost a fearless and selfless abandon in evaluating everybody's culture, everybody's concern.

It made compulsive reading. People lived by their Drum magazine, everybody of every age would read it. In the trains, on the streets, in the clubs - it would pass from hand to hand, everyone's monthly diet of controversy, self-acclamation and self-worth. Drum was a symbol of the new African cult, divorced from the tribal stereotypes, but urbanised, eager and proud.

The Drum period had set the standard for urban living - a sensitivity to other African states, a tremendous cultural and linguistic cross-fertilisation and a tradition of pride and respect - all nattily
attired in the American influence. Yet, this culture explosion, the wonderful and romantic life and all the hope and promise was subjected to the tragedy of the fascist divide and rule technique. Apartheid separated the thrilling diversity and variety of stimulus and destroyed the vibrant
cosmopolitanism - and the essence of Drum magazine.

"Tomorrow is yours, tomorrow is soon," said Trevor Huddleston in a pained reflection on his agonising departure from his 'beloved country'. Perhaps tomorrow is now - the occasion that we may see the past and the present coming together. We may see the courage, pride and self-esteem of yesteryear resonating through the present - the African Games, the Arts Alive and One
City Many Cultures festivals. And with this, the Western ideals - the borrowed cultural stereotypes of a disenfranchised nation - may be lost, our pride in African culture and consciousness may be restored, and our dedication to African unity revived.
posted by R J Noriega
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