Monday, July 1, 2013

The fading beat of Drum magazine

Drum was the only magazine when the winds of change were blowing through the African continent in 1957. It celebrated its 60th birthday recently.
The best talent available in the urban South African community was, like moth to light, attracted to the charismatic power of its visionary and prophetic founder, a Mr Jim Bailey. It was fate that brought them together.
This collaboration of white economic power and black creative talent delivered a product that could not be ignored. It was taken seriously. There was no other publication like it anywhere else in the world.
Drum magazine was the bible of African creative thought, laying bare the heart and soul of a nation. It was intuitively connected to the people. Indeed, it was accepted as the “voice of the people”. Quite simply, it was who the urban African population were: strong, resilient and determined souls that confronted and transcended colonialism and apartheid conditions that were considered “a crime against humanity” in the middle of the 20th century.
There was a wall. That wall of fire leaped as high as the skyscrapers. The wall was impenetrable white economic power and domination. And the African journalists lay prostrate before it. They had no choice. This led them to frustration, hard drinking, sexual promiscuity, fast living, and, ultimately, dying young in their efforts to escape monopoly clutches.
But their eyes remained on the prize of speaking truth to power.
We live in the reverberating sounds of the Drum beat. Readers are bombarded by images, primarily, of clowns who are mistaken for celebrities because they appear on television. It is a fleeting popular culture where those who have neither land nor wealth allow themselves to be portrayed as having everything.
Most of what we know about ourselves – people desperate for acknowledgement and recognition by any means necessary – is hyped by the new plastic age of Drum. We live in a time where perception is reality. What is imagined, especially using the smoke and mirrors of high fashion, far-into-the-night drinking parties and soulless music stars – is more powerful than what is real. If it is featured in Drum, then it is the new trend, the “in thing”.
These days Drum’s pictorial news, which can be considered a national album, is the source of the belief that in South Africa perception is reality. The mag is a leader in chronicling contemporary celebrities in the present tense.
The Drum of Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Zeke Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane and Todd Matshikiza, to name a few, had this glitter and glamour to it, too. But they did not deliver that at the expense of truth. They understood that news and not fashion was an important job to do. Depending on how you look at things, today’s Drum has become an institution that reflects the pseudo-reality and thus fails the country every day.
The reality of prison conditions, bludgeoned youth, poverty, unemployment, abortion, illiteracy is not special focus features in the new Drum. Instead, it glows bright with the glamour and drama of fake glitterati. Popular figures created by a single appearance on a television soap opera are elevated into role models or super-achievers. Discerning readers recognise this as sowing the seeds of success measured by money and fame in the minds of gullible readers.
Drum journalists ride in hired limousines as VIP guests in the company of stars clothed in borrowed designer clothes. The gullible are most unlikely to see the blurring of lines as journalists must be objective and not take sides.
The Drum of Nxumalo, Mphahlele and, of course, Stan Motjuwadi was to just tell South Africans and tourists the hard truths, the facts about failing freedom and the truth about empty democracy. What you need to know about the Dream Deferred of Chief Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko that was once reflected on its pages. That was what Drum used to do in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Adam Small’s eulogy to Biko in 1977, for instance, was the fastest selling Drum in history. In 1980 Drum sales were hovering around 200 000 copies.
What is the role of Drum in a transitional society?
Nxumalo, Themba, Mphahlele and Modisane would say it is to get under the skin of the new rulers and remind them of their obligation to the dream of a free and anti-racist society. This was the virus that drove them to self-sacrifice through hard drinking, promiscuous sex, hopelessness and, ultimately, exile and early death. This is the betrayal of patriots that the people need to know.
There is cause for alarm now that this is not happening. Drum fought a vicious struggle against the heinous state that launched Pace magazine just to dilute its political message. Much as it was not an ideological publication, it stood up for principle and was committed to the ideals of a new society.
George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 marked a new era for Drum. It was taken over by verligteformer Afrikaner Broederbond members who desired to penetrate deeper into the African market and mind. The work of Drum, now, is not necessarily politically conscious any more. In fact, it never was. Its journalism cannot exactly be defined as a calling. It is a big deal job with access to celebrity parties and petty scandals. The strategic objective has changed from what Jim Bailey wanted: to be a gadfly in the face of evil power. The emphasis, now, is maybe to please the shareholders and feed the beast called profit. The mission is not Sobukwe or Biko’s African personality, Black Consciousness or self-determination.
Instead, it is here to entertain by giving the people what they want. It is here to sell what will give people delusions and dreams to make them forget.
Gone is the spirit of Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Zeke Mphahlele or Stan Motjuwadi, for instance. There are no stories of enslaved farm workers, abused prisoners, abortion clinics or truly African divas that nourish the soul of the nation.
Everybody is a player now, playing the same game as the movers and shakers who will be written about tomorrow.
There is a serious problem with the heartbeat of Africa today. It is the fading sound of the cowhide Drum.
But everyone seems to, generally, hate the press, today. It is not just Drum. Even former cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi was especially critical of the desire to make profit at the expense of telling the country’s story.
Well, we can say what we will about Drum. However, we must do it for the right reasons. It is not like it is now a conniving and conspiring institution that wants to keep the people ignorant of their history in the present. There are no executives who wish to dictate to its journalist what to write. Besides, Drum was part of the struggle for freedom of expression and the media in this country.
The fact is, Drum was not an ideological publication. Its agenda was not to have an agenda besides providing entertainment news and, if possible, make profits for its owners. And to achieve that it must please and not provoke its readers. It must cheer and challenge its subjects.
Let the Drum beat go on to reverberate in our heart and soul no matter how faint the sound.
The often repeated conspiracy theories about who owns Drum and what they want to use it for do not address the burning issues. It does not matter who owns the press. The loud complaints, if any, should be about the meaning and purpose of the journalists. How do they want to serve the country? The Nxumalos and Thembas made their choice. Today, the media is free despite the barking from the governing party.
The dumbing down and the erasing of the legacy of what used to be done before is about the focus on the business of journalism which is about business and profits. It is about globalisation and how the media is not for truth but profits. Thus Drum has to create a news mix that will boost the advertising revenue. This is the new agenda.
Drum has lived through six decades of diminished seriousness and clout as it feeds the beast called the market. In a democracy, the people get what they deserve.
And as Jim Bailey said, Drum can “go and do better”.
Now is the time.

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