Drum editor tells of apartheid struggle

Andrew Donohue

Literally or figuratively, Sylvester Stein runs well.
A key figure of South Africa’s liberation movement in the 1950s, Stein often had to run from authorities as editor in chief of the anti-apartheid magazine, Drum. Today, in his elder years, Stein is also the British track champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes for his age group.
The author of several books on anti-apartheid activities led a discussion Tuesday surrounding apartheid and the liberation movement in South Africa. The conversation, held at Coffman Theater, included input from about 50 students, journalists and community members.
Stein used most of the discussion to talk about his tenure at Drum. At that time the magazine was submerged in the struggle for black freedom in South Africa.
“He has experience in publishing against the grain, clearly outside of mainstream media,” said Anthony Payton, a local journalist. “Against all odds, he made a magazine with black journalists.”
Started in 1951, Drum was created during a time when oppression of blacks ran rampant in South Africa. Any arguing or demonstrating resulted in police violence and shooting.
“Drum helped the blacks make the resistance public and help the readers feel human,” Stein said. “It was the first magazine to treat them as adults. The government never gave them more rights than a dog or herd of cattle.”
With a staff of black reporters, Drum struggled against the government and military police. Stein, who is white, served as a liaison to the printers and the public, giving the white face he said Drum needed to survive.
Writers for the magazine risked and, in some instances, gave their lives in performing undercover investigations. Henry Nxumalo, like many former Drum writers, is now a national hero, after dying in the line of duty. He was stabbed by police for being out after curfew, Stein said.
Nxumalo went undercover as a worker in the lowly labor camps to tell the public of terrible working conditions. He also purposefully had himself arrested to report on prison conditions.
“A bulk of my reporters were victims, sacrifices of what happened in South Africa,” Stein said, holding back tears. “They would have treasured the liberation had they been alive.”
Fighting the struggles of censorship, Stein gave up his post at the magazine and moved to London, fearing imprisonment for his efforts.
“The discussion was very interesting and informative,” said Peter Lekgoathi, an African history graduate student. “But I got some sense of romanticism of the past. Certainly some things said were impacted by what is happening now in the 1990s, not what happened in the 1950s.”
Adam Sitze, a graduate student in comparative studies and discourse in society, agreed.
“One way to forget the past is to make it a monument,” he said. “It is easier to forget hardships if you make them heroic.”
The National Writer’s Union and several smaller organizations sponsored the discussion. The union is composed of freelance writers from across the country. It works to improve labor conditions for writers and is also a strong supporter of free speech.