King Edward Masinga is the treasure of Zulu radio

Radio Bantu began as five-minute news broadcasts in isiZulu 78 years ago. But Ukhozi FM as a brand is only 25 years old.

On December 23 1941, King Edward "KE" Masinga took to the airwaves in a Durban studio and made history as the first person to announce to mass audiences in the region in an African language.

Before that Charles Mpanza is said to have pioneered African broadcasting on the same SABC-run English medium wave service, albeit on a modest scale. Legend goes that one hot summer afternoon Masinga was strolling in the Banana City when his attention was attracted by one of the buildings on Aliwal Street (now Samora Machel Street) with the inscription 'Broadcasting House'.

At the time the 37-year-old schoolteacher and headmaster was at the crossroads of a career change although he wasn't sure what he really wanted to pursue next. But he knew that his purpose was no longer in the classroom. At that stage the SABC was only five years in existence with two radio stations that broadcast in English and Afrikaans.

Mahotela Queens
Mahotela Queens
Image: Esa Alexander

And as fate would have it, he would meet the station manager and ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey - who would later attain international fame as a collector and archivist of African folk music.

It turned out to be a meeting of kindred spirits as KE himself was a fine singer, gifted composer and conductor.

Fascinated with Masinga's magical flair for the Zulu language, wisdom and wide knowledge of his people's traditions, Tracey reportedly told him to report for duty to read the news bulletin at 7.30pm. And so that evening just two days before Christmas history was made. The world was at war as the Allied Forces were determined to stop a mad German dictator called Adolf Hitler. There was despondency everywhere but for Masinga he had reason to celebrate.

His job description was to translate the news from one of the official languages into Zulu before reading it. The content was mainly propaganda about the military successes of the Allied Forces on the battlefront. His signature greeting to listeners was, mabandla ka Mjokwane ka Ndaba, ngu KE Masinga, uShobane ka Mangethe ogibela igagasi (Assemblies of Mjokwane, son of Ndaba, this is KE Masinga, Shobane of Mangethe, the one who rides the waves).

He would later recall how nervous he was on his first encounter with the airwaves but that modest start marked the beginning of greater things.

And immediately thereafter it became evident that a five-minute news slot a day was not enough for his host of adoring audiences who were still coming to terms with a voice that spoke their own language from a small box. Music was a natural gateway to the hearts of listeners whose passion for song and dance is as legendary as their exploits on the battlefields. But there were no records, particularly on African music. So with Tracey, he travelled the length and breadth of southern Africa, recording the folk music of the Zulu people and various indigenous people in the region, including northern Mozambique.

Linda Sibiya
Linda Sibiya
Image: Veli Nhlapo

He also recorded choral music and children's songs based on his own compositions and the songs he used to sing as a herd boy. These recordings were a major undertaking but a worthy effort. His broadcasting time was extended to two hours for the African service, a big leap from the five-minute slots. The broadcasting studio was based in Orlando and targeted at Africans who lived around the Reef. There were no radios in African households at the time. Speakers were installed in community halls, compounds and hostels where audiences gathered to listen to their favourite programmes.

KE Masinga's Amagugu A KwaZulu (The Treasures of Zululand) distinguished him as a storyteller second to none.

It was a popular programme on folktales, history and traditions and exposed listeners to the narrator's genius with their language. Every day he held his listeners spellbound as he played with the language. His captivating daily monologue on the life and times of King Shaka earned him a cult following among his colleagues. By the mid-1940s the African wing of what was then known as the English Service (currently SAfm) included broadcasters such as Charles Joshua "CJ" Mpanza, Laymon "Skheshekheshe" Dubazana, Selby Goba, Hubert Sishi, Guybon Mpanza, Gilbert Pewa, Dabula Chiliza and Mandla Sibiya. Radio Bantu was still in the not-so-distant future.

Sishi was among the original authors of radio serials. His Isikhumba Sebhubesi (The Lion's Skin) was among the popular ones in the early years of African broadcasting. Sibiya was another one who blazed a trail in this genre that really took off like a veldfire from the '60s with the birth of Radio Bantu. He penned Khumbula Deliwe (Remember Deliwe), a gripping drama with a touching storyline that first went on air in 1964. It's a story about a young, naive country girl and orphan who is caught in the rough and tumble of city life in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. She eventually makes it big as a beauty queen and model before tragedy changes her life forever.

Khumbula Deliwe is also a story that has become a part of Masinga's illustrious broadcasting career. He was the narrator as well as on the film version released in 1974 starring Miss Black South Africa, Cynthia Shange as Deliwe and Simon Mabunu Sabela as the kind-hearted Mfundisi Makhathini who rescues the unsuspecting beauty from the clutches of tsotsi characters like charming man-about-town Peter Pleasure (played by the late Joe Mafela).

Some of these dramas, notably Sibusiso Nyembezi's Inkinsela Yase Mgungundlovu (The Rich Man of Pietermaritzburg, 1961), uBhekifa (The Heir) and Raka were adaptations of literary works. The latter was an adaptation of a translated epic verse by Afrikaans poet, scholar and playwright, NP van Wyk Louw. Nyembezi's celebrated novel was adapted by Sishi and Masinga with the latter also playing the lead role of Ndebenkulu, the conman and cattle thief.

Broadcaster Alexius Buthelezi also made his mark as a prolific dramatist with gems such as uChakijane neSalukazi (Chakijane and the Old Woman), uMakhandamahlanu (Five Heads) and uNokhwezi (Morning Star). A big fan of William Shakespeare, Masinga translated nine of the Bard's classics - including Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Julius Caesar, a feat that hasn't been matched since. For some time the Zulu version of the famous opening line from Mark Antony's funeral oration, 'friends, countrymen, Romans' (zihlobo, bakwethu, maRomani) was a hit among listeners including millions of unlettered ones who hadn't heard about the English playwright before.

By 1953, Masinga had become a global celebrity, thanks to his pioneering works as a broadcaster, writer and intellectual. He has been accepted into a number of elite cultural organisations, notably the International Mark Twain Society.

In 1957, he was invited by the US government on a two-month visit where he toured a number of states giving lectures on broadcasting and Zulu music at some of the leading American universities. For his troubles, Masinga was honoured with the Mark Twain Society Award, an accolade whose recipients included former British premier and World War II hero, Winston Churchill.

The story goes that in Dallas, Texas, a woman mistook the Louis Armstrong lookalike for Satchmo himself. He had to produce an identity document to convince his admirer that he was not jazz's greatest trumpeter and singer. But it's said she was still fascinated by the fact that she had met a real Zulu man from SA. There's a picture of Masinga being interviewed inside WTIC-TV studios in Hartford, Connecticut. He's dressed in full traditional regalia like a Zulu warrior.

"Everywhere I was asked about the harmony and rhythm in Zulu music and the explanation I always gave was that it was perhaps the product of people who were socially uninhibited and who did not think it was beneath their dignity to sing and strum a guitar in the street," he reportedly told the Natal Mercury on his return in January 1958.

During his lectures in the US he also expressed concern that American music would take over in SA and make it difficult to keep African music alive. History has proven him right in this regard.

However, that should not detract from the fact that Masinga, his contemporaries and their successors have played a significant role in the promotion of African music in all its diverse genres. By the mid-1950s Masinga had initiated an annual arts festival in Durban where he served as chairman with Sishi as secretary. Mpanza became a household name as the doyen of jazz presenters. His show Umculo weJazz was an institution and the benchmark for future presenters such as Mandla Mdletshe.

During his lectures in the US he also expressed concern that American music would take over in SA and make it difficult to keep African music alive. History has proven him right in this regard.

Alexius Buthelezi pioneered isicathamiya (Zulu a cappella) on the airwaves. He features in the story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as the announcer who first recorded them in 1960, incidentally the year Radio Bantu was born. Known fondly as Zigizendoda - 'the stamping footsteps of a man' in reference to the dance version of isicathamiya - he launched the programme, Cothoza Mfana to promote the style. It's now a synonym for Zulu a cappella and means 'tread softly, young man'.

The station would also become a powerhouse for other emerging styles such as mbaqanga, helping its more successful exponents like Mahlathini and Mahotella Queens as well as the Soul Brothers to achieve international prominence.

In 1978, Welcome "Bhodloza" Nzimande joined the station two years after the birth of Radio Zulu. Through programmes like Sigiya Ngengoma, he championed maskandi music through traditional acts such as uThwalofu namaNkentshane, Umfaz' Omnyama and uKhethani no Phuzukhemisi. The style was pioneered by John "Phuzushukela" Bhengu back in the '50s.

For 19 years behind the mic, Nzimande's passion, childlike enthusiasm and dedication for maskandi explain why the style has become the pride of Ukhozi FM listeners and one of the most popular even among non-Zulu speakers. In 1987, following Ladysmith Black Mambazo's international breakthrough with Paul Simon's Grammy-winning Graceland project, Nzimande co-founded the South African Traditional Music Association (Satma) with Joseph Shabalala - an initiative that paved the way for the launch of the Satma awards in 2005.

Under Nzimande's leadership as station manager for 13 years since 1997, Ukhozi FM - so named after 1995 - has been scaling the heights in the world of broadcasting as the SABC's biggest ethnic station. Figures currently indicate a listenership of over 7.7-million, true to its slogan, 'luhamba phambili!' (it's in the lead).

Since then a new generation of announcers - now also known as DJs - have ensured the station's leadership status. They include Linda "Mr Magic" Sibiya, Dudu Khoza, Mandla Mdletshe, DJ Sgqemeza and others too numerous to mention.

In the early '70s Masinga hung up his headphones but later returned as presenter of one of his famous programmes, a phone-in relationship advice show.

His emphatic signature response whenever the complainant was a man would be, 'mkhulule!' (Get rid of her!) However, when it was the man who was in the wrong, the advice would be a dismissive, 'gwinya itshe' - literally meaning 'swallow the stone' but a metaphor that suggests the complainant should persevere in the relationship. He used to tell listeners that he was the living example of his standard advice. He was married eight times.

After experiencing eyesight problems for many years, Shobane Mangethe eventually stopped riding the airwaves. He died in 1990 at the age of 86, a true pioneer who left behind an unparalleled legacy in the history of broadcasting.

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