Radio station tries to repair a past where flowers could get you beaten
June 16 1986
Now I remember the plainclothes security policeman like a cartoon character: square-faced, square-jawed, slits for eyes as he leant into my farm bakkie on Monday June 16 1986 at the gate of the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.
But then ... then it was a three-dimensional, live rage in his cold eyes, more for me than for the bishop’s wife who was sitting next to me. One could smell his resentment, much more than you could the mound of beautiful flowers on the back of the Hilux, or its diesel fumes.
“Vir jou gaan ek opfok [You, I’m going to fuck up],” his voice a hoarse whisper. His knuckles white as his fingers grab on to my bakkie’s door I’m too scared to make eye contact.
“We’re leaving straight away,” the bishop’s wife says, sounding as reassuring as she can.
Four days earlier then-president PW Botha had declared a countrywide state of emergency with curfews, bannings, news blankets, restrictions and, soon, multitudes of detentions.
On the Sunday, the Central Methodist church – which I attended at the time – and a number of other Johannesburg congregations decided to collect flowers at their services for the people of Soweto to show solidarity with them, because we knew they would be under siege from PW’s agitated security forces.
I was part of the “floral vanguard” taking the blooms to rallies commemorating the 10th anniversary of June 16, when students rose up against the enforced use of Afrikaans in township schools.
An armoured vehicle patrols past burning houses in the KTC squatter community camp in Cape Town in 1986. (Dave Hartman)
Surround Soweto with a ring of flowers instead of a ring of steel, we argued. Guns, but no roses, was Botha’s security forces’ unspoken, unequivocal counterargument.
They turned our flower-stacked bakkie back a block after Bara. You didn’t argue with Botha’s finest, especially not when there are many of them. It was therefore no surprise that they escorted us out of Soweto after our little encounter with square-jaw at Bara, after I naïvely thought: “Why don’t we just drop the flowers off at the hospital?”
For months after that, the cops would park in the street near the commune I lived in, close enough to tell me they were watching. It was nothing compared with the harassment township activists suffered, but enough to remind me that for my type of out-of-line Afrikaner, there was one message: “Vir jou gaan ons opfok.”
The cops got their chance a few years later (I was all bashed head, blood, bruises, teargas and public humiliation), but that’s definitely a story for another day.
June 16 2014
This week, another June 16 came around – on a Monday again, coincidentally.
That evening I allowed myself a wry little smile as I tuned into the SABC’s Afrikaans public service radio station, Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), to listen to my prerecorded programme of modern African music, Radio Afrika ... in Afrikaans, and on Youth Day.
I was thinking about the 28-year-old Bara encounter again – and how blessed we are with the richest of ironies in our country.
About two months ago, the editor of industry publication The Media had asked me to write a piece about RSG, after hearing that I was about to start a 13-week series of Radio Afrika. “But I thought RSG was a station for the tannies [Afrikaner aunties],” she said.
It was not my first outing on RSG’s specialist Monday-night music slot. Last year I did a reggae show in the same slot that has also brought genres such as hip-hop, jazz, punk and world music to the volk’s ears.
In the new series I take my listeners on a weekly 50-minute musical adventure playing genres such as Afrobeat, Ethiojazz, benga, highlife, makossa, coupe decale, mbalax, soukous, palm wine, chimurenga, kuduro, raï and marrabenta.
And do the listeners respond –so far, fortunately, only positively. Xolisa from Cape Town, tant Winnie from Heilbron, Rhoda from Cape Town, Cobus from Johannesburg, Leon from Lydenburg, Tebogo from Carletonville, Nic from Windhoek, Shana from Pretoria, Vusi from Pretoria, André from Kathu, Marika from Centurion and Adelie from Nairobi have all told me they like what they’re hearing.
Look, I don’t think the programme is give-up-the-day-job brilliant, but also not you’ve-got-a-voice-for-print unlistenable either.
This, I think, is because RSG loudly celebrates and literally broadcasts the fact that Afrikaans is a liberated language –the majority of people who use the taal are not white, and they come from all classes and backgrounds.
The station has long shaken off its historical image as the station of choice for old Broeders (and their tannie wives). These days the ruling elite no longer listens to Afrikaans radio, which quietly allows RSG to live up to its public service mandate.
In researching the article for The Media, I found out that RSG was doing something right for its listeners. According to the official national listenership figures released in February, RSG reaches nearly two million people, its highest recorded number in the past couple of years, station manager Magdaleen Kruger told me in an interview.
“RSG targets the modern, progressive Afrikaans-speaking and [Afrikaans]-understanding community – it is evident [it] reaches its target market,” she said. It’s a hybrid of traditional public broadcasting service programmes and commercial shows. The daylight programming is more music, personality driven and commercially inclined ... that’s when you make money to be able to do pure public service broadcasting in the evening.”
Kruger says RSG has to keep innovating to stay relevant: “We have an on-air, week-long arts festival, for which RSG received the Fleur du Cap theatre award for innovation in theatre, audience participation in programmes like Seepkis (soapbox) and co-presenting, radio sitcoms and e-crossword puzzles.”
So RSG is not a station for tannies only? “Ja, RSG is a station for tannies, but also for ooms and teenagers. RSG is for weirdos, liberals and the open-minded ... and for the religious and the atheists, the bold and the beautiful, the good, the bad and the ugly, the rich and the poor.
“That’s a tall order, but that’s what distinguishes it from commercial, community and private radio stations. That’s the challenge, to be relevant to all these groups and to entertain, inform and empower all of them ... from the cradle to the grave, and in the process try your very best to satisfy all, but not all the time.”
Afrikaners and Afrikaans still have a lot to answer for, as June 16 reminds us every year. At least some of them, like those folk at RSG, are aware and try to make reparations.
Charles Leonard is the news editor of the Mail & Guardian.