"Drum - a review of the writing"
No distant drum
      by Guy Berger, July 2001

Review of The Drum Decade. Stories from the 1950s, edited by Michael Chapman, Introduction by John Matshikiza. 2001. University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg. R85.00, softcover.    

If you're a 20-something-old today, chances are you were lucky enough miss experiencing wider South Africa life before Nelson Mandela came out of jail in 1990. For 40-somethings like me, the 1950s seem even more remote. The hurly-burly of post-apartheid South Africa and global dynamics means the past recedes ever faster.

So it is that for many of us, conjecturing images from 50 years back is probably as difficult as it might seem irrelevant. Which is why there's a shock in reading this book. It shows how much we remain in the shadow of the first decade of formal apartheid.

If you're the kind of person who likes to learn about how we came to be who we are, then great riches are what you'll find in the re-issue of stories from the 1950s. Culled from Drum magazine by Michael Chapman and published by the University of Natal Press, these are writings that refused to be consigned to the archives. Chapman first revived them back in the dangerous days of 1989, and they went through two reprints. Now in 2001 there's a second edition that includes a moving introduction by Mail & Guardian columnist John Matshikiza. (His famous father Todd was a long-time contributor to Drum.) That publishing run is remarkable given the sad state of book sales in South Africa.

So what do the "Drummers" do for us today? How do we read the writings of these men who wandered the shebeens of long-gone Sophiatown, caught up with the crime on Jo'burg golden pavements, and dreamed of escaping the vice of white racists on the one side, and mass black illiteracy on the other? Clearly we read them in retrospect, making meaning in relation to our present.

It is the case that when the Drum staff beat out their lines on old typewriters a half-century ago, they could not realise just how bad things were still to get, nor could they envisage the shape of an eventual political settlement and its aftermath. So, just how pertinent could they be to today's readers?

In fact, the life that Drum's team wrote about is still very much with us. In short: crime, race and sexual relationships. Not rendered in clichéd newspeak, but narrated with verve, insight, drama and appreciation of the uniqueness of each person. That's what amplifies the resonance for the reader today: the racy power of their writing.

This is because while we readily recognise the stories, it's apparent that the Drum writers' skills have gone and that nothing has emerged in the media to equal their strength. Veteran journalist Anthony Sampson, who once edited Drum, ascribes the quality of talent that accumulated on magazine to the racial barriers that blocked black advancement in other professions and institutions. People who otherwise might have become doctors, tycoons, academics and so on, gravitated to journalism as the only avenue offering a little fulfilment of their potential.

Today, South Africa may not quite be the proverbial "oyster" for people in the black middle class, but it sure is a perlemoen. The range of career opportunities today, combined with the skills deficit due to Bantu Education, means that South African journalism doesn't display the best of the Black intelligentsia. The country, therefore, has yet to enjoy a new generation of Black writers who approach the calibre of the 1950s.

It's the scarcity value of a contemporary class of black scribes that underlines the pleasure of reading this book in 2001. But it's not just creative and vivid writing that holds the reader; the content also gives great insight.

To read the 31 stories in this collection is to rediscover the history that shapes us. They resurrect a time that is not just black history, but history for all South Africans. The book reminds those of us who had forgotten, and those who never knew, that gangsterism and criminal glamour did not emerge post-apartheid. Long before Yizo Yizo came to television, and even before TV came to SA, Sophiatown buzzed with fast-talking, hard-drinking, dangerously dagger-happy muggers complete with their fans. Like now, life then was a clashing mix of the cheerful and cheap.

Race identity was also all too real in the 1950s. Whites against Africans, Coloureds vs Africans, Indians attacked by Africans … so many prejudices, suspicions and violent acts way back then. At least some of the violent tribal conflicts described in the stories have given way to history.

There are other echoes that strike a 21st century reader. Women, in the eyes of the Drum writers, gratify male desire and fantasy - not much has changed here. The politics of the journalist also resonate. The Drum writers were not activists, instead they had to manage the tension between resenting the ambition of politicians on the one hand, and respecting the cause for which the ANC and PAC fought, on the other. Today's reporters can tell you about walking this fine line.

There is a certain reassurance to be gained by being reminded just how perennial are the problems of race, gender and politics. The Drum writers add to our insight into them, even if they provide no clear solutions. But one area where they do supply formulas for thought is in their writing. These were writers who wrote fact as semi-fiction, and who borrowed from a range of literary styles before giving them a local South African twist.

Drum fused a multitude of influences into a fast-paced and pumping product. British tabloid-type sensation came, in part, from owner Jim Bailey and the white editors he appointed. Characterisation and dialogue got a strong dose from American detective novels and Hollywood gangster movies. South Africanising idiom, plus morality and immorality, came from urban and rural African cultures. There was a sense of pride in a great continent inexorably heading for political independence. If ever one saw a melting pot evident within a group of authors, it was in the Drum scribes.

Much as there's inspiration about what can be achieved by the cultural syncretism as evidenced in Drum's hybridisation, this Drum anthology also has a hurtful message between its lines. In their relative rootlessness, their wider social alienation, their lives of dodging police, criminals and editors, the bulk of the Drum writers turned to the bottle. Writing, it seemed, was not sufficient a panacea for their problems nor for a celebration of their talents. In the end, alcohol provided their solace, and it was this that proved the undoing of a found generation.

So, there's a certain sadness in reading this book. It records an era which blended high hopes with horrendous harm; it is about a wave that rose … and then fell. It records an era which where high hopes competed with horrendous harms, and no one knew which would win.

We live nowadays with similar paradoxes, although probably even more extreme. We face consequences of carefree sexuality that are far more drastic than those the Drum writers dealt with. Today's criminals don't even soil their hands with a sharpened bicycle spoke and a threat; they tend to leave victims dead or even mutilated.

Yet unlike the Drum decade, we do live in freedom today. And that big difference means a chance for the 1950s to come to be seen like an eon away. Read this book, and resolve to make its reality a distant drumbeat.



Download MS Word file
(3 x A4 pages; 27kb)