On Wednesday 24 April, South Africa received radio equipment that was instrumental in advancing its struggle for independence. Arguably, the fight for freedom would not have advanced the way it did without Radio Freedom, the African National Congress’ official broadcaster.
Established during the darkest days of the apartheid regime, Radio Freedom provided waves of mass resistance to the regime with broadcasts from different radio stations (including those of Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Ethiopia, and Madagascar). It was one of the oldest liberation radio stations in Africa. The handover ceremony was also a fitting tribute to South Africa as the country also marks 25 years of democracy.
As the war and fight raged on the ground, an ideological battle was also being fought on the airwaves. The apartheid government had an agenda to make sure that they made our people feel as inferior as possible through their apartheid propaganda. Revolutionaries were labelled as terrorists; they used every possible media to demonise the revolution and poison the hearts of the Africans with fear.
The first concerted attempt to influence political opinion in Southern Africa by means of radio dates to the 1930s when the Nazi station. Radio Zeesen, targeted sympathetic elements in both Namibia and South Africa before World War II. In fact, the use of Afrikaans by Radio Zeesen arguably makes it the first Southern African language to be used on international propaganda radio. The war served to underline to the colonial powers the usefulness of radio in the conduct of international relations—even in Africa. The BBC, for example, began broadcasting in Afrikaans in 1937 to counter the perceived Nazi threat.
The idea of using broadcast media as one of the strategies within the liberation movement in South Africa came shortly after a turn to the armed struggle in the period after the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960. This was also the period when the National Party government, through the SABC which it had practically turned into its propaganda machine, had begun extending its means of communication in the different African languages in the country and had in fact launched Radio Bantu as a fully-fledged station on frequency modulation (FM).
Considering these developments, the ANC and its allies were compelled to challenge the state’s monopoly over the airwaves and to establish a broadcast medium that would present their perspectives on news and current affairs to counter state propaganda, and begin advancing a Pan African message.
Radio was part of a broader mass communication strategy which also incorporated print media. The ANC had come to realise the power of spoken word in a country in which its large support base at the grassroots was plagued by high illiteracy rates. However, African oral culture had proved resilient despite modernity, and by tapping into the new medium the ANC sought to shape the political perspectives of a broad spectrum of listenership.
In a 1993 interview, Pallo Jordan, who served on the propaganda portfolio of the ANC, said, “We recognised that radio was a very important medium; what we said was that radio offers the movement the rare opportunity of holding what can, in fact, be a mass meeting inside the country at least once a day, if you did it right.”
The very first broadcast attempts of Freedom Radio were done clandestinely within South Africa. It was on the farm Liliesleaf where in June 1963 Denis Goldberg made a recording of Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada reading two statements of about a quarter of an hour each. On the night of 26 June, Denis Goldberg and his two colleagues drove to Parktown where they transmitted the very first broadcast of Freedom Radio to an indeterminate number of listeners.
However, within two weeks of the transmission, police raided Liliesleaf and arrested seven leaders including Sisulu, Kathrada, and Goldberg. Nevertheless, the idea of tapping into radio broadcasting as a medium of countering the apartheid government’s propaganda messages was not surrendered; it was kept alive by the activists who evaded arrest and fled the country into exile.
As the ANC began drawing lessons from other liberation movements in the region, it began setting up operations in exile. It did not abandon radio as part of its strategy but only realized that it was going to be a crucial companion of the revolution. Davis puts it succinctly that “within this world of nascent guerrilla movements, radio became widely accepted as the inseparable companion of revolution.”
As the struggle matured from the mid-1960s into the following decades, it became obvious to all revolutionary organisations that the leadership of a feasible movement – particularly a viable movement-in-exile – needed to broadcast over the radio in order to influence donors; get the better of their rivals; and connect with the people they claimed to lead; even if the intended audience did not necessarily execute what they heard over the airwaves. Radio was crucial in shaping opinions and radicalizing followers to their cause.
Radio Freedom broadcasts always started with a call-sign of automatic gunfire and generally consisted of a mix of news, political commentary and music composed and recorded by exiles in ANC camps. The organisation depended largely on the BBC Africa Service and South African newspapers for information of events inside the country as it had no formal correspondents. Support from the grassroots was crucial for the station, people send the station newspaper cuttings, hand-written transcripts of interviews and tape recordings of speeches, most of these being posted in Botswana and Swaziland to by-pass South African censors.
As South Africa celebrates its independence, is the general populace still aware of the role that media plays in shaping our opinions and perceptions of the world around us. It would be very naïve to think that media is impartial and without an agenda. There are always hidden political connotations in messaging. Just as the struggle was fought through broadcast, media today is fighting for political quarters, it is always up to the audience to have its own filters and not lose sight of the battle towards total emancipation of the African.
Header Image Credit: ANC Archives