Henry Nxumalo was born in 1917 at Mvutshini, Margate, in what was then Natal Province. The first child of Lazarus and Josephine Nxumalo, he attended the Fascadale Mission School, where he showed such promise that the missionaries arranged for him to board in Durban so that he could further his education.
He began submitting his writings to various newspapers while still at school. Although opportunities for black journalists were very limited, the Post newspaper in Johannesburg, a regular user of his contributions, offered him a job.
When World War II broke out, Nxumalo – then 22 and already an experienced journalist who counted many highly respected African intellectuals and writers among his friends and acquaintances – saw an opportunity to go abroad, and he duly enlisted in the South African Army.
This took him to Egypt, where South African forces were heavily involved in combat. He somehow managed to visit London, where he had made contact with many like-minded people whose friendship were to stand him in good stead. According to one of them, Peter Abrahams, Nxumalo had the sense that great things were about to happen in Africa and that a responsible and independent press would play a very important role in the process of change.
The early post-war years were lean ones for black writers and journalists like Nxumalo. Mainstream newspapers in South Africa, consistent with the policies of racism and apartheid, offered few opportunities for black reporters, while black newspapers were either very small or controlled by white business interests, often featuring trivial and sensational content. Independent investigative journalism of the type that Nxumalo envisaged simply did not exist at the time.
Then in 1951, millionaire Jim Bailey established Drum Magazine under the editorship of Anthony Sampson and invited Nxumalo to become assistant editor. Drum became the antithesis of the entire South African press of that time, and was eventually read all over Africa. It provided a racy and irreverent blend of humour, sentiment, fiction, sport, scandal, weighty commentaries on continental affairs by renowned thinkers and devastating exposés of labour abuses and political and systemic injustice.
Nxumalo was directly or indirectly responsible for much of the magazine's sparkling content. He persuaded the intelligentsia to contribute, directed the efforts of the staff members and himself wrote many of the feature articles, often literally risking his life in through investigative reports that, he believed, were desperately needed in Africa. A number of Drum writers were to become household names in South Africa, but they would all agree that the magazine's most brilliant star was Nxumalo himself, whose nickname was ‘Mr Drum’.
On New Year's Eve of 1957, six years after helping to found Drum, Henry Nxumalo was engaged in investigating an abortion racket run by a well-known doctor when he was murdered by unknown assailants. His legacy lives on in the free and independent South African press of today.