Golden decades of black radio on air

The 60th anniversary celebration of Radio Bantu last week brought back a flood of fond memories of the golden decades of ethnic channels.

One of my earliest childhood experiences was listening to a commentary of a cup final match between Kaizer Chiefs and Arcadia Shepherds in the early 1980s. It was a Setswana broadcast by one John Letswamotse. That game introduced me to the genius of football commentary. Although television was introduced in 1976, it was still a rumour in the black community.

The wireless, as elders referred to the transistor radio, was king. And for a soccer-crazy nation, it was the perfect medium to "watch" their favourite clubs in action through the eye of imagination. The soccer commentaries gave credence to the description of radio as a theatre of the mind. All radio stations were blessed with gifted commentators, men of vision with a sense of drama who could make listeners at home imagine the spectacles.

Thabiso Parkies
Thabiso Parkies

Football fanatics still remember with awe illustrious commentators like Thetha Masombuka (Radio Zulu), Moloko Pagel Kgaswe (Radio Tswana), Koos Radebe (Radio Zulu), Dan Setshedi (Radio Tswana), Rudolph Letsoalo (Radio Lebowa), Thabiso Parkies (Radio Sesotho), Jimmy Mohlaloga (Radio Lebowa) and Dumile Mateza (Radio Xhosa). Some of them later became household names on TV. After 1990, a few commentators did manage to emulate the high standards set by these trailblazers. Those worthy of mention include James Shikwambana (Munghana Lonene), Aaron "Shadow" Mbonani (Ikwekwezi FM) and Joe Hudla (Ukhozi FM).

The advent of TV eventually diminished the magic of radio in sports broadcasting but the legacy endures. Although my earliest childhood memories of radio involved Radio Tswana (Motsweding FM), at some stage in my teenage years I could identify all Radio Lebowa presenters solely by their voices - Podu Mamabolo, Hlajwe Asser Mahlatse, Rebecca Mashiane, Jacob Legodi, Angelina Kgaphola, Moses Mohlabi Mphahlele, Champ Metse Ramohoebo, Jerry Mojalefa Mawatla, Alfred Jack Rasebitsa, Mogobo Nokaneng, Solly Kgamedi, Frans Sethosa, Ben Maraka, Alpheus Mohlapamaswi, Pekwane Mashilwane, Letswalela Mothiba, Mahuma Paul Rapetsoa and others.

They called the station sebata sa moyeng - the beast of the airwaves - and it was peopled by some of the most memorable characters one has ever heard behind the mic. Alpheus Mohlapamaswi hosted a Saturday morning show named Tsa Makgolwa, about city-based country folks who haven't returned home. In a quivering, sad voice he expressed the beauty of his native tongue when he compared the disappearance of his subjects with mist in the morning sun or a small silver coin that had rolled into a grass thicket and is now difficult to locate.

It was slightly formulaic but entertaining all the same, thanks to the presenter's captivating style. Tsa Makholwa was a forerunner of Khumbula Ekhaya (SABC1). Overall, black radio was a feast of variety shows, religious services, radio dramas, educational programmes, frequent news bulletins and current affairs - to mention a few. Letswalela Mothiba and Podu Mamabolo presented Sepedi literary texts for school pupils. These on-air lessons involved other subjects and were particularly valuable for pupils during school boycotts in the 1980s.

In a quivering, sad voice he expressed the beauty of his native tongue when he compared the disappearance of his subjects with mist in the morning sun 

Dramas constituted Radio Bantu's spellbinding allure on its listeners. Too many to mention, suffice to say writers like David Mothibi of Radio Tswana made a difference with memorable plays like Mathubadifala and Ponko (later adapted for TV as Le Tla Mpona). There were few women on radio but they left a lasting impression. Aletta Motimele (Radio Lebowa) and Hilda Tlhapi Maithufi (Radio Tswana) were gifted storytellers who also proved to be talented TV actors.

Malindi Ka Ntuli of Radio Zulu was phenomenal.

The standards were high. Even adverts were sheer entertainment. Who can forget the Peter Stuyvesant commercials? They made smoking such a glamorous affair but nevertheless inspired listeners to think global.

Some of the presenters doubled as resident preachers. Their moving sermons were the stuff that could convert hardened convicts. Sello Phiri of Radio Tswana was outstanding. His stirring sermons could be appropriately sombre but his voice assumed a particularly grave quality when he announced the names of the deceased in his show, Dipego Tsa Loso.

Accompanied by a mournful organ tune, it was a touching performance to make one's hair stand on end. In the late 1980s he eventually responded to the call and was ordained a priest of the Anglican Church. In his midday show, Molemo Wa Letsapa, he expressed his humorous side by sharing funny anecdotes about township life. A teacher by training, Phiri joined radio in 1974 and went on to become one of the best loved announcers black radio ever produced.

Thuso Motaung
Thuso Motaung
Image: Mbuzeni Zulu

Thuso Motaung of Lesedi FM is another example. Also a former schoolteacher, his Sunday morning religious show, Makgulong a Matala (Green Pastures), is arguably the longest on black radio and definitely the most popular across linguistic confines. Co-presented with Apostle Lefu Maine, the evergreen show has been running for 30 years.

If religion was the opium of the masses, news bulletins were another form of shaping popular opinion censorship, misinformation and propaganda. In the government-speak of the day it was part of the WHAM strategy - winning the hearts and minds of the black, disenfranchised majority. News programmes and current affairs shows were about legitimising the apartheid status quo and demonising or silencing the voices of those opposed to it, particularly the liberation movement.

They were written by white supervisors in Afrikaans and English. The news scripts were then sent to various ethnic stations in the regions to be translated into different African languages. Newsreaders were not allowed to express their opinions or use language that involved idiomatic expressions. It could confuse their white monitors and send wrong messages to listeners. So it was forbidden to deviate from the script.

This was fake news of an official type. But there were those witty and courageous characters who devised ingenious means to overcome the constraints. Mogobo Nokaneng was one of them. His popular punch line was "motheeletsi theeletsa ka tsebe tse tharo. Ka ya boraro o nyakisise". (Listener, listen with three ears. Use the third one to investigate and judge for yourself). It was a lucid message to his audiences but muddy terrain for his Afrikaans-speaking supervisors.

Alfred Rasebotsa was another inventive newsreader. He prefaced his bulletins with the words mongwadi o re (The author says). He will then conclude by saying, go realo mongwadi (That's what the author said). It was brave but funny how these presenters distanced themselves from the propaganda they were dishing out to listeners daily. But their message was clear: "We are just messengers. You don't have to believe what you are hearing." And who can forget Radio Zulu's Thokozani Mandlenkosi Nene, alias Gxaba Lembadada? Before reading the news he would chuckle and say, bathi ngithi (They say I must say this).

If the main news item was politically controversial, he would make light of it with the sarcastic comment, kwangiphinda ke lokho - meaning "there we go again". Then he will start to read, "They say I must tell you that police shot and killed five ANC terrorists yesterday." Nene's subversive humour went on for a while but eventually he was told to get on with the job or leave. However, it's unlikely that many listeners bothered about news bulletins. Those who cared clandestinely listened to Radio Freedom, the voice of the banned ANC broadcasting from Lusaka, Zambia.

James Shikwambana
James Shikwambana
Image: Edward wa Maahlamela

To most listeners Radio Bantu was about entertainment, particularly soccer commentary, music programmes and dramas, although the aim of apartheid ideologues was to have news as the mainstay of the broadcasts and the rest as sideshows. However, given the centrality of music in African lives, disc jockeys inevitably occupied centre stage. Kansas City of Radio Zulu was one of the most popular of his generation. His trademark phrase was umfana omuhle kunabobonke emhlabeni - the most handsome young man in the world. Born Bongani Cyril Mchunu in rural Umzinto, KwaZulu-Natal, the likeable clerk was an unlikely candidate for a career on the airwaves.

In those years it took school teachers to make the grade - a trend set by pioneering announcer King Edward Masinga. Reserved, urbane and shy, Kansas City became a livewire behind the mic, an ebullient and charismatic character with a spellbinding effect on his listeners. He lifted the spirits of people during times of gloom when blackness was a crime. Mchunu had joined the station in 1972 after someone recognised his passion for music with the hope that he would make a difference in the station's music department as a producer or talent scout.

But he soon demonstrated his magical touch as an announcer on shows like Top 20 and Zakhala Izincingo, a phone-in programme. He loved American music but prioritised local talent and was responsible for launching many talents including the Soul Brothers and Lucky Dube. Sadly, he died in 1996 at age 44.

Dumile Mateza
Dumile Mateza
Image: Antonio Muchave

His opposite number on Radio Lebowa was Thamagana Maxwell Mojapelo, a motor-mouth DJ who was at the coalface of the explosion of township pop in the 1980s. Known as Max The Mixer Boy, the multi-award winning music presenter hosted one of the hottest Top 20 shows on SABC radio. It was a flagship programme on Saturday nights and responsible for introducing some of the heavyweight acts of the day, notably Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sello "Chicco" Twala and Sipho Mabuse - to mention a few.

After hanging up his headphones in the mid-'90s and assuming the role of station manager, he returned in 2011 as host of Di Sa Fisa Chirichiri, a midday show that took listeners down memory lane with hits from the previous decades. The name is derived from the Sepedi phrase, "go fisa chiri chiri" - the weather is very hot. He now presents Afrika Ya Dinaledi (African Stars), an informative and entertaining show on the music of the continent.

African-language broadcasting by the SABC began in 1941 through a service popularly known in the townships as umsakazo. Its original broadcaster was King Edward Masinga (1904-1990), fondly known as Shobane ka Mangethe or simply KE. Reputed to be the king of narrators in southern Africa, his first job was to read a five-minute news bulletin in Zulu. In 1952 a re-diffusion service on medium wave frequency was introduced for black listeners around the Reef, broadcasting 30 minutes a day in Zulu, Xhosa and Southern Sotho. These languages constituted the core of Radio Bantu when it was launched on June 1 1960 at Broadcast House, Commissioner Street in Johannesburg.

On January 1 1962 the SABC introduced a high frequency modulation system, a breakthrough that marked the birth of FM radio and 12-hour mass-based broadcasting that involved 12 languages - Zulu, Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga and Venda. Thanks to the wireless's immediacy, accessibility, affordability and portability, almost overnight Radio Bantu became the mainstay of black popular culture.

In 1995, the SABC rebranded the channels but that didn't necessarily improve the quality of broadcasting. Ironically, under democracy the pride and proficiency with which broadcasters of yesteryears demonstrated in their native tongues is a thing of the past.

The current crop of presenters is struggling with expressing themselves in their own languages. It's not a pleasant experience listening to them communicating in a language that's often compromised by unnecessary street jargon and English. But that's the state of affairs. We can only reminisce about the golden years of black radio as we wish the service another 60 years.

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