SA radio’s evolution bears hallmarks of liberation struggle

SA radio’s evolution bears hallmarks of liberation struggle

The evolution of radio on South African soil is a fascinating tale of empowerment.

What was initially devised as a tool of keeping the different local ethnic groups controlled and soothed under the apartheid regime through music, led to these groups finding their freedom of expression.


This rich history is documented in the second instalment of the Gallo podcasts, Gallo Vault Sessions, featuring guest voices by legendary musician Sipho “Hotsix” Mabuse and radio veteran Shado Twala, joined by Rob Allingham, Dr Sipho Sithole, Antos Stella and Ivor Haarburger.

Radio Bantu, according to Allingham, emerged under the Broederbond – an exclusively secret Afrikaner Calvinism brotherhood that became the unofficial “think-tank” for the apartheid government.

This propaganda machine perpetuated the efforts of 3-million white Afrikaners to overpower the country’s 30-million black folk.

Radio became a tool to further entrench apartheid rule.

Sipho ‘Hotsix’ Mabuse’s voice features on the Gallo podcasts.
Image: System

“It was specifically directed as part of the greater divide-and-rule plan to build up ethic consciousness which hopefully was then going to be useful in fermenting ethnic group versus ethnic group conflict. You could almost say it was evil,” said Allingham.

“But it had this marvellous side effect that it created a market for the record companies to record these ‘ethnic musicians’ to supply music to these radio stations and I mean there was a lot of absolutely fantastic music that came out of it, and extremely distinctively African music as well.

SABC’s first national survey in 1962, two years after the establishment of Radio Bantu, showed an impressive circulation of music during this period where 50% of the black population had access to radio. This percentage had risen to 97.7% by 1974.

But not wanting to give leeway to political persuasion, a heavy regulation was placed on the type of music that could be played while some songs were banned or physically scratched so they don’t see the light of day.

Maskandi became one of the standout genres to mushroom through the Radio Bantu system, giving rise to artists such as John Bengu, popularly known as Phuzushukela, whose prominence beamed in the 1940s.

Maskandi subsequently became a platform used by South African artists and migrants to share their feelings about the exploitation under SA’s biased political history and the injustices of the working conditions.

But beyond music, the role of Radio Bantu was vast, from bringing public service announcements (PSA) to lessons of cultural narratives that were picked up from radio dramas during a time where there was no television.

“I can’t talk about the evolution of radio (but) I can talk about my radio which is Radio Bantu – because I’m Zulu. That’s all I grew up listening to. This is where I got my own acculturation, because the African language stations which play a very critical role in this country,” Sithole said.

Historian and archivist Rob Allingham at the Gallo vault.

“Radio drama was huge, we would sit next to the wireless and listen to these stories… and when you’re a kid you even get so scared; you don’t want to sleep because some of these radio dramas are so scary. But there we also learnt the cultural narratives.

“That is the radio that I know; the radio that was centred in the middle of the community – in the middle of the people.”

Sithole also noted how interesting it was for anchors to be sanctioned on what to read on air.

“They would say ‘Here the news straight from Pretoria. I’ve been asked to read them as they are scripted by the apartheid regime’. That was the introduction,” Sithole said.

Sithole further explained how radio’s role was so significant and rescued culture through how that era’s presenters wrote their own radio dramas, controlling their own narratives.

“There will not be a story about politics, of course, but there will be a story about everything that has to do with the social system,” he said.

“I think radio has been juniorised. The whole cultural element has been removed from radio. I would listen to on-air presenters, whether it’s on Metro or even Ukhozi, my own station. You’ll hear they want to talk more about what they know Beyoncé having done last night in New York but they will never talk to you and tell you that, ‘oh by the way Mam Dorothy Masuku was throwing a party in her apartment last night and there was a lot of people attending that’. They will tell you about what Kanye West was doing,” he said.

SA radio’s evolution bears hallmarks of liberation struggle Thank You