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Local radio gives voice to poor South Africans

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Above the dusty streets, the tin-roofed shacks and the poverty, disease and dirt, Radio Zibonele's tower rises like a beacon.

Broadcasting live in the Xhosa tribal language from a shabby one-floor house in the Khayelitsha township, it's the voice of the people in one of Cape Town's most desperate neighborhoods. It provides everything from news to local music and personal ads in a community where many don't have access to the Internet or newspapers in their language.

It's one of hundreds of community radio stations sanctioned by the South African government in 1994 to give voice to the voiceless after years under a media system controlled by the apartheid government. Christian evangelists, political activists and indie rockers are among those who've taken to the airwaves — but nearly all are struggling to stay afloat.

In a country with a nearly 25 percent unemployment rate, funding is tight. Staffs are shorthanded. And when you're competing with the commercial radio station across town, advertising dollars are hard to come by.

Still, said 19-year-old Khanya Nketle, the young news director at Radio Zibonele, she and her colleagues wouldn't trade it for the world.

"This radio station made me," she said. "I don't want to go anywhere."

Many of the first community radio stations had already been broadcasting illegally for years. Radio Zibonele began as a Khayelitsha doctor's side project, broadcasting clinic hours and medical advice from a transmitter hidden underneath a hospital bed.

Bush Radio — one of the most famous stations in the country — was instrumental in the fight against apartheid years before it was granted a legal community radio license.

"We wanted to get ordinary voices from the community on the air," said Brenda Leonard, Bush Radio's station manager. "Back then, the only voices you heard were mocking black people."

Inside the studio, Nketle stands and stretches at her tiny desk. On this morning she was in the office at 3 a.m., worked until 5:30 a.m., slept for a few hours and came straight back to the office at noon.

"It's about talking to the public, being a people's person," she said. "Right when I get on that mic, I become a different person."

Before 1994, the country's airwaves were dominated by the South African Broadcasting Company, the only broadcasting entity sanctioned by the apartheid government.

"The news people were very reluctant to put things out that were anti-government," said Richard de Villiers, who worked in the SABC's advertising department for 30 years.

"It was not good, and in retrospect you realize that we did a lot of things wrong."

These days, de Villiers is a presenter at Radio Tygerberg, a Christian community radio station based near downtown Cape Town. He left the SABC in 1995, just as the new government began granting community radio licenses.

"It's nice to work at a radio station like this," de Villiers said. "It did take a lot of adjusting."

Equipped with a German transmitter — imported in separate pieces to throw off customs officials — and a small, passionate staff, Bush Radio broadcast just one radio show in 1993, Leonard said.

"It was very mediocre, in terms of the broadcast," she said. "But people from different walks of life coming in — that had a huge impact."

From there, the station became a powerful voice in the community, inviting anti-apartheid activists into the studio and covering protest marches and rallies as South Africa struggled to move towards democracy. Bush Radio was there when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and in 1995 when the government finally began sanctioning broadcasting licenses for community radio stations.

"We're not underground anymore — in that sense, we're not the struggle station anymore," Leonard said. "But we've tried to hold onto those roots in some way."

Those roots run deep. Barred by the apartheid government from even owning televisions until the mid-1970s, South Africans turned to newspapers and radio, ingraining the latter deeply into their culture.

"Radio is the biggest media in Africa. It infiltrates everywhere," said Aimee McDonald, a presenter at MFM, a campus community radio station based at Stellenbosch University.

Even now, television is still heavily regulated by the government, with a handful of government-run channels and one subscription service available. And although SABC offers two channels that broadcast in tribal languages, most of the country's 48 major newspapers print solely in English.

For South Africans without access to a television, or who are more comfortable getting their news in a tribal language or Afrikaans, community radio is often the only place to turn.

And for the poorest of the poor in Cape Town — living in tin shacks by the highway in the Cape Flats, home to some of the city's worst slums — community radio is a lifeline.

"I heard someone say once that there are more radio sets than mattresses in the townships," said Tessa Vanstaden, a radio instructor at the University of Stellenbosch and a news presenter at 567 Cape Talk, a commercial radio station in downtown Cape Town. "They have no PCs, no cellphones, but they've got radios. Community radio has a major role to play in small communities."

(Whelan, a graduate of Penn State University, reported this story from Cape Town for a class in international journalism.)


See video reports from Penn State student journalists in South Africa.