James Fox

A week after Mandela’s release I got a call from Jim Bailey, my former employer on Drum Magazine in Johannesburg where I worked in the late Sixties. He had been elated by the news and set about gathering old Drum hands and sympathisers for a reunion. But by the time we met, he confessed to a sudden weariness, a kind of post partum depression after the forty years of toil and tension.

Bailey is 70. He looks like a creased version of Buffalo Bill with his longish white hair. He wears layers of clothes that seem to have been retrieved from his son’s gym locker and on his head a blue cotton cap against the February cold. He is a Wykehamist, an Ancient History and Classical scholar, who became a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, polo-player for England, and owner-editor of Drum, which started in 1951. He speaks in an incisive Wykehamist style, and has a laugh like the cry of an Egyptian goose. His father was the mining magnate Sir Abe Bailey, a contemporary of Harry Oppenheimers father and a friend of Cecil Rhodes.

Drum was a magazine written by Blacks and ‘Non-Whites’, by what Drum’s finest reporter, Henry Nxumalo, who declared he was fed-up with these negative appellations, asked his readers to settle for: ‘The old contemptibles – Kaffirs, Coolies and Hot’nots. How’s that?’ It flourished under impossible conditions, and made the careers of a group of gifted writers and photographers who might otherwise have had no access to print. There were different editions across Africa – but in South Africa its readers were in the townships. These violent, overcrowded tinderboxes had the highest per capita murder rates in the world, and their occupants had a fierce need to extract whatever pleasures were possible from a situation where survival was an almost impossible obstacle course, an exhausting skill. Drum was a rich mine of copy, and it had the field to itself.

The writers often modelled themselves on Chandler and Runyon, but they had more to write about. They became masters of a deadpan style which exploited the comical, the bizarre and the absurd. There was no shortage of material. You only had to look around and speculate – for example, on a film poster in which Nat King Cole is airbrushed from his seat and the blonde white singer left standing beside the piano without an accompanist. The idea was to entertain, raise spirits, to report on the talent pouring out of the townships, the energy, the razzmatazz, the musicians, the athletes, the boxers, the wide boys, the extraordinary night life. But Drum also did major exposés – of slave labour on farms, of abortion rackets, of the effects of unjust laws.

The Fifties had been the great decade, a decade of hope, of Mandela’s Defiance Campaign. By 1967, most of the legendary figures had left, and some were dead: Henry Nxumalo, ‘Mr Drum’, whose portrait hung in the Drum offices like that of an African president, had been murdered while investigating an abortion racket. In exile in New York, in 1965, Nat Nakasa threw himself to his death. The names were spoken with reverence in the Drum office: Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane, Arthur Maimane, and the photographers Bob Gosani and Peter Magubane, Winnie Mandela’s friend, now in New York; Can Themba, whose home in Sophiatown was known as ‘The House of Truth’; Casey Motsisi, who began one column, ‘No nooze is good nooze, but no booze is sad nooze indeed’ – a sentiment warmly shared by most of the staff, who spent much time in jail for drinking or pass offences.

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