Capital Radio is still riding the wave

'The date is December 26 1979. The time, 6am. This is the moment when a dream becomes a reality and only time will prove what this reality will mean for the people of South Africa. This then, for the very first time, is Capital Radio."

Deejay Alan Mann's words, soothing out of the espionage-like snap and crackle of its medium-wave transmission, introduced South Africa's first independent radio station to the country. Then, almost as a signal of intent, Mann dropped Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water on to the turntable.

Against the steamy jungle backdrop of Port St Johns on the Transkei Wild Coast, the station would attain mythological status with a multi-racial cast of deejays inhabiting a world of washed-out Russian models, hippies suffering from "Pondo fever", former Rhodesian Army fighters and ordinary people seeking a weekend refuge from the strict constraints of apartheid South Africa – which dictated everything from where one lived to who one shagged.

Photographer Rafs Mayet, who worked as a producer for Treasure Tshabalala's show from its inception to 1982, recalled: "Port St Johns wasn't an enclave of mixed couples and racial harmony, but through the radio station it was a place where one could get a sense of freedom, of a possible future.

"People [of different races] were still wary of each other – as they are today; it will take generations – but it was about the possibility of something other than apartheid."

Mayet recently returned to Port St Johns for the first time in 30 years with the Mail & Guardian.

Wandering around the more than 100-year-old port captain's house perched on a hill with a commanding view of Port St Johns, he was struck by the abandoned emptiness.

Hedonism, boredom and hedonism
"Hhmpf, there is nothing left of Capital here," he said, standing in the old studio with its view of the Indian Ocean, which was maverick deejay Alan Pierce's "territory".

The house is silent except for the sound of the waves crashing on to First Beach and the insects outside.

The two years that the station was in Port St Johns appeared to be a crazy mix of hedonism, boredom and hedonism sprung from boredom.

With the staff living at Ferry Point across the harbour mouth from the town, Mayet remembers drunken late-night river crossings over water infested with tiger and bull sharks, University of Transkei groupies dropping by for weekends, "armed with booze and food and every­thing else", and drinking to alleviate the boredom of paradise.

Timothy Bax, author of the book Three Sips of Gin, was a leader of a group of former Selous Scouts (a Rhodesian Army unit responsible for heavy casualties during the Zimbabwean Chimurenga) posted there "to form an elite Special Forces unit of the Transkei Defence Force". He described the Capital Radio crew as "a bunch of free-wheeling, unregimented and indulgent inamoratas bent on having a good time in a remote seaside town which, because of its remoteness, had become timeless".

"We were regimented, affiliated and disciplined – everything that the town, including Capital Radio, was not – and the twain simply did not meet," said Bax. "It wasn't that we were out of step with Capital Radio – we were out of step with the town. Obviously, run-ins occurred.

Friendships
"But it was the management of the radio station that quickly concluded that, unless the town was to be torn apart by friction between the two leading enterprises situated within it, something would have to be done." Meetings were held and, before the station relocated to Johannesburg, friendships were formed, according to Bax.

Counterculture appeared to be thriving in Port St Johns. But Capital Radio was not just debauchery in paradise. The station became famous for revolutionising the country's staid airwaves, which were dominated by the SABC. Capital's music included British punk, American Motown and local black musicians who were being ignored by the SABC.

"Alan Pierce was one of the best deejays around. He would do things that no one else would dream of, like playing two different versions of a song at the same time, and would segue out of one and into the other – at the time, that was never done," Mayet said.

Pierce was one of several innovative and revered people synonymous with Capital, including the late Oscar Renzi, CNN journalist Mike Hanna and 702 anchor David O'Sullivan.

"These guys were irreverent characters, who had huge fan bases," Mayet said. "Treasure and I would play in the clubs in Port Elizabeth, Umtata, Durban, on the weekends and people just loved Alan. He would say on air that he had run out of tequila and, the next day, someone would have driven to Port St Johns to deliver his tequila."

Because of the so-called independence of the Transkei, it could play music that was considered subversive and banned by the apartheid government.

Anti-South African bias
The station was monitored by the state security apparatus, which noted in their files, which are in the National Archives, that, "although the tone of individual broadcasts may seem neutral, the overall effect is that of a radio station with a strong anti-South African bias".

A report noted: "Topics with a political connotation receive particular emphasis so that it becomes obvious that Capital Radio favours propagandist broadcasts aimed at increasing the negative prejudice against the present order in South Africa."

South African military intelligence, monitoring broadcasts between June 1980 and May 1981, found "propaganda themes", such as "Tutu pleads for sanctions against South Africa", "apartheid should be destroyed" and "free Mandela".

Nicholas Ashby, who is writing a book about Capital Radio's history, said that both the counterculture nature of the deejays and the politicisation of journalists fed up with a prescriptive SABC, or coming from liberal student politics at universities such as Rhodes, were keen to use the independence of the Transkei to tell "objective news".

The station was started by Richard Bruce, Martin Rattle and Anthony Duke, friends who owned a Cape Town disco and whom Ashby described as "charismatic, dilettante rebels". Their relationship with academic Richard Bruce, who had developed a good relationship with then-Transkei leader Kaiser Matanzima, paved the way for the station to be set up, according to Ashby. "It was a delicious irony that this rebel station that was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government was actually funded by the Transkei government, which obviously got its money from the coffers of the apartheid state," Ashby said.  

Commercial vibrancy
But one of the main drivers of the station's editorial independence and commercial vibrancy was Michael Bukht, an Englishman of mixed Pakistani and British heritage, who sculpted the station's identity and felt strongly about pushing a vision of a more equal future.

"He felt that, if in 10 years time Capital was filled with white presenters talking to a white audience, then the radio station would have failed … they were pushing for that multi­cultural thing, but on their own terms," Ashby said.  

From 1979 until it was shut down in 1996, Capital Radio 604 developed a wide and loyal following because of its innovative radio techniques, independent news and musical programming. It was also done by capturing a sense of rebelliousness flickering through the country, the attitude of its jocks and newsreaders and the almost clandestine nature of the medium-wave sound.

Any mention of the station elicits large grins and a wave of nostalgia from those who remember it. One of the most loyal Capital listeners is Vinay Perumaul, chairperson of the Capital Radio Listeners' Action Committee who, since it went off air in 1996, has been writing letters and lobbying to bring it back on.

"It was a magic station, from the real news to their live crossings to Old Trafford and Anfield for live updates of English football matches. They were doing things that you couldn't get with any other radio station in the country," Perumaul said.

He has started an online petition to get 5 000 signatures by August 18 that might raise the possibility of Capital Radio's return to the airwaves.

Life's passion
Sitting in Perumaul's lounge, surrounded by the paraphernalia he has collected over the years, it is hard to ignore his wife Flo's "hope that Capital comes back on air – it has been his life's passion".  

The Independent Communi­cations Authority of South Africa  (Icasa) is closing applications for a medium-wave licence on August 22 and Perumaul hopes that will also provide an opportunity to resuscitate the station.

One of the people making an application for the licence is Mark Williams, a businessperson who bought the Capital Radio archive, library, trademarks and copyrights.

Williams said: "Capital Radio was a singular radio station. I grew to love it through what it was and also my friendship with [the late journalist] Manu Padayachee. I want to bring it back, especially considering the way it was closed."

Rumours have consistently circulated that, post-1990, the success of Capital Radio was intentionally sabotaged to ensure the continued success of the SABC's East Coast Radio.

Nothing was proved, but in its later year's Capital suffered from maladministration that, according to news reports at the time, included managing director Herbert Jikela, his secretary, financial manager and a messenger getting a questionable R1.4-million pay-out from the station.

Gagging orders were placed on staff before the station closed down and the situation appeared rancourous at the best of times.

"After everything that Capital did for the ANC and the struggle, it didn't deserve to be treated the way it was" is a refrain common among listeners and former employees, many of whom say they would join a new Capital Radio without a second thought.

But if the station was to return, in a changing world it would have to be as innovative and independent as it was to do its memory justice.

For more information visit Capital Radio's website.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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