about Sylvester

Drum years

Sylvester goes native in Sophiatown. Here Jean Hart is blacking him up with permanganate of potash. Read about it in Who Killed Mr Drum?
Photo by Malcolm Hart

Needing to support a family he turned his thoughts to journalism. In 1948 he got a job at the Rand Daily Mail. It was a turning point for him as he realised he'd found his calling. He quickly rose from rookie correspondent to Lobby correspondent and leader writer.

In 1955 he was head hunted for the job of editing Drum Magazine

Jim Bailey wanted to know if I'd accept the editorship of the magazine he owned, Drum. As the country's first magazine for Africans it had already made a big splash and a hell-raising reputation, courageously demanding rights for the blacks, who were buying copies by the thousand. I would be taking over from an Englishman Anthony Sampson. (No white South African would have cared to, or even dared to, work on a black journal and Bailey wouldn't have dared to, even if he cared to, appoint a black editor.)

From I Danced with Mrs Gandhi

Warned by many that this would end his brilliant career, he took the job eagerly.

"Take the job," said Arthur Gavshon, it was the route to fame, as the world outside was beginning to work itself up heatedly against the sins of racism and praise those who fought it. Drum was the place to be.

It was a difficult time for all concerned on the magazine as the Government was beginning to crack down seriously on dissent and criticism. But it was a rich and exciting period, working with such luminaries as Henry Nxumalo (Mr Drum himself), Can Themba (Associate Editor), 'Zeke Mphalele, Jurgen Schadeberg (photographer and picture editor), Bob Gosani (photographer), Nat Nakasa, Bloke Modisane, Todd Matshikiza and others.

... it was unbelievably adventuresome and tremendous fun and socially rewarding. It was my university of journalism.

It was the period of the Treason Trial and the destruction of Sophiatown (read Bloke Modisane in Blame me on History on the tragedy of Sophiatown). All this oppression by the Nationalist Government was building up to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

The Nationalist Government's wrath regarding the many exposes, such as the Olympic Sports scandal (whites only in the Olympic team) and the Church story (blacks banned from "white" Christian churches), that Drum highlighted, forced the management to order editorial restraint.

"Sylvester was the best editor that Drum ever had and some of the most exciting and valuable stories were produced under his editorship: such as the Church story, the Treason Trial, etc." Jurgen Schadeberg.

Finally editorial interference by the owner regarding a proposed cover showing the two women Wimbledon finalists, both American, of 1957, Althea Gibson and Darlene Hard, hugging each other after Gibson's win. The difficulty for the owner, Jim Bailey, was that Gibson was a black woman and Hard a white woman. Bailey forced a change of cover picture. Sylvester resigned immediately and set out for England.

The fall-out: no job, and forced exile sure to be around the corner...

Gotta get a job, bajob, bajob,
bajob is what I gotta get;
'cos I'm outa work, kawork, kawork,
and outa work is into debt. Quertyuiop/Old Letch