In “Drum”, his first fiction feature film, Zola Maseko uses Henry Nxumalo’s story as the key narrative to try and make sense of South Africa of the 1950’s. The critics differ on whether Maseko managed to authentically bring Nxumalo and Drum to life on screen, but the film does help emphasise the importance of Nxumalo’s pioneering journalism.

THE STORY OF Henry Nxumalo aka Mr Drum is shrouded in mystery. Nxumalo led the most daring investigative work for Drum, the iconic magazine of the Sophiatown era. 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.

Aside from Nxumalo’s secretive forays as an undercover journalist, the magazine further added to Nxumalo’s myth, by offering a five pound reward for their readers, if they could spot Nxumalo as Mr Drum and accurately report his location. Mike Nicol described this hunt for the elusive Mr Drum competition in his book, A Good Looking Corpse.

henry-nxumalo3Nicol wrote; “GET READY FOR MR DRUM, trumpeted the headline in the January 1952 edition. Below that was a photograph of Henry Nxumalo and an exhortation to readers to ‘look at it carefully and remember what he looks like’. The first Drum reader to recognise him in each place he visits will get 5 Pounds.”

Heading up the cast of characters in Nicol’s book, Henry Nxumalo is described as “Drum’s best journalist” and “the greatest investigative journalist South Africa has ever produced”.

But who was Henry Nxumalo the man? Who was the man who became “Mr Drum”, literally defining the magazine and its times? Mike Nicol’s work pierces the mysteries surrounding Nxumalo and the Drum moment, by taking a closer look at the work of the publication’s writers and by interviewing the journalists directly.

Henry Nxumalo was born in 1917 in Margate, in the former Natal province. Nicol wrote that Henry Nxumalo’s parents died when he was still at school. After matriculation, the young Nxumalo worked as a kitchen boy in Durban and then at a boilermaker’s shop in Johannesburg. Nxumalo developed an affinity for the word as a young boy, contributing poetry to the newspaper, Bantu World. He got a job as messenger for the paper and eventually became sports editor.

He enlisted to fight in the Second World War. After the war he worked for Bantu World and was a stringer for the Pittsburgh Courier in the USA.

Nxumalo became a Drum-er in 1951. The other “inmates” of the “Madhouse”, as Drum’s editorial office was called, included legendary writers like Es’kia Mpahlele, Casey Motsisi, Can Themba, Arthur Maimane, Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa.

One of Nxumalo’s landmark exposé’s was an investigation he did on farm labour conditions in the Bethal region.

henry-nxumalo5Drum photographer, Jurgen Schadeberg told the story of Bethal in Mike Nicol’s book: “There was really no other way to do the Bethal story’, says Schadeberg, “Henry had to discard his suit, dress in tattered clothes like a farm labourer and go and find work on the farm. Which he did. And then after a few days picking potatoes he escaped at night. It was a dangerous situation to run away at night: he could have been shot, killed, but there was no other way to do it.”

According to Nicol, Nxumalo interviewed more than fifty labourers, while working undercover: “He was told stories of labourers flogged to death, of others who died of cold, of repeated beatings, of farmers known as ‘Mabulala’ (the Killer) and ‘Fakefutheni’ (Hit him in the marrow).”

The exposé into the terror of farm labour in Bethal and the contract system that tricked unsuspecting men into six months of farm labour, caused ripples throughout the world and turned Nxumalo into an instant hero amongst Drum readers.

In yet another undercover account of injustice on a farm called Harmonie in the Rustenburg district, Nxumalo described his own assault by a farmer:

“He told me that if Jantjie complained about my work tomorrow he would beat me up and then have me arrested. He clapped me on the left cheek with his open right hand and told me to face the wall. Then he kicked me between the legs three times with his boot. I shuddered with the pain.”

Nxumalo, writing as Mr Drum, concluded his piece by making an appeal, “Mr Drum knows from his own personal and painful experience that these things continue to go on. He appeals to authorities to take steps to end this dreadful barbarism, which has done such untold harm to race relations.”

henry-nxumalo6Another daring Nxumalo report, investigated the “beatings, bad food, appalling conditions” in South African prisons in the 1950s. Nxumalo sought to be arrested to be able to tell the prison story from the inside. After trying to be arrested twice he succeeded the third time.

Nicol quoted from Nxumalo’s piece he wrote for Drum, after being released from jail in March 1954, under the headline, MR DRUM GOES TO GAOL.

“I served five days’ imprisonment at the Johannesburg Central Prison from 20 to 24 January. My crime was being found without a night pass five minutes before midnight, and I was charged under curfew regulations.”
Nxumalo’s piece described in great detail the ordeals he witnessed and experienced from the moment he was arrested to when he was discharged.

Nxumalo wrote: “Thrashing time for warders was roll call and breakfast time as well as supper time. For long-term prisoners it was inside the cells at all times. Long-term prisoners thrashed more prisoners more severely and much more often than the prison officials themselves, and often in the presence of either white or black warders. All prisoners were called kaffirs at all times.”

Mike Nicol commented in his book A Good Looking Corpse, about the brave journalism of Henry Nxumalo; “It was that bravery which made Nxumalo’s name and gave Drum an international reputation.”

Henry Nxumalo died tragically in December 1956, stabbed to death. He was thirty- nine. Even after his death, the mystery around Mr Drum endures. Nicol’s book, repeats the questions that persisted after his death, “Why, why, why had be been killed?”

Stories abounded about who the killers could have been. Was it the Government who wanted to silence one of their fiercest critics? Was it a passing “tsotsi” looking for a quick buck? Or was it the notorious, “Mr Big, the white abortionist”, who Nxumalo was said to be investigating at the time?

Quoted in Nicol’s book, Can Themba, rages about losing his friend; “Why the bloody hell did they have to choose him to murder?” Speaking through his pain, Themba immortalised the spirit of Henry Nxumalo, “I cannot hide my bitterness at all. But, dear Henry, Mr Drum is not dead. Indeed, even while you lived others were practising the game of Mr Drum. Now we shall take over where you left off.”

Perhaps the most enduring tribute to Nxumalo came from author Peter Abrahams. In Mike Nicol’s work, Abrahams said Henry Nxumalo “…was pioneering his profession for all the black journalists of the future.”

The images on this page have been scanned from The Fifties People of South Africa, compiled and edited by Jurgen Schadeberg. Publisher and Executive Editor JRA Bailey (1987). A Bailey’s African Photo Archives Production.

A Good Looking Corpse by Mike Nicol is published by Martin Secker & Warburg (1991).
All photos by Jurgen Schadeberg