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The greatest journalist of them all

Henry Nxumalo - The man who made DRUM famous

Many great journalists have worked for Drum magazine. But Henry Nxumalo was the greatest. He made Drum famous.

People all over Africa and the world read his stories. His stories were about black people’s lives in South Africa. In these stories, Henry spoke up for the workers. Thousands of people said he was a friend who shared their troubles. They called him Mr. Drum.

Henry Nxumalo was born in Port Shepstone in 1917. Henry’s parents had 7 children. Henry was the eldest.

When Henry was at school, his father died. The family was short of money. But Henry wanted an education. He worked in the school kitchen to pay his school fees.

When Henry left school, he did domestic work in Durban. But Henry hated domestic work. He ran away to Johannesburg and found work in a boilermaker’s shop. In his spare time he wrote for the newspaper Bantu World.

The newspaper offered him a job as a messenger. But Henry also did not like messenger work. He told the newspaper that he wanted to write. After a while they let him write. Henry wrote about sport.

The Second World War started in 1939. Henry joined the army. He went to Egypt and England.

Henry saw a new world in England – a world without apartheid. Henry forgot about “Europeans only”. He made friends with British people and other Black people in England.

Then the army sent Henry back to South Africa. In Johannesburg Henry worked for newspapers again. He married a pretty young nurse. Her name was Florence.

Henry joined Drum in 1959. At this time Drum had stories about tribes, chiefs, religion and farming. Very few people bought the magazine.

Henry and his friends told the editor to change Drum. They said Drum must be a magazine for city people.

One man said: “Hey man, why does Drum write that stuff, man! Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo and pretty women! And tell us what is happening here man, on the Reef!”

Soon Drum had stories on jazz, soccer, boxing and women. More people started to buy Drum. But a magazine called Zonk sold more than Drum. The boss of Drum wanted Drum to be the best. How could they get more people to buy Drum?

Henry had the answer. He knew that people wanted articles on politics. Henry said people wanted to read things that happened in their lives. So Henry started to write about the lives of black people in South Africa. These stories made him famous.

Henry’s first big story was about the lives of farm workers in Bethal. In 1952 he went to his editor and said: “By the way, have you heard about a place called Bethal? Bethal is a farming district in the Eastern Transvaal. They grow potatoes there. Of course, there is a lot of flogging there.”

“Flogging?” asked the editor.

“Yes, Bethal is famous because the farmers beat up their workers”. “How do you know about Bethal?” asked the editor.

“I went there about 3 years ago with a priest. We looked around the farms. I’m sure things haven’t changed. Bethal means the House of God,” laughed Henry.

Henry dressed up like a farm worker and went to Bethal. In Bethal he spoke to 50 workers. They were all unhappy. They told him the farmers were cruel. They told him about farmers like “Mabulala” (The killer) and “Fakefutheni” (Slave-driver). And 32 workers said the farmers had tricked them to sign a contract.

Henry visited the workers’ compounds. He said: “The compounds look like jails. They have high walls. They are dirty. They are often next to a cattle kraal. The workers breathe the same air as the cattle.”

After a few days Henry phoned Drum and asked for a photographer. The photographer took pictures of the farms, the compounds, and the farmers with their whips.

But Henry and the photographer had a hard time. Often farmers chased Henry and the photographer. Sometimes the photographer told the farmers he was interested in farming. And Henry said he was his servant. Henry went back to Johannesburg and wrote the story. The story was called “Bethal Today”. The article was by “Mr Drum”.

All the copies of Drum sold out. The government did not like the story. The Prime Minister said: “Drum wrote the story to make trouble”. The farmers in Bethal bought hundreds of magazines. They burnt them. They did not want people to read how they treated their workers.

After the story about Bethal the farmers treated their workers a little better. People also learnt about the danger of contracts.

Mr Drum became famous. Many people wrote letters to him. People asked: “Who is this wonderful Mr Drum?”

Mr Drum wrote more stories about farm workers. He visited the wine farms in the Cape and the sugar farms in Natal. He wrote stories about the workers on these farms. Mr Drum told the world about the suffering of people in South Africa.

Henry also wrote stories about life in the towns. One of his stories was about gangs and tsotsis. There were many famous gangs like “The Russians” and “The Americans”. Henry and other Drum journalists wrote about the gangs. The work was dangerous. The gangsters often wanted to kill the Drum journalists.

But the work on gangs was sometimes funny. Drum wrote a story called “Clean up the Reef”. The story said the police must clean up the gangsters and tsotsis. The police decided to listen to the story. They arrested hundreds of tsotsis and gangsters.

One night the police arrested Henry in a pass raid. He spent the night in jail. The jail was full of tsotsis. Henry asked the warder what was happening.

“Ag, haven’t you read Drum, man? We’re cleaning up the Reef”, the warder said.

Henry’s next famous story was about jails. Many readers asked “Mr Drum, why don’t you write about jails?” People wanted Henry to write about the hard life in prison. They wanted him to tell the world about the bad food, the dirty cells, the beatings and the “tansa dance”. The prisoners danced naked to show the police they didn’t have any tobacco. Drum decided to do an article on the Fort. The Fort is a jail in Johannesburg.

First Drum needed a photograph of prisoners in the Fort. Drum journalists thought about this problem. Then they saw a big building opposite the Fort. The Drum photographers went to the top of the building. They told the owners that they wanted pictures of Johannesburg. But instead they took pictures of the prisoners in the Fort. They got a photograph of a prisoner doing the tansa dance.

Drum had the photograph. But now they needed the story. One journalist said: “I’ll go to jail.”

“No” said Henry, “I’ll go. I’m Mr Drum.”

“So you think you can get in to the jail?” the editor asked.

“That will be easy,” said Henry. “My problem is always how to stay out of jail.” So Henry tried to get arrested. But he had problems.

First he went to Boksburg without a permit to visit a friend. His friend phoned the police and told them Henry was coming. The police waited for Henry. They took him to the police station. But at the police station the sergeant said:

“Ag! Don’t be silly, man. Go away and don’t do it again.”

The next day he caught a train without a ticket. The ticket collector came to check the tickets. Henry refused to pay. The ticket collector called a policeman. The policeman said “Go to someone and ask him to lend you the money.”

“No!” said Henry. He was arrested. The next day he went to court. But the magistrate told Henry to go home.

Henry tried again. He put a big bottle of brandy in his pocket. In those days black people were not allowed to drink. Henry walked up and down outside Marshall Square police station. The police did nothing. He started to sing and shout. The police still did nothing. Henry got drunk and started a fight. The police arrested him. The next morning Henry went to court.

The magistrate gave Henry 5 days in jail or 10 shillings fine. The court interpreter was Henry’s friend. He wanted to help Henry. He paid Henry’s fine.

The next night Henry tried to get arrested again. He walked around Johannesburg without a pass. A policeman saw him and asked for his pass.

“I haven’t got one,” Henry said.

He was arrested and the magistrate gave him 5 days in jail. At last Henry was inside the Fort. When he came out he wrote a story about the Fort. The story was called “Mr Drum goes to jail”.

After the story, life in the jails got a bit better. The police did not make prisoners do the “tansa dance” anymore.

The Orlando tsotsis gave Henry a party. They said: “Mr Drum, we liked your story. You did a good job.”

Henry’s next famous story was about farm workers. This time the story was about farm workers in Rustenburg. Farm workers suffered in Rustenburg. One farmer killed a worker. People called the farmer “Umabulala umuntu” (He who killed a man).

A reader wrote to Drum: “Why doesn’t Mr Drum have a look around here? Rustenburg is like Bethal.”

Henry dressed up as a farm worker and went to Rustenburg. He got a job on the farm of “Umabulala umuntu.”

Henry worked at the farm from 5 in the morning till 7 at night. He slept in a dirty compound. The workers told him many stories about the cruelty of “Umabulala umuntu.” Workers said the ghost of a dead worker came back to the compound at night.

One day Henry sat under a tree when it rained. The farmer called him and beat him. Henry decided to escape. He went back to Johannesburg and wrote his story. People wrote letters to thank Mr Drum for his story. They praised him for his bravery. This story about the Rustenburg farm workers was one of his last stories.

One night in December 1956 Henry went to visit his cousin Percy Hlubi. Percy lived in Western Township. Late that night Henry told Percy that he had to do a job in Newclare.

Percy said: “Henry don’t go now. It’s late and dangerous. Can’t you go tomorrow?” “Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” answered Henry.

The next morning Percy’s wife got up and went to work. On the way she saw a body lying on the grass. The body was covered in blood. She went to have a look. She saw that it was Henry. Somebody had killed Henry in the night. He was only 37 years old.

Henry Nxumalo, tried to make the world a better place. He died doing his job. He was the greatest journalist of them all.


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