Mr Drum goes to work in Bethal

Founded in 1951, Drum magazine captured the emerging sprit of defiance in post-war South Africa, giving a voice to a new urban culture that was radicalising black opposition politics and expressing itself in a burst of creativity in writing, music and dance. As the apartheid government, which had come to power in 1948, tightened its grip, the African National Congress (ANC) turned to protest and defiance under the youthful influence of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. The few racially mixed areas around the big cities were cauldrons of political and cultural activity through the 1950s, and Sophiatown, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, was one such area.

The magazine’s pages carried a heady mix of American-style gangsters, radical politicians, illegal taverns, jazz singers, sex across the colour line, and tough exposés in print and picture. It was a pioneer expression of an exuberant and confident African perspective, celebrating African leadership, achievement and creativity. East and West African editions turned it into an early Pan-African venture, distributed in eight countries, with considerable success.

One man in particular, Henry Nxumalo, who often wrote under the name Mr Drum, pioneered first-hand investigative reporting, immersing himself in stories to give vivid descriptions of his life under white minority rule. He tackled the toughest stories, such as prison and labour conditions, and church segregation, with extraordinary courage.

In 1954, to experience and write about harsh conditions in a Johannesburg prison, Nxumalo set out to have himself arrested for not carrying the notorious pass book which all black men were obliged to have with them at all times. After a few days of frustration, he broke a shop window to get the attention of the police.

Since authorities had denied previous reports of the conditions in the jail, ‘we believed that only by sending a member of our own staff to jail could we be certain of an accurate report,’ the editor wrote. Nxumalo told his story of racism, violence and degradation in deadpan language: ‘I was kicked and thrashed every day. I saw many other prisoners being thrashed daily. I was never told what was expected of me. Sometimes I guessed wrong and got into trouble … all prisoners were called Kaffirs at all times.’

He described the ‘tausa’, a strange dance that naked prisoners returning from work had to go through to show that they were not hiding anything on their bodies. Drum photographer Bob Gosani, who was himself to become a legend at the magazine, pretended to be doing a fashion shoot with an office secretary on top of a nearby building of the prison to get a picture that remains one of the most unforgettable images of the indignities of apartheid. There was an outcry, and shortly afterwards a new law was passed with severe penalties for publishing ‘false information’ about prisons.

Nxumalo’s most politically significant work, however, was in exposing brutal labour conditions on farms. In 1952 he focused on Bethal, a major farming area east of Johannesburg known for its use of prison labour and for a series of convictions of farmers for assault and brutality. He interviewed workers who told of being tricked into signing contracts to work in slave-like conditions, and to confirm the details he signed up himself. Pictures showed prisoners being transported in wire cages on the back of trucks to work on the farm.

Others wrote about farm conditions, but Nxumalo was the only one to go in and experience it himself. In 1955, he wrote a piece headlined ‘I worked on Snyman’s farm’. Snyman was a notorious farmer in Rustenburg, west of Johannesburg, who had been repeatedly convicted for assaulting his workers. Nxumalo wrote of back-breaking corn picking with bare hands, numerous assaults by the farmer, and how workers were kept against their will. When he felt he could work no longer, he was told: ‘On this farm, you don’t just quit when you want to.’ He was asked for his pass. ‘He tore it up into little pieces and threw them away on the lawn. ‘Now you can’t leave without my permission: I can have you arrested and imprisoned.’ Mr Drum fled in the dead of night.

Again, his piece was accompanied by an extraordinary set of photographers, taken covertly, including a silhouette of a guard on a horse wielding a whip. Nxumalo was stabbed to death in 1957 while on his way to meet a source while investigating an illegal abortion racket by a well-known doctor. His murderer was never identified, but it was widely presumed to be related to the story. Repeated coverage of these labour conditions by Nxumalo and others led to an organised potato boycott in 1959, a critical moment in the mobilisation of the ANC. But the severe security clampdown after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the arrest of most political leaders drove many of the Drum writers into exile, and the magazine never recovered. The residents of Sophiatown were forcibly removed in the 1980s. It is still published, though the current version bears little resemblance to the magazine of the 1950s.

In 2005, Nxumalo was given the Order of Ikhamanaga in Silver by the ANC government and a Johannesburg street was named after him. Drum is remembered as a high moment in the history of black journalism, and a symbol of what it might have been if apartheid had not crushed its spirit.

References Sampson, Anthony. 1983. Drum: The Making of a Magazine. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball. Nicol, Mike. 1991. A Good-Looking Corpse: The World of Drum – Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance. London: Secker & Warburg. Choonoo, Neville. 1997. ‘The Sophiatown generation’, in Les Switzer (ed), South Africa’s Alternative Press. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Gready, Paul. 2015. ‘The Sophiatown writers of the fifties’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 16(1): 139–65. Copies of the magazine can be found at Bailey’s African History Archives: www.baha.

The Story of Bethal

Henry Nxumalo, Drum, 1952

For many years Bethal has been notorious for the ill-treatment of the African labourers on the farms. As far back as April 12, 1929, there was a case (Rex v. Nafte, at the Circuit Court at Bethal) of a farmer who was found guilty of tying a labourer by his feet from a tree and flogging him to death, pouring scalding water into his mouth when he cried for water … On June 3, 1947 (see De Echo Bethal of 6.6.47) there was a case of a farmer assaulting two labourers, setting his dog on them, flogging them and chaining them together for the night; and only a week later, on June 11 (De Echo, 13.6.47), a farm foreman was found guilty of striking a labourer with a sjambok and setting his dog on him … These cases all came up in court and were strongly condemned by the magistrates; Mr B.H. Wooler described the incident as being sordid, despicable and reminiscent of slavery, and the local European, De Echo, described the conditions disclosed as being ‘tantamount to slave-driving’. And it seems clear that for every case that came before a magistrate there were many more that were never found out …

Conditions still bad

Since 1947 there have been many statements made to the effect that conditions at Bethal have improved, and in 1949 an act was passed to safeguard the interests of labourers under contract. More inspectors were appointed by the Director of Native Labour, were supposed to supervise and witness the signing of contracts, and to satisfy themselves that they were fully understood by the recruits. But, in spite of everything said to the contrary, there is still plenty of evidence that conditions at Bethal and the system which causes them are a disgrace to the country …

Mr Drum finds out

In order to discover the truth about the way contracts are signed, Mr DRUM himself decided to become a farm recruit. He was soon picked up outside the Pass Office by one of the touts or ‘runners’ who look out for unemployed Africans, and are paid for each man they collect for the agencies … He said he had no pass, and, with many others, was told that he would be given a pass if he signed a contract to go and work out of Johannesburg: this is the normal way of dealing with people without passes. He chose to work on a farm in Springs, and was sent to _______’s compound, where he waited nearly a day before he could sign the contract.

Running past the contract

When the contract came to be signed the interpreter read out a small part of the contract to a number of recruits together, while the attesting officer held a pencil over the contract … N. A. D. African Clerk (calling roll of everyone on the contract sheet): you’re going to work on a farm in the Middleburg district; you are on a six months’ contract. You will be paid £3 a month, plus food and quarters. When you leave here you will be given an advance of 5s. for pocket money, 10s. 4d. for food, and 14s. 5d. for train fare. The total amount will be deducted from your first months’ wages. Have you got that? Mr DRUM and other recruits: Yes. Clerk: You will now proceed to touch the pencil. Mr DRUM: But I was told before that I was going to be sent to a farm in Springs. Why am I now going to Middelburg? Clerk: I’m telling you where you are going, according to your contract sheet, and nothing else. So Mr DRUM refused to touch the pencil when he reached the attesting officer, and was told to wait outside for his pass. The other recruits then ran past the attesting officer, each (holding) the pencil for a moment, which was not even touchingthe paper … As a result of holding a pencil for a second (50 recruits were attested in a few minutes), the recruits were considered to be bound to a contract. But in fact the contract had not been fully understood. So it seems that none of the contracts ‘signed’ in this way are valid at all (Native Labour Regulation Act of 1911, as amended 1949).

Touts’ trick

A man from Nyasaland described how the touts employed by a certain labour agency in his country worked. There was a certain boundary which many people crossed in order to get to the Union. The touts wait there to intercept, and when they saw one trying to cross the area they immediately pounced on him and threatened him with arrest for trespass if he did not accept the offer of a contract for work for South Africa as a waiter. The victim only realised on arriving in the Union that he had been tricked and contracted to work on a farm …

Compulsion, not persuasion

We wish to emphasise that while the Industrial Revolution is causing as much chaos in South Africa as it caused in 19-century Europe, no lessons have been learnt from the industrial past (whatsoever). The same abuse of labour is repeated in the same style. Farm prisons and contracted labour bypass the normal need to attract men by improved working conditions and higher wages. They depend upon compulsion, not persuasion. Most men who touch a pencil for a farm contract are hungry, ignorant and urgently in need of work. Once they have touched a pencil they have handed themselves to an unknown employer in an unknown area under largely unknown conditions. It is obvious that care has been taken by the authorities to protect these people. We asked, when farm life is so often satisfactory, what are theconditions which have given Bethal so fearful and exceptional (a) history – and we reply, it is the system; the farm contract system that has had so vile a result …