Whilst major exposes are published each week, bringing to light nefarious activities of the mighty and powerful in state and private sectors, most of it is done from the comfort of air-conditioned offices through data analysis and interviews.
Not Henry Nxumalo. He lived his stories. Whether it was the hiring of prisoners to potato farmers in Bethal, their abuse through beatings and murder, leading to corpses being buried in the fields to serve as fertilizer, or Baas Erasmus in Koster who was known to beat and kill his recalcitrant workers, or terrible prison conditions and practices such as Tauza where black men were made to parade naked every morning and evening for their behinds to be inspected for contraband stuff, Nxumalo lived those stories.
He got himself hired in Bethal and his expose of the conditions on the farms led to the now famous national potato boycott. He escaped with barely minutes to spare from Erasmus’s farm and arrived at the railway station just in time before the train to Joburg left, arriving with just enough time to catch the deadline for the monthly magazine.
His arrest and incarceration at the Fort, now Constitution Hill and seat of the Apex Court of our land, is a story in itself. He had spent two weeks walking the city streets each night without a permit hoping to be arrested. But it was not to be. He resorted to getting drunk and walking past a police station singing, but even that didn’t get him into jail. When he was eventually arrested, history and the pictures taken from a nearby roof by his photographer led to an outcry that saw the government pass a new law not to protect prisoners but to outlaw the taking and usage of pictures of prisons and prisoners.
Drum, the magazine he worked for at the time, dubbed him Mr Drum and his stories would make cover page with bold announcements like Mr Drum goes to Jail, etc.
Nxumalo, born in 1917 at Mvutshini village near Margate, in KwaZulu Natal, was the first born child of Lazarus and Josephine Nxumalo. He attended a missionary school and his interest in journalism started whilst still at school, submitting articles to a number of publications such as Post, which published them. Post eventually offered him a job which he took up but did not stay long.
He was intent on exploring the world and World War 2 saw him enlisting and sent abroad, during which time he managed to even visit London where he made contact with a number of well-known journalists and other intellectuals. Returning home after the war, the media landscape was virtually barren for the kind of journalism Nxumalo wanted to practice. This was to change when Drum came on the scene. Nxumalo became its first black journalist and its 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.” According to SA History Online.
“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. 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, whose nickname was ‘Mr Drum’.
Jurgen Schadeberg, who took many of the pictures for Nxumalo’s exposes, said of Nxumalo in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a 2012 interview, “White Afrikaners were consistently uneasy when Nxumalo introduced himself as a journalist, 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!”
Nxumalo also worked with Ruth First at The New Age, and wrote a regular column for the Pittsburgh Courier, a rare feat for a black writer from SA at the time.
Describing him as “a very good journalist, very courageous,” Schadeberg bemoaned that Nxumalo’s murder, at age 40, whilst investigating a backyard abortion racket, had not led to justice. Instead even his brand of lived investigations waned, and Drum eventually folded and was bought by the National Party supporting Naspers which has turned it into a rag with no relation to the legacy of Nxumalo.
A street has been named after him in Newtown Johannesburg, in recognition of his role in South African journalism.