Sharp Read | Guerrilla Radios in Southern Africa

A collection of new studies captures the spirit, voices and influence of the region’s rebel broadcasters and the memories of those who grew up listening to them.

“We used to hear Oliver Tambo saying things that we didn’t know were happening. Some of the things happened about a kilometre away from where I was staying, but I was not aware of it until I heard it on Radio Freedom and we found that it was true.” – Velaphi Mnguni, quoted in Soweto: A History by Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal

On February 13, the world celebrated 10 years of World Radio Day, which was initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2011. In South Africa, it was a low-key celebration, limited largely to passing comments in live broadcasts and posts on station websites. A government statement marked the day in 2020 when, usefully, it coincided with the broadcast of the state of the nation address. Nothing has yet been posted for 2021.

Unesco co-hosted a regional webinar with Zimbabwe for the continent this year. It was perhaps not the most felicitous choice, given the Mnangagwa regime’s record on media freedom. And a webinar was, of course, inaccessible to most of those whom radio serves.

Radio has the largest media footprint in Africa and in the world, and is the main source of information for billions excluded by various inequalities from the internet. In South Africa, where over 40% of the population still lacks digital access, radio rules, especially outside the big cities.  According to figures from the Broadcasting Research Council of South Africa, 73% of radio listeners still use “old-fashioned” free-standing sets, most listen in their homes and nearly half do so for 20 hours or more each week.

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That’s the situation today, in the ostensibly digital era. But radio in southern Africa dominated the mass media landscape even more powerfully during the African liberation struggles of the late 1950s onwards. With no internet and hardly any television broadcasting, radio was a vital channel for information and communication. (The first African television transmission was in western Nigeria in 1959, just before that country’s independence, and South African only followed suit in 1976.) 

The state-controlled radio stations dominating national airwaves under colonial and apartheid rule were undisguised propaganda machines for the virtues of the status quo and the dangers of disruption. But very effective disruption was also being transmitted from the broadcasting stations of the liberation movements. 

That is the focus of Guerrilla Radios in Southern Africa: Broadcasters, Technology, Propaganda Wars and the Armed Struggle, a collection of regional studies edited by Sekibakiba Peter Lekgoathi, Tshepo Moloi and Alda Romão Sauté Saíde and published by Wits University Press.

The dozen chapters consider the southern African landscape, international perspectives and individual country experiences from South Africa, Zimbabwe – which attracts the lion’s share of investigation – Mozambique and Namibia. They reflect the perspectives of rebel broadcasters themselves as well as subsequent research on their activities and impact.

Unmuting the microphone

As the editors’ introductory chapter notes, the broadcasts of the liberation movements are strangely silent in much earlier scholarship on southern African liberation struggles, so that the agency, voices and experience of those fighters who wielded the microphone remain muted. One explicit intention of this book is to turn up the volume. 

Though he was not describing Africa, media commentator Marshall McLuhan invoked the continent with a metaphor in his 1964 book, Understanding Media. “The subliminal depths of radio,” he wrote, “are charged with tribal horns and antique drums.” He chose that metaphor to conjure the earliest social media – the beacons lit and powerful instruments sounded from hilltop to hilltop to pass news between otherwise isolated communities – and to locate the use and impact of radio directly within that tradition.

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It was that impact that concerned the region’s white rulers too. If broadcasting was not controlled and directed, subject communities might pick up subversive, rebellious ideas. That thinking extended well beyond explicit politics into the arena of culture. In South Africa, for example, successive white governments (that of Jan Smuts during World War II and then DF Malan after 1948, when apartheid formally began) hoped that force-feeding carefully controlled local music through cable radio would lure urban Africans away from political thinking and from non-indigenous and – possibly subversive – modern overseas sounds.

To that end they employed not only the state-run SABC, but also the cable service (using telephone lines) of a signal distribution company called Rediffusion. Initially the service had transmitted militaristic propaganda during World War II. Later, the authorities used it in an attempt to pacify politically conscious townships with the distraction of South African music. Township dwellers dubbed the content msakazo (broadcast music) and the word also came to label some of the popular genres they heard, sometimes pejoratively.

Unintended consequences

But exposure to local broadcast content achieved precisely the opposite of what the authorities intended. Rediffusion programmed predominantly traditional music, poetry and drama, and later gave limited exposure to bands playing modern popular sounds, including early South African jazz. Hearing all this fostered unity, pride and self-awareness among Black township residents. For aspiring musicians, radio became a source of indigenous inspiration.

The late trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, who grew up in Orlando, Soweto, one of the townships serviced by Rediffusion, remembered: “[In the 1940s and 1950s] we got music through Rediffusion when they played music over the air. We had a programme of black bands and singers and storytellers… a whole lot of sketches, radio plays, you know. I mean, that culture was kind of rich at that time… It was cutting us off from the rest of the music, but in a sense we got established in African music.”

Gwangwa’s experience reflects the other side of radio listening: the intimacy of hearing sounds that seem to be directly and personally addressing the hearer. Liberation philosopher Frantz Fanon captured that intimacy when he described how Algerian workers buying battery-operated radios to hear the clandestine Voice of Algeria station were gaining “access to the only means of entering into communication with the Revolution; of living with it”.

Another Soweto resident, Jon-Jon Mkhonza, recalled about listening to Radio Freedom in Bonner’s Soweto history: “Sometimes you hear the gunshots, khwa khwa, over the radio. And then you’d hear a voice coming in, a poetic voice. Somebody speaks about Africa, how it was colonised and how it must be freed. We heard a lot of liberation songs. We used to sit around the radio. My mother used to get annoyed. She said, ‘I’m telling you, you will get into trouble and don’t call me.’” 

That power held by the listener during the experience of reception is discussed in Dumisani Moyo and Cris Chinaka’s chapter, Spirit Mediums and Guerilla Radio in the Zimbabwe War of Liberation. The broadcasts of both Zanu and Zapu, “despite being ‘stateless’”, argue the authors, “combined oral tradition, spirituality, song and modern technology in the form of underground radio and face-to-face communication with villagers through evening gatherings to mobilise support for the struggle”. Moyo and Chinaka argue for identifying the pre-radio mobilisation conducted by spirit mediums as no less “technological” than radio, operating through its own Foucauldian “technology of signs”.

Spiritual airwaves

Zimbabwe’s liberation broadcasters built on that technology, extending it into the ether of the airwaves. The authors quote Voice of Zimbabwe veterans on how building links with spirit mediums and the spirit world not only reflected the intense spiritual focus of freedom struggles, which had been sustained since the First Chimurenga, but also “undermined the confidence of Black soldiers in the Rhodesian army, because if you don’t have the support of your ancestral spirits, your fate is sealed”.

Unnerving the enemy is also the focus of Marissa J Moorman’s chapter on liberation radio in Angola. She, too, conjures the intimacy of “hidden listening” to forbidden broadcasts, as well as how listeners then took up paintbrushes to broadcast the words they heard further into the public realm by painting them as slogans on Luanda walls. “We learned of them before having any contact with a guerrilla,” Moorman quotes one Angolan listener as recalling. Another, in an uncanny echo of Mkhonza’s Soweto memories, said: “[At the age of nine] … it was all Chinese to me. All I knew was that it was a dangerous broadcaster. From then on, I listened now and then … until one day my father caught me. I have never seen him so angry.”

One key strength of the book is the richness of such experience-based recollections. Listeners’ memories too, note the editors, have barely featured, let alone been foregrounded, in previous histories.

As a reader, I hungered for even more. Some chapters devote themselves more heavily to detailing hitherto undocumented factual histories, and while those are vital for both the book’s self-declared project and our understanding of our own political past, they lack the evocative spark of human voices granted space and agency to simply remember.          

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Memories alone, however, would not have made a satisfying collection. There are other compelling questions to answer about how we got from there to here: how liberation radio is remembered and how much of its legacy has survived – and how much has been buried – in the current southern African broadcasting landscape.

The book makes a start on that project too, although the topic could certainly seed a few additional volumes in its own right. As one example, Ali Khangela Hlongwane critically examines the history of the PAC’s broadcasts into South Africa. He notes the lacunae in evidence about programmes that PAC veterans recall – broadcasts notable for an emphasis on cultural theory and the arts as well as actions and strategy. His meticulous excavation suggests that even in a research area – liberation broadcasting – that is generally under-documented, even less has been archived about the PAC. Perhaps it is the case that not only histories, but also research agendas, are written by the victors?

On familiar ground

All these chapters and more are very distant from the more familiar popular accounts of the history of broadcasting in Africa. These latter often invoke the “traditions” of the BBC and its Empire and Africa services, and the late Sir John Reith’s legacy. Reith is constructed as an icon whose precepts and exemplar established a culture of public service broadcasting underpinned by the highest professional and ethical standards that was replicated in British colonies all across Africa. The story is not a complete fabrication, but it entails a highly selective kind of remembering.

It is certainly true that Reith, who ruled the BBC in London as director general – initially general manager – between 1922 and 1939, was an obsessively efficient organiser (he was an engineer by training) who set high technical standards. He can certainly be credited with a somewhat more ethical approach to questions of bias and impartiality than some British politicians, including Winston Churchill, who saw their nation’s broadcasting service exclusively as a tool of propaganda and control.

But Reith’s management style was paternalistic and autocratic and his politics authoritarian. In 1934, he wrote that he “really admired how Hitler had cleaned up … an incipient revolt against him” after the führer’s assassination of more populist Nazi rivals during the “Night of the Long Knives”. He despised what he saw as the vulgarity of much popular culture, sneering at the “jazz gramophone”, and he abhorred trade unions as weakening the moral responsibility of individuals. During the 1926 general strike, when trade unionists were marching and starving, he expressed the view that broadcasts for workers should urge them to “keep on smiling”.

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Reith’s world-view was classist at home and imperialist abroad, promoting the mission of radio to “civilise” both the unruly working class and rebellious colonial subjects. In Indian broadcasts, he declared in 1934, there had already been “far too much lip-service prematurely to democratic methods”. 

The BBC Empire Service of which he had been the architect had indeed created efficient and conscientious broadcasting services in the colonies. But it was created primarily to serve the white colonial elites and only, at best, “uplift” their subalterns. Though Reith himself would probably have found them vulgar, this aspect of his legacy proved fertile ground for the white supremacist propaganda broadcasts that supported Ian Smith, John Vorster and more.     

In that context, Guerrilla Radios is an important book, and not only for the gaps it plugs in liberation history and scholarship. It is also important in asserting, through the careful assembly of information and the unlocking of hitherto suppressed sound files, that Africa has other broadcasting traditions, aesthetics and standards too. These are rooted not in patrician condescension, but in the histories and voices of its own peoples and their broadcasters, dreaming of and reaching for freedom.

Update, Thursday 10 June 2021: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Marissa J Moorman’s surname.

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