The end of revolutionary radio in South Africa?

Bush Radio, "The Mother of Community Radio in Africa," is in financial trouble. Give them all your money.

Image credit Bush Radio.

In the small meeting room buried deep within Bush Radio’s second-floor offices on Victoria Road in Salt River, central Cape Town, and lying alongside an ancient Zenith Trans-Oceanic analog radio are two maroon leather cases. These cases are marked with the iconic golden dog and gramophone logo of His Master’s Voice, formerly the Victor Talking Machine Company. These cases contain original recordings of speeches, debates, poetry, and music performed by South African anti-apartheid activists—those deemed so dangerous that they were banned from gathering or speaking publicly by the then-government.

These recordings of illegal meetings and rallies, and the subversive thoughts expressed, were copied from the original cassette tapes onto many more tapes, and illegally distributed to oppressed communities throughout South Africa during the 1980s when a state of emergency led to mass arrests, murders, and torture of those who dared to rise up against the apartheid state. The tapes include speeches by now left luminaries like Professor Jakes Gerwel, then vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape and organizations like the then-banned African National Congress (ANC). They also include crucial information on healthcare, financial literacy, history and mathematics. These cassettes were designed to give millions of Black South Africans access to information and learning materials. These cassette tapes are known as the archives at Bush Radio—the fossils of what was officially called the Cassette Education Trust (CASET), the work of a group of activists whose struggle against apartheid would later morph into the mother of all community radio in Africa—Bush Radio.

On May Day 1993, three years after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and as the Apartheid government was negotiating the shape of the post-Apartheid order with the ANC, local activists, using a radio transmitter provided by German benefactors, started an illegal broadcast from Cape Town. They called it Bush Radio.

Initiatives to start Bush Radio had begun a few years before, but the apartheid government denied permission to the group of social activists, trade union members, and returning political exiles who had applied for a spot on the bandwidth. With the exception of commercial stations broadcasting from Bantustans (Capital Radio, Bop, etcetera), the state controlled broadcasting.

The government was particularly displeased that a few members of Radio Freedom, the ANC-run radio station that had broadcast messages of liberation from Zambia for years, were involved in training the group. Eventually, the media activists took the decision to broadcast without a license because they did not recognize the authority of the state. As Brenda Leonard, managing director of Bush Radio, recalls: “It happened on a Sunday. It was four hours of broadcasting. And the apartheid police came early the next morning. They confiscated the transmitter and arrested two people.”

Nigel Vermaas and Jasnine Roberts of Bush Radio. Image credit Bush Radio.

After South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994, the new ANC government invited applications for community radio station licenses. Bush Radio was granted a license and began broadcasting on Women’s Day, August 9, 1995.

Community radio is vital in South Africa, where fifty-five million people are as diverse and divided as anywhere in the world. Without community radio, tens of millions of South Africans would not find themselves represented, addressed, or invited to participate on the major government and privately-run radio stations that cater to relatively larger groups that are mostly defined by language, race, and culture. Media anthropologist Jo Tacchi notes that community radio exists to support “democracy, development, the empowerment of communities, freedom of expression, diversity of broadcast ownership and opinion, and the combatting of racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination in South Africa.”

Bush Radio has always centered its programming on activism and education. It broadcasts the news in the three most spoken languages in Cape Town, English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa. Bush’s programming is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, pro-democracy, pro-worker, and pro-poor. This goes beyond avoiding offensive and othering content. Presenters are expected to create content that advocates for a better world. This year, for example, Bush has focused its programming on gender-based violence campaigns.

Community radio is governed by three tenets: community access, community participation, and community self-management, and Bush Radio is committed to giving the mic to the community. Callers are welcomed to add their views to content run by presenters each day and volunteers run the airwaves from 4pm each afternoon until 6am the next morning. Volunteers contribute around 70% of Bush Radio’s content. In Leonard’s words:

The ethos of Bush and what we put in people’s minds, whether you are a volunteer or a presenter or a staff member is “Bush Radio and us that are here should not be gatekeepers.” People must come in. The station is there for people to use. So if you have something to say that is going to build our community, unify our community, we should make a space and give you a time on air.

This leads to wonderful and diverse programing: from jazz shows to hip hop shows; programs that focus on LGBTQI in Cape Town; programs that explore biking culture; and programs by organizations that work for the betterment of particular people. On Saturday mornings, the mic is handed over to the Children’s Radio Education Workshop (CREW). This program teaches children the art of broadcasting, including designing and creating content, and performing it on air. Bush’s emphasis on giving communities the skills to empower themselves through media also includes an annual week-long workshop for young people where they learn how to use many kinds of media, from radio to graffiti.

All of this makes Bush Radio an extraordinary operation. However, catering to smaller groups means a struggle to attract advertising. Bush Radio’s uncompromising ethical stance makes it even harder. The station does not conduct advertising campaigns for products that might be considered socially destructive, like alcohol or gambling. It also does not feature advertising that perpetuate damaging stereotypes.

Recently, due to the difficult economic situation in South Africa, the station has struggled to attract advertising. This has placed even more pressure on Bush Radio to raise money to cover daily operational costs—mainly from government funding and public and private donors who recognize the station’s enormous value. Although government departments and agencies are mandated to use at least 30% of annual advertising spend on community media, less than half of that is currently being used on campaigns with community media. Global donor goodwill that was so prevalent in the post-1994 period has begun to dry up. As Leonard puts it, “Coming out of apartheid, South Africa was like the sexiest country to invest in, and everyone wanted to invest, but … even established donors who have been with us for a while have moved on to other areas.”

This leaves Bush Radio in a precarious position. A radio station that is the legacy of freedom fighters using media to battle against apartheid tyranny, and has continued to do excellent work providing its listeners the platform and education for social and economic emancipation is battling to pay the bills to stay on air. Its mandate is to subvert mainstream media’s enslavement to advertising revenue in order to represent and empower those who are ignored by mainstream media. Yet, financial needs are threatening the station’s very existence. It would be a tragedy if one of the world’s great community radio stations succumbed to a tyrannical market and left its community disempowered, off the air.

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