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A history of Drum Magazine

drum collage
In the teeming Negro and colored shantytowns of Johannesburg, where newspapers and magazines are a rarity, a truck piled high with magazines rumbled through the unpaved streets last week. Wherever it stopped, hundreds of people swarmed about it, buying the magazine: The African Drum" - extract from “South African Drumbeats”, TIME Magazine, 1952

The above quote suggests the popularity of the magazine that was to become known as Drum. However, the true reach of the magazine surpassed merely “hundreds” of people, and became the most widely read magazine in Africa at the time. A 1959 TIME article entitled “Drum Beat in Africa” stated that 240,000 copies of Drum were distributed across Africa, to countries like Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The magazine was so popular in fact, that illiterate people allegedly paid educated friends to read them the magazine.

First known as The African Drum, the magazine began under the auspices of Robert Crisp, a journalist and broadcaster, and was supposedly established to depict Black South Africans as “noble savages”. The South African government allegedly sent copies abroad to serve as an example of their success with the “Bantu”. The content consisted mainly of tribal preaching and folk tales, and had a readership of only 20 000 copies. Therefore, The African Drum was not a financially successful venture.

It was only when Jim Bailey, an ex-RAF pilot, took over the magazine in 1951 that the legendary publication began its widespread influence. Bailey achieved this by altering the image of the magazine to include content that highlighted urban black life, and had more of an investigative focus. Bailey then moved the magazine’s headquarters to Johannesburg, and re-named it Drum. Crisp subsequently left the magazine and Anthony Sampson, a friend of Bailey’s from Oxford, became the editor.

To ensure the relevancy of Drum content, a Black editorial board was established. This editorial board consisted of Joe Rathebe, Dan “Sport” Twala, Dr. Alfred Xuma and Andy Anderson. The board met once a month to generate ideas for new articles, and discuss the merits and mistakes of previous content. The few staff members at this time consisted of a secretary, Sampson and Henry Nxumalo. Nxumalo held the position of sports editor, and later became known as "Mr. Drum". He exposed, among other issues, prison conditions and the abuse of labourers on farms.

Other staff members included Todd Matshikiza, a writer who was celebrated for his wit, and employed as the music reviewer. Jurgen Schadeberg, an investigative photographer, later became the photo editor of the magazine. Bob Gosani started off at Drum as a messenger, but was later moved to the photographic department, where he became Schadeberg’s darkroom assistant. Gosani later became one of the magazine’s best photographers.

In 1955, Peter Magubane was hired as a driver and a messenger. However, over time he became more interested in photography. He was transferred to the photographic department and was later joined by others such as Ernest Cole, Alf Kumalo, Victor Xashimba, Gopal Naransamy, Chester Maharaj, GR Naidoo and others.

As there were no educational facilities for black journalists and photographers at this time, and many attached themselves to a publication that allowed them to work. As there were few magazines like Drum, it was a place where those interested in social writing and photography could develop their skills.

Photography was an especially important component of Drum’s success. This is because photography served as an accessible and “realistic” means with which to document protest action, and appeal to a largely illiterate readership. Picture features, bright covers, jazz, girls and crime stories appealed to readers, and therefore Drum circulation increased.

In some instances, Drum photographers had to develop tactful means of obtaining photographs, to avoid mistreatment by white officials and the confiscation of their equipment. One such instance is when photographers Bob Gosani and Arthur Maimane posed as white secretary Deborah Duncan’s “lackeys” in order to obtain photographs to complement Henry Nxumalo’s first hand account of detestable prison conditions.

At Drum, aspiring journalists and photographers could obtain hands on experience and education, and became known as graduates of the “Drum school”. Drum also provided temporary relief a life of harsh discrimination, as the integrated staff environment at Drum was relaxed and free from segregation.

According to Magubane, “Drum was a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination in the offices of Drum magazine. It was only when you left Drum and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land. But while you were inside Drum magazine, everyone there was a family."

Many of the writers used satire and irony in their depictions of black South African life. Writers such as Peter Abrahams, Alex la Guma, Es’kia Mphahlele and Richard Rive wrote compelling stories for Drum, and went on to achieve international recognition.

Can Themba, a teacher in Sophiatown, won a writing competition held by Drum and was offered a job as a writer for the magazine. Towards the end of the 1950s, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa joined the Drum team. The writers of Drum used language learnt from American writers and movies, and created a fast, slangy, mixed-language street talk that few have been able to imitate.

Nakasa later began a literary magazine called The Classic and won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism in the United States. He left South Africa on an exit permit and was unable to return home. He committed suicide a little more than a year later, isolated from his home country and depressed.

In March of 1952, the first major story was published in Drum, entitled “Bethal Today”. An eight-page article was written by "Mr. Drum", and was sell-out success. Nxumalo posed as a labourer on a Bethal farm in order to gain material for the story. What he encountered was gross abuse by “boss-boys” with whips, and miserable living conditions.

Photographs taken by Shaderburg complemented the “Bethal Today” story, and provided undeniable proof of these detestable conditions. Due to these pictures the government was compelled to enforce minor changes at Bethal, due to an outrage from the press.

Although the intention of Drum was not to get involved in political issues, the editorial board felt that Drum would be meaningless and incomplete without reference to politics, as it was an inherent part of Black South African life.

Following “Bethal Today”, many stories of atrocities suffered were included in the magazine, which included an edition of Drum with an eight-page photographic essay of the 1952 Defiance Campaign. This edition sold 65 000 copies - a new circulation record for Drum. Drum continued to cover apartheid atrocities during the 1950s, such as the Sophiatown forced removals and the Treason Trial.

Although it opposed racism and apartheid, some of the key events of the Liberation Struggle were not published. Jim Bailey did not approve the publication of any reports or photographs of the Sharpeville massacre, nor the terrible work and living conditions of migrant workers on the mines. This is said to be due to his father’s involvement in the gold mining industry. Drum has since been accused of not reporting sufficiently on political events of the time.

However, Drum was an important vehicle for voicing resistance during the 1950s when the Defiance Campaign took place, up until the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. This is because Drum served as a means to unite and mobilise resistance, an example being the photographs that accompanied Nelson Mandela’s statement “We Defy” in the 1952 August issue of Drum.

According to The New History of South Africa, “…the Black press helped to extend the [Defiance] campaign’s impact, particularly given the advent of photojournalism with the appearance of Drum magazine in 1951.”

Drum was also instrumental in documenting integrated communities, and multi-racial interaction that is not depicted in other archive sources. One such example is the photography of White presence in shebeens (informal drinking establishments) by Ranjith Kally in 1957.

A recent photographic exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop entitled “The Indian in Drum Magazine in the 1950s” displayed several photographs that documented the “Indian experience” in South Africa. This is testament to the enduring legacy that Drum magazine has in contemporary South Africa. Drum therefore not only gave the oppressed a vehicle for expression during the 1950s, but remains an archival source that exposes and celebrates the lesser known stories of our past.

In 2004, Drum was made into a Hollywood feature film of the same name, and stars Taye Diggs as Drum journalist Henry Nxumalo. The plot follows the story of Nxumalo’s life, and documents the story of Drum and Sophiatown during the rise of apartheid in South Africa in the 1950s.

The movie was directed by Zola Maseko, who originally intended to tell the story in the form of a six-part television series entitled “Sophiatown Short Stories”. Although not a major box office success, Drum was generally well received and was awarded “Best South African Film” at the Durban International Film Festival.

Drum continues to be published in South Africa under media conglomerate Media24. Still focused on providing relevant content for Black South Africans, Drum has become more orientated towards market news, entertainment and feature articles, with less focus on political issues.

Drum is the sixth largest consumer magazine in Africa, and along with sister publications Huis Genoot and YOU, forms an integral part of the South African popular media landscape. Previously a resounding voice of resistance, Drum is considered “part of every black South African's daily life” and remains true to the words of its current tagline: “The Beat Goes On”. 


  • Barlow, P (2006) Interview with Peter Magubane [online] Available at: reactivate.wordpress.com [Accessed 20 February 2009] 
  • Drum Beat in Africa” (7 September 1959) TIME magazine [online]. Available at: time.com [Accessed 19 February 2009]
  • Drum Magazine article [online] Available at: wikipedia.org [Accessed 20 February 2009]
  • Drum Magazine [online] Media 24 Available at: media24.com [Accessed 26 February]
  • Drum (2004 film) article [online] Available at: wikipedia.org [Accessed 25 February 2009]
  • Fattal, A. (1993) Photography and the Liberation Struggle in South Africa. Chapter 2: Resistance Photography and Mobilization of the Resistance, 1946-1976. Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree