In the foothills of the Bvumba mountains near the Mozambican border in eastern Zimbabwe, a group of villagers are gathered around a portable radio waiting for the daily broadcast of their favourite station. Their battery-powered short-wave transistor is tuned to the 49m band and a song from Zimbabwe’s musical superstar Oliver Mtukudzi jangles to life.
The Shona track Wasakara — ‘You are old, you are spent, it is time to accept you are old” — is a thinly veiled reference to ageing President Robert Mugabe and is banned from state radio, but the villagers know it well.
As the chorus fades, the deep, chocolate-smooth voice of Zimbabwe’s legendary music DJ John Matinde crackles through the static. ‘This is SW Radio Africa, Zimbabwe’s independent voice.”
For the next three hours, these and hundreds of thousands of other Zimbabweans will tune in to hear music, news and political interviews about their country that state-run radio and television would never broadcast. And every evening, ordinary Zimbabweans will speak to the station about the brutality and hardship of life in the country.
In a country where Mugabe’s regime ruthlessly controls all radio and television output, and where the only independent newspaper has recently been shut down, SW Radio Africa is the only independent voice. It broadcasts not from Zimbabwe but from the third floor of an office block in a grimy suburb of north-west London. And it is run not by hardened political hacks or opposition party activists, but by a group of DJs turned journalists.
‘I’d rather be playing Led Zeppelin,” says Gerry Jackson (49), the station’s founder. ‘But as Zimbabweans we have other responsibilities now.” A former DJ on ZBC’s music station Radio 3, Jackson was fired for ‘insubordination’’ after airing live phone calls from people being beaten by police during food riots in Harare in 1997. In 2000 she fought and won a legal battle in the Supreme Court to set up Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station, Capital FM, and began broadcasting from a hotel roof in Harare. Within six days it was raided by soldiers. They smashed the studio equipment while Jackson’s two employees escaped in the hotel lift.
Jackson decided then to broadcast from outside Zimbabwe and after a year raising funds and putting a team together, moved to London, launching the station in December 2001. The staff at the station reflect London’s democratic ‘New Zimbabwe” mix: four black and three white Zimbabweans, plus a British website designer.
It is 4pm in the smart, but cramped offices and the studio clock reads 6pm — Zimbabwe time. Matinde and Mandy Mundawarara are about to go on air. Without a budget to pay correspondents, and with journalists continually being arrested or expelled, the station relies on ordinary Zimbabweans to file stories.
The news desk has a team of ‘informal correspondents’’ with cellphones, among them a travelling salesman and a member of the Zimbabwean police, who file under false names. ‘They are as good as trained reporters,” says Jackson. ‘Erudite and observant, never irrational or rabid or calling for the overthrow of the government.” Correspondents, who speak in whatever language they like, are never interrupted or told to hurry up. ‘It’s open-forum, no-format, free-thinking radio,” says Jackson.
Today’s main story is about a demonstration in Harare by the National Constitutional Assembly, a group calling for constitutional reform. The report is filed by a demonstrator who describes police with batons beating and arresting protesters. The station has sat in on land invasions, taking calls from white farmers hiding in their homes while their property is ransacked. One recent interview was with a war veteran enraged that a government minister was taking his farm. The interviewer, Violet Gonda, reminded him that months before he himself had taken the land from a white farmer.
Some of the hardest-hitting interviews have been by Georgina Godwin. A few years ago Godwin (36) was a celebrity DJ with her own morning drive-time show and newspaper gossip column. Today she finds herself interviewing presidents, foreign ministers and dignitaries. She recently broadcast a rant at her by Jocelyn Chiwenga, the firebrand wife of the head of the Zimbabwe National Army. Godwin had ensured that a prize awarded by a Spanish-based organisation to Chiwenga — who has personally conducted farm invasions and once told a white farmer, ‘I haven’t tasted white blood in 22 years” — was withdrawn. ‘She called me in a rage,” says Godwin proudly, ‘and I put the call on air.”
Such exposure of the regime has outraged Mugabe. After trying to jam the signal the government has now simply stopped Zanu-PF members from speaking to the station. It has also banned six of the station’s staff from returning to Zimbabwe. ‘They would be welcomed back,” Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told Parliament. ‘Welcomed back to our prisons.”
The programming is not entirely unstructured. There are regular reports on the economy and Aids, a weekly Letter from Zimbabwe by white farmer and author Cathy Buckle, and a weekly Letter from America by Indiana University-based Zimbabwean academic and journalist Professor Stanford Mukasa. The most harrowing programme is Callback. Presented by Matinde and Mundawarara, this is an opportunity for ordinary Zimbabweans to speak about life. Because phoning Britain is expensive, listeners are given a cellphone number to call in Harare to leave their contact details, and the station calls them back.
‘We encourage them to speak openly and honestly but not to use their surnames,” says Mundawarara. ‘They’re taking the risk, we’re not.” They speak to women who have been raped by soldiers, and youth militia deserters who speak coldly and bluntly about people they have killed or tortured. Increasingly, they are hearing stories about families breaking up because partners spend days on end in food and petrol queues.
It is when these grim stories are interspersed with music, though, that Callback has its real power. Matinde will follow up a call about a farm invasion with Thomas Mapfumo’s 2001 hit Marima Nzara: ‘You have caused hunger, you have chased away capable farmers, do the farming yourself, you have a big mouth.”
For Matinde, there is an eerie sense of déjà vu about the station. In the 1970s he was a DJ on the ‘native” service of the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation. He was the first DJ to play Chimurenga (struggle) before the white regime discovered the content and clamped down. By the time the country attained independence in 1980, Matinde’s reputation was such that he got to introduce Bob Marley to the crowd at the independence celebrations in Harare.
Just how many people the station reaches is hard to say. Batteries are too expensive for many Zimbabweans and the short-wave signal is not brilliant. Short-wave radios are also hard to come by. Ironically, Ian Smith’s regime stopped making them in the 1970s so that blacks could not listen to outside broadcasts.
That said, Jackson gets reports all the time of villagers in Zimbabwe and exiles in South Africa huddled around campfires listening to the station. There is talk too that its archives — digital recordings of every interview they have done — could be used in future human rights trials.
Perhaps what is most extraordinary is that the staff have managed to stay sane and keep a sense of humour. As I write this I am listening to a live webcast and rumours are spreading that Mugabe has died from a stroke. A jubilant caller says people in Harare are celebrating: ‘Mugabe has gone to the one-party state in the sky!” Presenter Tererai Karimakwenda laughs and, with impeccable irony, plays a hit song by Latin Quarter: ‘I’m hearing only bad news, on Radio Africa.” —