From hot homeland station Radio Bop to MoTsweding FM, Ben Maitsapo has seen it all

"The Boss" is short. He's actually shorter than Baby Jake Matlala. He talks with the verve and chutzpah of Muhammad Ali in his prime and walks with strides longer than Dennis Rodman's.

"The Boss" is short. He's actually shorter than Baby Jake Matlala. He talks with the verve and chutzpah of Muhammad Ali in his prime and walks with strides longer than Dennis Rodman's.

But unlike Chris Tucker, he doesn't suffer from verbal diarrhoea. Nor is he the best thing that ever happened to radio in this country. Far from it.

Despite his physical affliction, the result of an unknown disease contracted at an early age, Ben "The Boss" Maitsapo, 49, walks with the giants and hunts with the lions.

Like all men and women with a can-do attitude, Ben, whose bones have been progressively atrophying, does not believe in such things as disability. "I've never believed in those terms," he says.

But recently he had to stop playing football when his right knee threatened to collapse.

For years he has had a stooped frame. His knees are slightly bent and he walks with a faint hobble. But he has a big heart.

For 10 years now he has been using the "theatre of the mind", as radio is often called. Along the way, he has amassed a large local fan base.

Ten years in radio is a lifetime. He's seen people more talented than him - the likes of Peter Makurube, Duma Tsepane, Tich Matazz and a host of others - fizzle from the public awareness.

Peter who? Duma who? Matazz how much? You might ask. Well, they were the second generation stars of urban black radio. They were the people who stepped into the shoes of the pioneers of the urban beat such as Modisane Modise, Tim Modise, Thuli Moagi, Edgar Dikgole, Lawrence Dube and Pearl Moatse, keepers of the urban rhythm and guardians of the city pulse.

They had national appeal. From the urban ghettoes of Johannesburg to campuses around the country, they became urban radio celebrities.

Because they worked for a hip station, Radio Bop, they had minds of their own, becoming the first radio personalities to speak to the nation in English.

They are the people who kicked down the ethnic barriers created by the apartheid government with its divide-and-rule strategy.

Sandile Memela, current spin doctor at the Department of Arts and Culture, was "doing time" at Fort Hare University during the early days when Bop set the airwaves alight.

Years later, in the cauldron of a newsroom I shared with him, he would tell me: "At varsity we bopped to the sound of Bop until we dropped."

"Call me 'The Boss'," says Ben by way of introduction.

That's how he introduces himself to all who venture into his world. He too was seduced by the fresh approach to radio broadcasting that Bop initiated.

Under the management of David Mothibi, it brought new light to a sterile mass communication tool used by the government of the day to spew out propaganda day in and day out.

The fresh sounds of Bop were broadcast from a fantasy land, a make-believe country called Bophuthatswana, and its disc jockeys strode its make-believe capital, Mmabatho, like colossi.

Mmabatho was a strange place. One moment it looked like a template for the future South Africa, where racial harmony and coexistence were a given and the skies didn't fall when a young multiracial couple was seen holding hands or kissing in the park.

When one unknown karateka, Jerry Tsie, met and fell in love with a white chick in the centre of verkrampte Bloemfontein, the skies nearly fell.

Her father disowned her for bringing shame to a proud Afrikaner family. Like Seretse Khama and Ruth before them, the South African government couldn't wait to see their backs. Thevolk ran them out of town.

Lucas "The Man" Mangope was a benevolent dictator of the homeland. He took them in, proclaiming to all and sundry that his was "a place for all".

The next moment, the same place would mutate into something ugly, an evil empire beholden to "The Big Man" who demanded absolute respect.

When two gay people from Cape Town were seen hitting the hotspots of Mmabatho, the "place for all" ceased to exist. Mangope ran them out of town.

It was a different story for out-of-towners.

Thousands of people suffocating from the oppressive racial laws of South Africa would descend on Mmabatho to play and love across the colour line on weekends and orbit the land of the Bop jocks.

The economy, built on shifting sands, boomed. All appeared well and good in la-la-land.

That is the world Maitsapo found when he left the obscurity of his village of Morokong, near Rustenburg, and his job as a faceless clerk at the local hospital.

With his cousin Joe he moved into a two-bedroomed house in newly-built Mmabatho, proclaimed the capital of Bophuthatswana less than a decade earlier.

It was a mutual and enriching coexistence. Joe was a music compiler at Bop Radio.

Ben grew up surrounded by music because his father was a ferocious collector of music - soul, marabi, Afro-jazz, jazz and more jazz.

"I would help my cousin with his compilations and he would playlist most of what I selected," says the man who would later become "The Boss".

As fate would have it, his cousin left the station in a huff some time in 1989 and the station was on the lookout for a replacement.

Ben applied for and got the job.

In 1990 the edifice of apartheid started showing cracks. Mac Maharaj and Pik Botha flew into Mmabatho and told "The Man" the game was up.

He was recalcitrant to the end, mouthing things such as: "Bophuthatswana will survive another 100 years."

Eventually, without even putting a "For Sale" sign up, he was run out of town.

Maitsapo is still around, only on a higher plane as executive producer for MoTsweding FM, the forerunner of Radio Tswana and Radio Mmabatho.

l To view the video of the Andrew Molefe's interview with "The Boss" visit