/ 23 December 2023

Still making waves after 100 years

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South Africa first came into my life as a young boy in Canada for two reasons. 

One, I had an uncle who worked for a shipping company. Among other things, the company imported goods from and exported goods to South Africa. 

A ship carrying South African tinned pineapple, bound for Montreal, sank in the St Lawrence River in the 1960s. My uncle was involved in the salvage operation, and, as a consequence, my family and many other relatives ate tinned pineapple from South Africa for the next few years — we grew to hate it.

The second reason was radio. My grandfather gave me a shortwave radio when I was about eight years old. One of the distant radio stations that blasted into my bedroom, loud and clear, was Radio RSA (now Channel Africa), the voice of the South African government of the day. 

I listened to Radio RSA, as I listened to any shortwave station I could pick up, because it was exotic. 

The easiest stations to pick up in those days were from the big broadcasting countries — the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Voice of America, Radio Moscow and Radio Havana Cuba, to name but a few. Even Albania had a strong-signal broadcaster — Radio Tirana. 

Radio RSA’s role was simple — to make South Africa look good in the eyes of a world that, at the time, knew little about the country. 

Sharpeville — where the apartheid regime’s police killed 69 unarmed people in 1960 — was not as well known internationally as it should have been and Soweto 1976 had yet to happen. In North America, the dominant international story was the Vietnam war.

Jump ahead to the early 1980s. Zimbabwe was newly independent. I was sent there on a Canadian government programme to teach in rural areas. Of course, the shortwave radio was in my suitcase. 

In Bikita district I continued to scan the airwaves and came across a number of shortwave broadcasts from South Africa — Radio RSA was still there but so were radio stations from the “bantustans” — Capital Radio, broadcasting from Transkei, came through loud and clear, as did Radio 5 (now 5FM) from transmitters in Meyerton, south of Joburg. At night, the medium wave signals of 702 and 1098, Radio Bop, came through from transmitters in Bophuthatswana.

It’s been a 100 years since the first radio broadcasts were carried out in South Africa. 

From its early beginnings, radio has been used as a propaganda tool. Radio Bantu first aired Zulu-language content in 1960. When FM was introduced in 1962, Radio Bantu was quickly expanded to include radio services in other indigenous South African languages. 

By the 1970s, South Africa’s FM network was one of the most developed in the world — it was the apartheid government’s aim to give black South Africans music as well as Pretoria’s version of the news, on good quality audio. 

That was to discourage people from listening to the scratchy sounds of shortwave and the anti-government content put out by international broadcasters, as well as by the ANC’s Radio Freedom, using transmitters in neighbouring countries. 

Shortwave receivers were becoming more difficult to find in the South Africa of the 1980s, while cheap FM receivers flooded the market.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the broadcasting landscape changed. The National Party gave “independence” to four bantustans — Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Venda. The independence of these regions was recognised by no other government. 

To have the bantustans appear legitimate, the monopoly enjoyed by the SABC in South Africa did not apply to them. Hence, the birth of Capital Radio and Radio Transkei in Transkei; 702 and Radio Bop in Bophuthatswana; Radio Ciskei in Bisho and Radio Thohoyandou in Venda. 

It was at this time that a narrative counter to that of the SABC started to be broadcast from some of the Bantustan newsrooms, notably Capital and 702, because of relatively strong medium wave transmitters targeting audiences in what was then Natal as well as the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging regions of what was the Transvaal. 

Both stations had a considerable white audience, accustomed to being spoon-fed propaganda from the SABC. Through the newsrooms of these bantustan stations, listeners could on occasion hear the voices of members of the ANC in exile, union leaders, United Democratic Front  spokespeople, reports of township violence as well as of growing international pressure on South Africa to free Nelson Mandela, unban the ANC and remove racist legislation.

The end of apartheid ushered in a new era of broadcasting. The bantustans were re-incorporated into South Africa, the SABC no longer had a broadcasting monopoly, some of its regional stations were privatised, new commercial licences were issued, and for the first time, community radio saw the light of day.

Here, in 2023, radio remains the most important and trusted form of mass electronic communication in the country. In fact, this is the case throughout the continent. The old Radio Zulu, now UkhoziFM, is the most listened to radio station, with over 7.5 million listeners. Several other SABC stations can also claim listenership in the millions.

Had I started listening to shortwave today, chances are I would not have stumbled across Channel Africa — its budget and transmission strength has been dramatically reduced. But now we have streaming and listening to South African radio from any place on the planet has never been easier. 

Podcasts mean we are no longer slaves to the clock — we can hear our favourite radio programmes whenever or wherever we want to.

Radio is anything but dead. It has moved with the times. But one thing has not changed — it is still driven by content.

And radio is my good friend. Happy centenary, South African radio!

David L Smith has been working in radio for almost four decades. He still listens to shortwave, as do most of the people who listen to a radio project he runs in the Sahel, Radio Ndarason Internationale, broadcasting on shortwave, FM and streaming, with as many listeners as UkhoziFM.