Photography loves misery, and compelling are the photos of oppression. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was evocatively photographed, another struggle across the ocean was similarly being recorded. In South Africa’s long struggle with the Apartheid, photography played a large (if largely-unacknowledged-outside-Africa) role, thanks to a magazine called Drum.
Drum was managed by two Englishmen, both products of public schools. Jim Bailey and Anthony Sampson seemed unassuming and unimposing figures but they achieved what was never impossible: even after many other magazines had been banned for printing anti-apartheid photos, their little magazine survived. Their trick was to publicize Drum as a gossipy rag, while slipping in anti-apartheid news, stories, and photos between general interest pieces on weddings, nightlife, and movie stars. While the magazine was ambitious (and wanted to expand to other English-speaking African states), it was not a profitable enterprise. Its de facto boycott by the South African establishment at the time only made it harder, and Bailey nearly squandered all the money left by his father, the Johannesburg gold magnate Abe Bailey (who was as close as one might get to Flintheart Glomgold without being a cartoon duck).
But Drum‘s assets were in its intrepid journalists and photographers, nearly all of them from all black Jo’burg neighbourhood of Sophiatown. Many of Drum’s star photographers tried to get themselves arrested and took photos inside prisons using . One such photographer, Peter Magubane, was arrested for two years and banned from taking photographs for five years upon his release. Five years later, Magubane defiantly resumed his photojournalistic career.
Perhaps the most famous picture ever published in Drum — some have even called it the most famous picture ever published in Africa — was a photograph of prisoners doing a naked tauza dance. Tauza was a humiliating ritual that the black prisoners had to undergo when they were returning from a court appearance or a work program to ensure that they had nothing hidden in their rectums. Bailey and his reporters had known about the practice and decided that a photo of tauza would be perfect for Henry Nxumalo’s scathing first-hand story on appalling conditions inside South African prisons.
So he sent a white secretary from the office to the notorious Johannesburg prison The Fort. She posed as a photographer while an actual photographer Bob Gosani — Nxumalo’s nephew — and writer Arthur Maimane simply accompanied her as her black servants. The prison authorities paid little attention to the woman photographer from a little rag (many viewed the magazine as a Rand-equivalent of Us Weekly) and much less attention to her companions. As the result, Gosani managed to take the photo above which shocked many when published and led to some, albeit grudging and slow, reform in South African prison system.
That was in 1954 — Apartheid would remain in South Africa for the next four decades. As for Drum the destruction of Sophiatown in later that year (which would also lead a young Nelson Mandela onto the road towards armed resistance) marked an end to its creative reign. Its wonderful staff also disintegrated into fingerpointing and infighting.