Yellowed cover pages of South Africa’s iconic Drum magazine evoke a 1950s black fashion and jazz culture which perished when apartheid forces razed Sophiatown, a racially-mixed Johannesburg suburb. This year Drum turned 60 and even today South Africans link the magazine to Sophiatown, a restless and vibrant suburb which was home to blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese.
Between 1955 and 1960, residents were forcibly removed and relocated to townships outside Johannesburg because white blue-collar areas sprang up nearby, fuelling the perception that Sophiatown was too close to white suburbia. It was flattened, repopulated with poor whites and renamed Triomf, which is Afrikaans for “Triumph”. “Sophiatown set the pace, giving urban African culture its pulse, rhythm, and style during the 1940s and 1950s,” said cultural anthropologist David Coplan in his book “In Township Tonight”.
“Even as government bulldozers were levelling its houses, Sophiatown generated a cultural flowering unequalled in the urban history of South Africa,” Coplan said. Sophiatown’s snazzy gangsters drove around in chrome-laden US convertibles inspired by African American culture. The 70,000 locals proudly called their suburb “Little Harlem”.
And, just like its role model New York, Sophiatown brimmed with jazz, with star performers such as legendary protest singer and Africa’s most famous diva Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Dollar Brand and Hugh Masekela. At the centre of this vibrant suburban life were Drum journalists who “produced the best investigative journalism, short fiction, satirical humour, social and political commentary, and musical criticism South Africa had ever seen,” Coplan wrote.
German photographer Jurgen Schadeberg made a name with his cover page photos depicting the town’s urban life, challenging racist views of Africans as simply farm or mine workers. Reporter Henry Nxumalo was famous for his investigative pieces. Fondly called “Mr Drum”, Nxumalo once enlisted as a farm worker to expose the brutality of white farmers. He was stabbed to death in 1957 while investigating abortions.
Nxumalo’s life story was portrayed in a 2004 film, aptly called “Drum”. Journalist Peter Magubane described the atmosphere in the newsroom thus: “Drum was a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination … It was only when you left Drum and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land.”
Over 50 years after the quarter was demolished and suburban houses built on its ruins, a small museum keeps Sophiatown’s memory alive, with the help of some photographs from Drum. “Sophiatown was a vibrant place, there was life in Sophiatown! Everything was happening there,” enthused Mbali Zwane, a young guide at the museum.
Renamed Sophiatown again, the suburb is more important for its symbolism than its reality. The cosmopolitan suburb that defied apartheid laws on racial mixing presents a more romantic image of black South Africa than the dilapidated townships on the edge of town where people of colour had been relegated.
“There is a romanticisation of Sophiatown that has to do with nostalgia,” said Noor Nieftagodien, a historian at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University.
“That is understandable. The community represented a kind of urban life that apartheid destroyed.” In the same way memories of blacks, Indians, mixed race people living in harmony persists, though the population was actually overwhelmingly black. But Sophiatown was no paradise, said Nieftagodien. Tenants were often exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Most of the people were poor and it was riddled with slums.
The magazine is inextricably linked with the suburb’s idealised memory, he said. At the same time Drum writers did not live the same reality as Sophiatown residents.
“A lot of the journalists who wrote for Drum belonged to a particular elite, middle class. For them, Sophiatown was a glamourous world. It was their microcosm world.” Over the years the arbiter of 1950s elegance also changed. Drum gradually started running fewer and fewer stories and more pictures. It was bought by Naspers in 1984, at the time a staunchly pro-apartheid media house and these days a global media group.
Its star writers were jailed, killed, exiled, or fell to alcoholism. Today the magazine is the black version of Naspers’ local English and Afrikaans gossip titles You and Huisgenoot.
The English and Zulu language editions are nothing close to the glamour and exposes of old, and the 60th birthday edition harkens back to a spirit of Sophiatown which the magazine itself has lost. - Sapa-AFP