Magazine in Context Okwui Enwezor

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A Critical Presence: Drum Magazine in Context

Okwui Enwezor

Drum magazine began publication in South Africa in 1951 just as apartheid laws went into force.  This essay looks at the monthly’s first decade when, with the support of a large cosmopolitan readership throughout the continent, and against sometimes violent censorship, Drum photographers reported on the full range of Black African urban life: hard, but irrepressibly vital, optimistic, and modern.  The author of this text, Okwui Enwezor, is an internationally recognized Black African curator and author.  He argues from both local and global perspectives for the aesthetic and social power of Drum photography.  Documenting the life around them from an insider's perspective, the photographs did much to subvert debilitating colonialist stereotypes.  How does Enwezor see Drum magazine’s part in modernizing Africa?  How do the photographs by Bob Gosani and Peter Magubane compare with the work of township artists of the next decade (presented in the essays by Steven Sack and Elza Miles): paintings, for example, by artists like John Mohl and Gladys Mgudlandlu or the drawings of Dumile and Julian Motau?
Source: In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, 179-191. New York: Harry Abrams, 1996.

From the time the Dutch arrived and established a trading post for the Dutch East India Company in 1652 in Cape of Good Hope, the story of South Africa has been one of occupation, colonial pillage, and contested territories, histories and identities. The introduction of apartheid in 1948, after the electoral triumph of the Afrikaner National Party, gave birth to a succession of laws including the Population Registration Act (1960), which allowed the government to classify people on the basis of race and color, and the Group Areas Act (1950), which authorized the forced removal and physical separation of people along racial lines. The Native Laws Amendment Act (1952) ushered in the notorious pass laws, which curtailed and controlled the movement of Africans within South Africa. (…) These laws, which always carried the threat of violence, beleaguered any notion of a shared and representative national culture or identity, which inevitably led to a protracted, internecine struggle for freedom.1

In a sense, the long struggle against apartheid forced South Africa to bear the greatest burden among all the “modern” nations in qualifying for that designation. Simply put, it was an outlaw country. Everything in its rancorous history of well over three centuries pointed out the anomalousness of its status as a “modern” nation. (…)

Beyond Renaissance and Awakening: 1950s South Africa and Drum
(…) Difficult and unfathomable as it might seem, given the bleak prospects of existence under apartheid’s hegemony, life was nonetheless lived with relish in many townships precipitating a rare period that, today, many remember wistfully. It is almost as if the millions who later would be railroaded and systematically destroyed by the pernicious apartheid policy anticipated that the decades ahead would be devoted solely to the struggle to assert and reclaim the validity of their rights as empowered human beings and citizens. Jürgen Schadeberg, the first picture editor of Drum magazine and a highly respected photographer, who documented many of the memorable moments of the decade with sharp clarity and great compositional skill, notes, “The 1950s were exciting years. The ideas, the ideals, and the achievements of trial time should not be forgotten.”2 Peter Magubane, who brought an intimate humanism to his photographs and with equal ardor left a legacy of great images from the period, spoke to me about how unbelievable that period was in the now vanished Sophiatown, then known as the Paris of Johannesburg. He recalled its hedonism, joy, romance, and sense of place.3 (…)

When Drum’s first edition was published in Cape Town in March 1951 under the name The African Drum, its first editor and cofounder, Robert Crisp, with typical white South African attitudes toward Africans, envisioned it as an entertainment magazine dealing with aspects of “tribal” life, even though its target was an urban audience. Not perceiving themselves in the stereotypical and racist light under which Crisp attempted to cast them, the African populace at whom the magazine was directed roundly rejected its message. The African Drum was a failure, a vital lesson its subsequent owner would heed. After three issues were produced, Jim Bailey, the son of a mining magnate, took over the magazine as its sole proprietor, a role he would play until he sold the publication in 1984. Bailey changed its name to Drum, reconstructed its editorial direction, and moved its offices to Johannesburg. In order to ensure its survival, he had to radically reformulate the magazine’s image as a forum for Crisp’s condescending, imagined ideas of African “tribal” life to a sophisticated outlet for young journalists, writers, and photographers. (…) Added in a succession were editions in Nigeria (1953), Ghana (1954), East Africa (1957), and Central Africa (1966) to fulfill that pan-African determination.

At the height of its popularity, Drum enjoyed enormous readership. Even a North American and West Indian edition was distributed. The magazine’s circulation per issue stood at 450,000 copies, reaching far into many literate, cosmopolitan areas of Africa. But more than anything else, it was Drum’s keen insight into Africa’s popular culture, contemporary life, and emergent sense of modernity that garnered wide devotion among this urban audience. With equal vigor – as well as measured discretion, for Drum could easily be banned like so many other publications presenting anything antagonistic toward apartheid – Drum also confronted serious sociopolitical issues within its pages. The magazine was witness to the worsening political and economic conditions in South Africa and the independence and liberation struggles in Central, East and West Africa. (…)
Writers like Peter Abrahams, Ayi Kwei Armah, Nadime Gordimer, Alex La Guma, and Lewis Nkosi contributed essays and short stories to the magazine. It was also in Drum that Alan Paton’s bestselling novel Cry, the Beloved Country was first serialized. Of its staff writers in the 1950s, Arthur Maimane, Casey Motsisi, Ezekiel Mphahlele (…), Henry Nxumato, known as Mr. Drum for his ability to take on very difficult assignments, and Can Themba stand out like beacons. Their stories gave enormous texture and shape to the mood of the period, examining its politics, fun, culture, aspirations, even its petty crimes and capturing in words the fast-paced and changing lifestyles of various communities, such as Alexandra, Orlando, and Sophiatown, some of which would disappear for ever.

Drum’s photographers gave visual substance and glamour to the lives that comprised the intimate portraits of those stories. With equal scrutiny and attention to their diverse subjects, be they celebrities, hoodlums, or politicians, the photographers took pictures in the segregated, teeming, vibrant slums of South Africa’s townships. Their nuanced images display an expressive freshness and energy born out of an irrepressible hope and optimism. The photographers looked for their images in the most unexpected places. They donned disguises and had themselves arrested, whatever it took to obtain images to illustrate important stories.4

By casting a critical gaze at territories beyond the margins, the work of the Drum photographers transcends the prosaic. Offhandedly charming or accusatively caustic, the photographs are more like sociological excavations than purely documentary artifacts. By defying the conventions of traditional documentary photography these pictures ably penetrate the surface of appearances to probe the psychological states of their subjects as well as their environments. Envisioning the circumstances of their production, we are struck by their deep implication. There is never a dull moment in the stories the photographs tell. For example, Ian Berry’s intimate and revealing view of life in the capacious but subterranean world of the Moffies’ drag culture, shot at the famous Madam Costello’s Ball in Cape Town, poignantly captures that group’s racial intermixture and its air of camp, sadness, and joie de vivre. (…)
Drum represents more than a mere publication in the minds of many people. It was a window into their aspirations and desires, and, in many ways, it was an eyewitness to those events defining the course of South Africa’s political and social landscape in the years following World War II. It fulfilled an important role as a documenter and a disseminator, especially if we consider the magazine’s importance in the African context. (…)

In many ways, the work of the Drum photographers exists beyond the realm of the visual and assumes an important ideological function (…) [Charles] Merewether, in contrasting the manner in which photojournalism is embedded in the activities of the public sphere with that of photographic portraiture as a tendency to address the private sphere, notes that “the difference between the two is not simply a matter of genre and style, but the way photography transgresses and redefines the subject of taboo, that is, notions of the sacred, of intimacy and the private sphere.”5 We can assess the full meaning and importance of Drum’s photography through such transgression and defiance, which in many instances came with serious repercussions. Thus, with penetrating authority, the seductive, albeit compelling, images from Drum name “through an accumulation of excess of memory” the divided and irradiated space of desanctified memory. As such, the publication of Drum in the 1950s and 1960s remains vital and provides a key platform disturbing the various hedges erected by a repressive political order. It also provides real grounds for discursive narratives involving issues of desire, identity, and community as we map different cultural moments in Africa.


  1. On June 26, 1955, three thousand delegates from a variety of political organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC), South African Colored People’s Organization, South African Indian Congress, and Congress of Democrats, assembled in opposition to apartheid. At the conclusion of the meeting, the groups drafted a document known as the Freedom Charter. Advocating a multiracial and equal society in a democratic South Africa, it was subsequently adopted by the ANC and for almost forty years remained the key ideology through which the party pressed for the end of apartheid.

  2. Jürgen Schadeberg, “Taking pictures in the 1950s”, in Sof’town Blues. Images from the Black ‘50s, (Pinegowrie, South Africa: Jürgen Schadeberg, 1994), p. 19.

  3. Peter Magubane’s comments on Sophiatown and Drum were made during an interview I had with him at his home in Johannesburg in January 1996. He also talked in detail about his work and colleagues at Drum, speaking with particular fondness and respect for Bob Gosani and Schadeberg, the latter with whom he had had a few public disagreements about the authorship of particular images published in Drum during their tenures as staff photographers.
  4. As with most dictatorships, mere suspicion of hostility toward the apartheid regime was met with brutal force. No form of media frightened the regime more than photography did, with its powerful testimony that could be used to expose and counteract the sanitized, propagandistic images working in the government’s favor, or to fashion an oppositional artistic practice of self-representation. Magubane for example, was incarcerated, spending nearly six hundred days in solitary confinement, and was banned by the government for five years, during which he was not permitted to practice photography.

  5. Charles Merewether, “Naming Violence in the work of Doris Salcedo”. Third Text 24, fall 1993, p 36.

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