It is one of the longest conspiracies of South Africa. The question of, “Who Killed Henry Nxumalo”?
Popularly known as ‘Mr Drum’, Henry Nxumalo was born in 1917 at Mvutshini, Margate, in what was then Natal Province.
He was the first child of Lazarus and Josephine Nxumalo, he attended the Fascadale Mission School, where he showed such promise that the missionaries arranged for him to board in Durban so that he could further his education.
He began submitting his writings to various newspapers while still at school.
Although opportunities for black journalists were very limited at the time, the Post newspaper in Johannesburg, a regular user of his contributions, offered him a job.
And when World War II broke out, Nxumalo, then 22 years of age and already an experienced journalist with many highly respected African intellectuals and writers among his friends and acquaintances, got an opportunity to go abroad, and he duly enlisted in the South African Army.
This took him to Egypt, where South African forces were heavily involved in combat.
He somehow managed to visit London, where he had made contact with many like-minded people whose friendship were to stand him in good stead.
According to one of them, Peter Abrahams, Nxumalo had the sense that great things were about to happen in Africa and that a responsible and independent press would play a very important role in the process of change.
The early post-war years were lean ones for black writers and journalists like Nxumalo. Mainstream newspapers in South Africa, consistent with the policies of racism and Apartheid, offered few opportunities for Black reporters, while Black newspapers were either very small or controlled by white business interests. They often featured trivial and sensational content.
Independent investigative journalism of the type that Nxumalo envisaged simply did not exist at the time.
Then in 1951, millionaire Jim Bailey established Drum Magazine under the editorship of Anthony Sampson and invited Nxumalo to become assistant editor.
Drum became the antithesis of the entire South African press of that time, and was eventually read all over Africa. It provided a racy and irreverent blend of humour, sentiment, fiction, sport, scandal, weighty commentaries on continental affairs by renowned thinkers and devastating exposés of labour abuses and political and systemic injustice.
Nxumalo was directly or indirectly responsible for much of the magazine’s sparkling content. He persuaded the intelligentsia to contribute, directed the efforts of the staff members and himself wrote many of the feature articles, often literally risking his life in through investigative reports that, he believed, were desperately needed in Africa.
And a number of Drum writers were to become household names in South Africa, but they would all agree that the magazine’s most brilliant star was Nxumalo himself , ‘Mr Drum’.
On New Year’s Eve of 1957, six years after helping to found Drum, Henry Nxumalo was engaged in investigating an abortion racket run by a well-known doctor when he was murdered by unknown assailants.
Nxumalo was posthumously honoured with The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for excellence in South African journalism. The award was collected by his son, Henry Nxumalo Jnr, on 27 September 2007.
His legacy lives on in the free and independent South African press of today.
Also in 2004, Goch Street in Johannesburg’s cultural hub, Newtown, was renamed Henry Nxumalo Street, Sylvester Stein’s play Who Killed Mr Drum? begins with Nxumalo’s murder.
Nxumalo was the magazine’s first black writer, according to journalist Sylvester Stein, author of the biography “Who Killed Mr. Drum?” Stein edited the magazine from 1955 to 1958, hiring, among others, Nxumalo and German photographer Jurgen Schadeberg.
“When I arrived in South Africa I tried to freelance, but it was very difficult because there was no history of documentary photojournalism. There was no real photo magazine,” Schadeberg said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Berlin. “We had Life in America, Look magazine in England, Pixar Post in France, but nothing like that in South Africa,” he said. “I went to Drum. There were four people,” including Nxumalo, whom Schadeberg described as a “very good journalist, very courageous.” A World War II veteran, Nxumalo also wrote a regular column for the Pittsburgh Courier, Schadeberg said.
“We were doing investigations about [working] conditions in the district where there were potato farmers. Farmers had the reputation of terrorizing workers, using children as slave laborers, killing people and exploiting them. I went with him in the area. He signed up as labor in order to do the story, which is pretty tough.” Schadeberg recalled another investigation by Nxumalo on detention conditions at Johannesburg’s central prison, known as “The Fort,” which was notorious for torturing prisoners. “[Henry] found a way to get into prison — he tried for two weeks. He tried to get very drunk and walked up and down a police station singing. Police wouldn’t lock him up.” Eventually, Nxumalo managed to get arrested and spent five days in the prison. His exposé caused uproar and the government, keen to suppress similar stories, eventually passed a law restricting reporting on conditions in South African prisons. “We did a lot of stories together. With all the horrors, we had a lot of laughs,” Schadeberg said.
Those horrors stemmed from the racist policies of apartheid. Drum operated in a small office in Sophiatown, from which the apartheid regime forcibly evicted a diverse mix of blacks, “coloreds,” Indians and Chinese between 1955 and 1960, relocating them to townships outside Johannesburg. The town was subsequently bulldozed, repopulated with whites, and renamed Triomf (Afrikaans for “Triumph”). “Those days, black people’s education was suppressed deliberately by the [ruling National Party] government. There were some papers for the black population, but they were paternalistic and ran by whites. There was no news about their events, their points of view,” Schadeberg said.
White Afrikaners were consistently uneasy when Nxumalo introduced himself as a journalist, Schadeberg said. “They couldn’t handle it. We interviewed a white official. Henry was asking a question. When he talked to Henry, he used a voice with authority and superiority. If [the official] talks to me, he has a specific type of voice because I’m white. He had to change his voice all the time. He started stuttering!” Schadeberg recalled another occasion, when a policeman he described as a “very young, tough Afrikaner” put a pistol to Schadeberg’s head as he was the first reporter on the scene of a bombing of government buildings by fighters of the African National Congress.
Drum also covered the 1956 high-profile treason trial of 156 anti-apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela. “I photographed Mandela first in 1951, then again in 1952. We used to meet at a printing shop, we had brandy,” Schadeberg said. “Walking into Drum was like leaving South Africa, and coming into a different world,” Schadeberg said of the magazine, adding that its writers came from missionary schools which were mixed and had better education than the segregated schools.
The apartheid government had Drum in its sights. “The Special Branch tried to blackmail some of our people when they went for [their] passport, or permit – they tried to infiltrate the Drum office.” Eventually, Drum went bankrupt in the late 70s-early 80s, and was acquired by the then-pro-National Party newspaper group Naspers, according to Schadeberg.
Nxumalo was only in his mid-30s at the time of his murder, Schadeberg said. “There was a doctor who was attached to a police station in the area, and it was known that there had been some botched abortions, some of the patients died. [Henry] tried to investigate it. He went to talk to nurses.” Nxumalo was stabbed while walking home after meeting a colleague for drinks. “We tried to investigate, but police were sloppy about it. They weren’t interested.”