one of three white men working on Drum, the legendary South African
investigative magazine that challenged the system of apartheid to such
an extent that staff were regularly picked up by the police and held in
cells for days on end.
But Sylvester Stein, because of his
colour, was the magazine’s editor – a position none of the “brilliant
young journalists” he worked with could ever hope to hold.
white editor was essential,” says Stein, who has co-written a play Who
Killed Mr Drum?, with Fraser Grace. The play is based on his book about
his time at Drum magazine in the 1950s and the death of one of its star
investigative reporters Henry Nxumalo.
“This was the era of hot
metal – you would go down to the stone as it was called and you’d see
the newspaper in lead and the editor would go down and look at a proof
of it. He would do a little bit of last work with the compositor if
something wasn’t quite right.
“They wouldn’t listen to a ‘kaffir’
– for that reason alone they couldn’t be editor. There were a lot of
jolly clever people – I would take my line from the staff, we had
regular meetings that included everybody from the darkroom assistant to
the teaboy, and so I would get the feel, which I didn’t have so much
from my heart or my stomach.”
Stein, who had won a place at the
university in Cape Town when he was 15, got his start in journalism
after leaving the navy. “I managed to gatecrash the Rand Daily Mail,
the morning paper in Jo’Burg,” says Stein. “I had started to write
for radio for teenagers – as you would call them today – on interesting
“I got into this newspaper and that was what I wanted to
do – after the first day, which I spent trying to write on the annual
meeting of the Red Cross.
“The editor took a fancy to me and I
went on to learn how to be a writer rather than a factual reporter,”
Stein continues. “The editor pushed me on and it became a job in the
lobby, which of course was a wonderful job, very interesting.”
describes the paper as liberal and he himself as “a bit to the left of
that” and says he became increasingly involved in black politics as his
newspaper career progressed.
Among those he got to know were Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela – then a recently qualified lawyer.
that time there was no social mixing across the colour divide at all. I
must have been only one of a dozen or so whites who had ever met
anybody except their own house servant,” says Stein. “In other ways
they were ordinary people – educated, the ones I knew. After all, I
wouldn’t have been friends with a white man who was a machinist
normally would I?”
Stein was introduced to Jim Bailey after he
had taken over what was then the failing African Drum – and was offered
the job of editor.
“There were people who said, ‘you’re mad,
you’ll never be able to work on a white paper again if you go to a
kaffir paper’,” says Stein. “But my then wife backed me and I’m a
gambler and I’m not risk averse.”
The paper had already been
running for three years, but had failed to engage black readers – it
tended to talk down to them with articles about the of shields of their
tribal ancestors,” says Stein.
“The blacks who could read tended to be urban blacks who had long departed from their tribal history.
talked to black intellectuals and various people and they said they
wanted to know about life in their community – social life, sport,
crime, fashion, all the things people like to see in a magazine about
Under Stein’s editorship Drum took an increasingly hard line and confrontational stance towards the Government.
where the magazine was based, had been the cultural heart of black
Johannesburg since the 1940s. The bulldozing of Sophiatown and the
forcing out of its residents was an episode that politicised many black
It was at this time that chief reporter Nxumalo began to do the kind
of investigative journalism that would come to define the magazine.
Nxumalo wrote about what happened to a black man who didn’t have his
pass on him by getting himself arrested and jailed for seven days.
his work, the magazine also exposed abuse by warders who “got men to
strip off and do what was called the tausa dance so they could look up
their bums to see they weren’t harbouring any illicit things there”.
magazine tackled issues such as the exclusion of black people from the
South African Olympics team and sent a black reporter to a white church
to expose racism – he was thrown out of two and almost lynched in a
Stein left the magazine in 1957 after Bailey changed a
picture that he had chosen for the front page while Stein was on a trip
“He was only the publisher, the proprietor,” says Stein. “He can sack me, but he can’t interfere with the editorial.”
it was an incident that occurred in “the final days of 1956” that
Stein, now 85, a former champion runner, and founder-publisher of the
magazine Running, has dramatised in his play.
often picked up by police – both because of the stance of the newspaper
and because it was a fact of life for black men and women in South
Africa at the time. “They would be picked up for not having a pass or
something like that,” says Stein. “That’s what I thought it was until
they told me he was dead. Assassinated, stabbed many times.
o’clock in the morning or something like that, I’m at home – in the
white area of course, in a very nice suburban house, three servants and
two dogs and four children.
“The telephone rings and I answer crossly and there’s an Afrikans policeman at the other end who says,’Is that Mr Stein?’
“I say ‘yes it is’ and in the back of my mid I’m thinking ‘oh God what does the bugger want this time’.
Straight away he says to me, ‘I’ve got one of your boys here’, and immediately I say ‘he’s not a boy, he’s a great writer’.
it’s going on a bit and my wife is tugging the bedclothes complaining
of the cold, when he says ‘Mr Stein, we have Nxumalo. We want you to
come along and identify the body.”
Stein says the question of who
killed Nxumalo remains unsolved in the play, which was directed by Paul
Robinson. “We never really discovered who killed him and the question
isn’t really directly answered, because we extended ‘Mr Drum’ to all
the staff, to all the black people, because they were really being
killed by apartheid.”
Who Killed Mr
Drum? is showing at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, until 8 October.
For further information, ring 0208 237 1111or visit