Extract | Jim Bailey, Drum magazine owner, wasn’t your ordinary white guy

A Drum cover from the 1950s.
A Drum cover from the 1950s.

An extract from The Chapter We Wrote – The City Press story

Chapter Six – Man Called Jimbo

From what I’ve gathered over the years, Jim Bailey was the kind of boss/owner who enjoyed booze-ups with colleagues. He would select some of his staff to come around to his office late in the afternoon after work and copious amounts of alcohol would flow. A potpourri of ideas would float about and wisecracks would abound.

He drank very little at these meet-with-Bailey sessions, allowing his guests to indulge liberally while he observed their ways and manners. The occasions were more like intellectual assessment exercises for him. Bailey was streetwise and very intelligent, that much was obvious.

Careers could be made or destroyed after such drinking bouts. Socialising with Bailey had its own perils and only the strong-willed and exceptionally talented survived this intoxicating culture of heavy drinking. Those who made the grade and became part of his social and professional inner circle affectionately called him Jimbo – a nickname well liked by Morakile Shuenyane in particular, a City Press and Drum journalist who, after quitting journalism, worked his way up in the corporate world, ending up as the chief executive of a top petroleum company.

Come meet the editors

Current editor in chief Mondli Makhanya will host a panel of past City Press editors in a discussion about the stories from their time at the newspaper and how these have shaped the South African story.

The first 100 guests to buy their tickets will receive a copy of Len Kalane’s book, The Chapter We Wrote: The City Press Story. Book through Computicket, search Editors in Conversation.

When: Wednesday July 25 | Where: Media Park | Time: 5pm for a 5.30pm start | Cost: R200

Please note: You can buy tickets at the door, but please SMS 34217 using the keyword CHAPTER to book your seat. Numbers are limited. SMS cost R1.50. Dinner and drinks will be served.

It was at one of these vinous sittings with Bailey that the idea of establishing a good, black Sunday newspaper was first mooted “over a cheap bottle of port”. This was in 1982, when Bailey suddenly thought of relaunching his old baby, Golden City Post.

Dion Smit, his former general manager at Drum Publications, recalled that occasion.

Smit, Bailey and Phillip Selwyn-Smith sat drinking “Bailey’s favourite brew (a cheap port) by the cool-drink tumbler full. If you drank with Jim, then you drank properly, and why waste time filling and refilling the small port glasses every five minutes when, with less effort, a large tumbler would last at least 15 minutes?”

Smit said they were sitting around an old coffee table on sunken lounge chairs in Bailey’s Eloff Street Extension office in Johannesburg when the idea of establishing a newspaper came up.

Bailey was very unpredictable, I’m told. Legend has it that he once fired his editor during one of these boozy meetings. A publication in his stable was steadily rising in circulation and, with a mixture of delight and curiosity, Bailey had wanted to know why this was happening. Casually and without putting much thought to the answer and giving it a nonchalant shrug, the editor simply said he had no idea why.

This, the story goes, really got Bailey hot under the collar. Infuriated, he barked: “You’re fired!”

The editor might genuinely not have known the reason behind the rise in circulation. But Bailey believed that, as editor, you should know what drives your paper. I go along with that.

Bailey, more prominently known as publisher of Drum magazine, reportedly came to the publishing world almost coincidentally. According to South African History Online, the magazine was started as the African Drum in early 1951 by journalist and broadcaster Robert Crisp with the idea of “presenting blacks as noble savages”. Bailey was approached for funding and he bought into the idea as he thought the venture sounded interesting.

The Chapter We Wrote – The City Press Story by Len Kalane (286 pages) is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and retails at about R260.

He reportedly put up a large portion of the capital thanks to the inheritance that he received from his father. However, when the magazine’s circulation started dropping, Bailey reportedly forced Crisp out and took over the ownership and operations. The magazine offices were moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Bailey then arranged for an advisory board of prominent black businessmen and politicians, hired British journalist Anthony Sampson as editor and outlined an editorial policy that would concentrate on crime, sex, sport and pin-up photographs. The title was changed to Drum. The initial brief was to focus on nonpolitical issues reflecting black urban life.

The brand of journalism was crudely referred to as skop, skiet en donder (kick, shoot and thunder), an Afrikaans phrase that fit perfectly with Bailey’s prescribed dose of sex, sport and crime.

Politically and by strategy and execution, this brand of journalism sought to be the voice of black unrest, of segregated misery, of political aspirations and of black hardships endured side by side with the joys and laughter, agonies and fears. The 1950s was the era in which blacks became experts at being poor and at having the capacity to absorb brutality.

Except that the voice came from white mouths on behalf of the blacks. Drum was edited by Sampson, a white man – and someone remarked that it was a white man’s magazine for black men’s eyes, and that it wasn’t working.

Of course, there was Henry Nxumalo – “Mr Drum” – its in-house hero, a most courageous journo who exposed farms where floggings were rife, or where payment was made in alcohol. He even went deliberately to jail, enabling a photographer to acquire (from a nearby rooftop) proof of the indignities meted out to inmates.

As with Golden City Post, political issues in Drum were handled with caution to avoid clampdowns by the apartheid government, but frequent exposés drew attention to political and social abuses, for example the exploitation of labourers on sugar farms. Drum also chronicled many African events, including the ANC’s Defiance Campaign and the treason trials, the rise of Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and the political disturbances in Nigeria.

In a tribute to Bailey in The Guardian, Anthony Smith wrote: ‘When Drum had been successfully launched, with an extraordinary, multitalented bunch – largely from the soon-to-be destroyed Sophiatown – Jim attempted to make it continental and established offices in the rest of Africa. I took the western section, based my life loosely (in the back of the truck) within Ghana and Nigeria, and sold the magazine to a rapacious readership, eager for this very African production.

“Jim was often a companion, loving it when locals asked if he knew the boss – his clothes and manner causing their mistake. He also saw them buy even single pages, their appetite so acute, and dreamed of a continent-wide publication. To help this longing he met presidents, ministers, journalists, musicians and great quantities of potential readership.”

Colleagues at City Press would tell stories of how Bailey would venture into the townships under the cover of darkness to enjoy a drink or two. Few whites would do that.

Smith said Bailey poured a lot of money into Drum. He sold his huge inherited farm in the Karoo and started other journals (Golden City Post included) to bolster Drum’s finances. But his precious publication was often banned, its crusading style even less welcome in the new nations than in the old South Africa.

In the end, bit by bit, it had to go.

Alas, observed Smith, Africa got in the way of his dream. Its distances were too huge, its roads and railways too often temporary. Worse, a Nigerian is not noticeably interested in Sudanese or Zambian affairs – any more than, or even less than, the average Briton cares for Finnish or Turkish politics.

Colleagues at City Press would tell stories of how Bailey would venture into the townships under the cover of darkness to enjoy a drink or two. Few whites would do that. Apartheid policies prohibited whites from entering black locations without the necessary official permission, so venturing in had its delights and dangers.

But Bailey was not your average white, he was also powerful to boot. He had to be. The story of Drum magazine is as legendary as the man himself.

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