Fifteen kilometres separate Platfontein from Kimberley in the Northern Cape. But it’s more than stretches of savannah and tar that divide the province’s capital city from the settlement on the edge of forgotten.
Life in Platfontein is a million realities from the city malls filled with free wi-fi coffee shops and roads clotted with Lycra-clad cyclists on post-work pedals. For the estimated 7 000 people of the San groups of the !Xun and Khwe who live here, after being resettled from Schmidtsdrift in 2003, life is more existence and resettled is more dumped. Platfontein falls through the cracks; it crumbles in on itself, too.
It does, however, have one significant thread that holds the people together and connects it to the broader Northern Cape and South African community. It is an invisible thread carried on the airwaves in the form of local radio station X-K Fm. The South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) smallest radio station, X-K Fm has an estimated listenership of around 10 000, broadcasting in a 30km radius from Platfontein in !Kun, Khwe and a little Afrikaans.
Radio’s unique reach penetrates where Twitter is a mirage, where reading an online paper costs too much in data and paywall fees, and where English and even Afrikaans are second or third languages. It is radio’s ability to be in people’s homes, together with the public broadcaster’s mandate to reach all corners of the country, that has kept Platfontein included, in debate at least, on deciding how South Africa’s political future will shape up once the 8 May elections have come and gone.
SABC national radio current affairs editor Angie Kapelianis said that since the beginning of March, the public broadcaster has been holding multiparty debates across the country and broadcasting live these interactions between communities and their local political representatives.
Sometimes the outside broadcast (OB) locations are in places that confuse Google maps, they’re that remote. But this is part of the SABC’s intention to reach South Africans, wherever they may be, and give them the opportunity to grill party representatives about local issues, in the languages they’re most comfortable speaking.
The outside broadcast in Platfontein took place on the evening of 25 April, two days ahead of Freedom Day, and was the last of six such broadcasts scheduled for the Northern Cape.
In the hours before going live, four members of the X-K Fm team loaded hard case after hard case of equipment into the SABC bakkie that goes out with their outside broadcast van, along with canvas shoppers stuffed with headphones and half a dozen extension cable reels.
Tomsen Nore, a station producer and presenter, said they had to borrow studio lights and portable floodlights from their colleagues in SABC’s TV division. The lights would come in handy, he knew, having checked out the !Xunkwesa Combined School venue for that night’s broadcast. There were cobwebs where light bulbs should have been.
Nore and his fellow producers and presenters Bert Katjorro and Fresto Mangumbu, along with technical producer Tsholofelo Moeketsi, spent the rest of the afternoon setting up their equipment and arranging seats for the political party representatives. They put out rows and rows of seats in the shaded assembly point at the school for the expected crowds.
“We invite every political party for these OBs and I think there will be a good turnout, because one thing we’ve seen with these OBs is that people want politicians to come to them to answer their questions,” said Mangumbu.
Nore and Katjorro, who come from Platfontein, know burning issues will revolve around the usual plagues that have gripped the settlement from the beginning. “The big issues are alcoholism, unemployment and a lack of service delivery,” said Katjorro.
As the clock ticked closer to the 5pm start, residents gathered outside the school. Some were dressed in political regalia. The mood was part rowdy, part festive. Alcohol had been flowing and the presence of the SABC team was, if nothing else, a welcome break in the monotony of the everyday. Even a police vehicle had arrived to monitor the gathering.
The DA representative took her seat on the stage on time. Some minutes later, she was joined by representatives from the ANC and the Freedom Front Plus. The EFF and the Khoi-San Revolution Party representatives hadn’t pitched, despite confirming their attendance.
“The debate will just have to go on, with or without them,” said Katjorro, adding that broadcasts work by the clock, even when politicians don’t.
Before the debate could begin, the crowds quietened down for Mangumbu and Katjorro to do the news bulletin live from the school. Mangumbu reads in !Xun, Katjorro and Khwe. They both read off a bulletin sheet written in Afrikaans and translate as they go.
“There’s no writing for our languages, so we just translate for our listeners as we read,” he said.
These languages are vanishing. Fewer people speak them, they’re not taught in schools and more and more Afrikaans disrupts the distinctive clicks and ancient staccato of speech from a time when the !Kun and Khwe ancestors made up humankind’s origin story.
Language preservation and schooling that upholds the culture of San people were brought up in the evening’s debate but, as the radio presenters expected, it was the lack of job opportunities, basic services and failed promises that got the audience fired up.
The debate quickly became a fiery version of unedited democracy: noisy, hot-blooded and full of frustration and fury. The group of about 150 people shouted slogans and booed the representatives. They left their seats with restless agitation to confront those in political T-shirts that differed from their own. There was finger-wagging, near chest-bumping and high volume in everything.
There was a peculiar order to the evening, too. The other twin of democracy. Some people lined up to wait for a turn at the microphone, even as others shouted. The politicians got to have their say, despite being heckled. No one was actually harmed. And all the while, the presenters transmitted everything on the 107.9MHz frequency, not asking people to quieten down or take their seats.
Platfontein’s people intended to use the full 90-minute broadcast. Some, like Rawe Kakawu, who lives in the area, said it’s because many of their state-built houses still don’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.
“We are waiting for power and we must make fires in the houses in the winter. We are not humans,” Kakawu said in Afrikaans.
The school is one of only two “proper” buildings in the area. The other is the X-K Fm building that was built in 2005, five years after the radio station started in Schmidtsdrift, broadcasting from shipping containers. Police patrol vehicles are a rare sight in an area battling with high levels of crime. And where there are street lights – on the single, paved main road – they don’t work.
Local leader and football coach Willem Klink talks in Afrikaans about the problems of alcohol abuse and the growing nyaope abuse. He is concerned about education and opportunities for young people. It’s jobs, but it’s also about young San people being lost to their roots and made to feel like outsiders in South Africa, even though they are the first people of the land.
History of displacement
The neglect and isolation of those who live in this area is a story that loops back more than 50 years to the South African Border War, which took place in Nambia (then South West Africa), Angola and Zambia from the mid-1960s.
The then South African Defence Force (SADF) routinely recruited members of the San, mostly to work as trackers. South West Africa was under South African administration through a 1919 League of Nations mandate. When Namibia gained independence in 1990, the SADF left and gave the !Xun and Khwe trackers and their families the option to leave Namibia and Angola. The deal would include South African citizenship for them and their families, and they would be settled on land that the government would provide.
That land was in Schmidtsdrift, about 70km from Kimberley. Home, though, was a miserable cluster of army tents with no amenities or facilities, and waiting for the land to be granted officially. But in the first years of South Africa’s democracy, the land was judged to fall under the ancestral lands of the BaTlhaping people, who were removed in earlier decades.
It took another five years, until 1999, for the Department of Land Affairs to buy about 13 000 hectares in today’s Platfontein for the former trackers. Some people started moving to the area soon after this, setting up informal structures and making do until the government built RDP houses in 2003. The school building came a year later.
But for the past 15 years, Platfontein has seen little by way of new infrastructure and job opportunities. With it has come the social sicknesses of poverty, displacement and substance abuse – with no clear way out.
It is these issues that kept the radio broadcast raging until the night swallowed the sun. Then 6.30pm ticked away and the broadcast wrapped up, in line with the station’s strict schedule.
The politicians got into their cars and drove off. The crowds slipped slowly into the night. The X-K Fm team packed their gear by car lights. It was the last of their outside broadcasts ahead of the 2019 elections.
They were tired, but they got the job done. That day, radio helped give democracy – in all its chaotic imperfection – a voice and connected it to thousands of ears tuned in and listening.