Henry Nxumalo: A courageous and caring father

His daughter remembers…

Recently we ran a piece on one of our finest Journalist Pioneers, Henry “Mr Drum” Nxumalo. The story has elicited a response from his journalist daughter, Suzette Nxumalo

Not only was Henry Nxumalo, a true master of the craft of journalism, he was also a “very pleasant, exciting and hands- on daddy.”

These are the reflections of Suzette Nxumalo- Mafuna about her father, who would become known to the world as “Mr Drum”, one of the most daring of the reporters who wrote for the iconic Sophiatown- era magazine.

In an exclusive interview with The Journalist, Suzette celebrated her father’s contribution to the media and to South Africa. She shared rare and intimate memories with us, about the man behind the icon.

Speaking to us from her sister’s home in the United States, Suzette said, “I’m very proud that he was my father, proud of how he provided for us when he was alive. Proud of how he shaped the future of a lot of journalists today.”

In Mike Nicol’s book, a good-looking CORPSE, Henry Nxumalo is described as “Drum’s best journalist” and “the greatest investigative journalist South Africa has ever produced”.

Suzette Nxumalo & her siblings. Photo Courtesy Jurgen Schadeberg's Fifties People

Suzette Nxumalo & her siblings. Photo Courtesy Jurgen Schadeberg’s Fifties People

Nxumalo often donned disguises, went undercover, pretended to be a farm worker, got himself arrested, all as part of his journalistic mission to expose social inequality and to challenge unjust authority.

Based in Toronto, Canada, Suzette has two sons, one who lives in South Africa and one in Chicago. Suzette, who also worked in the media, still writes on a freelance basis although she is now retired. “I have three sisters, all of them based in the United States. Our brother, the only boy, Henry Junior, died in 2007,” said Suzette.

Though she was only eight when her father died, Suzette still has fond memories of him. “Because he was working full-time, he wasn’t home a lot. When we did see him it was very exciting. Sometimes he would take time off from work to spend time with us and arrange for the magazine’s driver to pick us up. He took us to the Drum office and all kinds of interesting places. He even took us along to parties with his journalist friends. At the time, we didn’t really know much about the work he was doing, we were just happy to go along with him and to be around him.”

She said sometimes he would host parties at their Sophiatown home. “After the parties we would check behind chairs hunting for money and any interesting things people would leave behind.”

Suzette said her father was loved and revered by all in his community. “He did a lot to get people jobs. In the townships where I was raised he took a lot of young people to help distribute Drum, which helped them pay for their schooling. My father dined with the rich people and he dined with the poor people. He knew everyone in the township. He was revered by people in the community for his down to earth attitude.”

Suzette said the danger her father faced whilst doing his investigative reports, did not really sink in until later. “In my neighbourhood people started boycotting the buying of potatoes after my father exposed the atrocities on the farms. That’s how I understood the work he was doing.”

At the age of thirty- nine, Henry Nxumalo died tragically in December 1956. Suzette remembered the moment clearly, “On the weekend he died, I remember he bought us fancy pairs of shoes for Christmas.

The next thing my Mom was told he had died. Life changed completely for us, from having an active, hands- on Dad, to only having a Mom.”

Suzette believes her father was killed in the course of his journalistic duty, while trying to expose the injustices of the white supremacist system. “I believe strongly that his killing was payback for exposing the injustices of the system. Knowing this made me love him even more, and feel even more upset at losing him.”

Suzette said her father’s legacy inspired her to also work in the media. “I did a column for The World newspaper called “Stray Bullets” taking the Mickey out of politicians. Unfortunately the Apartheid State clamped down and the newspaper folded.”

Now 58 years after his death, Suzette believes her father’s legacy is calling out a challenge to a new generation of young journalists and media workers.

“There is a need for journalists to be courageous and spirited. They need to pursue their course with all they have, no matter the risk to their life and their well being.”