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A crudely drawn illustration of an old-fashioned portable radio, in green, anad against a backdrop of green grass and green camouflage fabric.
Wits University Press

Radio has a rich history as a weapon of the liberation struggle in southern Africa

Radio, known for decades as ‘Africa’s medium’, has many magical qualities. It’s an intimate medium with the ability to transcend borders. It chimes with Africa’s strong oral culture and it is ephemeral – it lives in the present moment. Because of this, radio served as a powerful tool in the liberation struggle in southern Africa.

Radio leaves no incriminating paper trail. It allowed freedom fighters to counter colonial propaganda and helped leaders in exile maintain a presence with supporters back home. Unlike print media, which dominates the “first drafts of history”, radio’s ephemerality makes it difficult to study. With little concrete content in archives (and often only in the archives of the oppressor), historical analysis has been parochial, anecdotal and sporadic.

A book cover in green with the words 'Guerilla radios in Southern Africa' and an illustration of a portable radio against a background of camouflage fabric.
Wits University Press

Guerrilla Radios in Southern Africa: Broadcasters, Technology, Propaganda Wars and the Armed Struggle (2021) is a collection of essays that fills many of the gaps in the study of media’s role in the liberation struggle. Focusing on clandestine radio broadcasting, it shines a light on how rebel broadcasters in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa disrupted and dismantled the propaganda of colonial powers.

Battle of the airwaves

In the second half of the 1900s, southern Africa’s liberation from white colonial powers, including the UK, Portugal, and, in South Africa, the apartheid state, was complicated by the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union and their allies.

The armed struggle involved a battle for the hearts and minds of citizens. National airwaves were dominated by state-controlled radio designed to maintain the status quo. But this was soon disrupted by the establishment of guerrilla broadcasters – often set up by exiled citizens – in Lusaka, Maputo, Harare, Luanda, Brazzaville, and Luanda. As winds of change swept the continent, newly independent states often hosted the guerilla stations of nearby states still seeking independence.


Read more: Radio as a form of struggle: scenes from late colonial Angola


Now, for the first time in a single publication, historians from a range of institutions have published information on these broadcasters’ producers, policies, listeners and content. They did this by sifting through the archives and conducting interviews with former participants and audiences.

Many challenges

Edited by Sekibakiba Peter Lekgoathi, Tshepo Moloi and Alda Romão Saúte Saíde, the book’s eleven chapters illustrate how the battle for the airwaves took on a heroic David-and-Goliath character. Rebel broadcasters operated with limited resources and very little training – as discussed in the chapter Radio Republic South Africa by Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu.

Alda Romão Saúte Saíde’s chapter outlines the experiences of the self-taught A Voz da Frelimo (Voice of Frelimo). Broadcasters trained on the spot, each performing a variety of roles.

Staff were also increasingly scattered, as Robert Heinze’s chapter on Swapo’s Voice of Namibia explains. And as countries acquired independence and state-owned international services offered to carry guerrilla messages, the stations were weakened through loss of funding and decentralisation.


Read more: How Zulu radio dramas subverted apartheid's grand design


Acquiring news was also a challenge. The stations were not especially known for news-breaking reporting. Most recycled news items from the colonists themselves, from local state broadcasts or the BBC’s Africa Service. They reframed them by offering commentary – with information from exiles being an exception.

Sonic encounters

Despite these challenges, the book tells how it took only one short, crackling sonic encounter with the voices of the resistance to capture hearts and revive spirits. A major success of the book is its rich qualitative focus on listenership, previously absent in research.

Mhoze Chikowero’s chapter on Zimbabwean exiles explains that the broadcasters themselves had only a sketchy idea of who might be tuning in. Although their message was clear, broadcaster Gula Ndebele remembers:

Our audiences were largely imagined.

So it would be interesting for former broadcasters to read about the memories of their listeners. Although audience statistics are absent, it’s clear the broadcasters weren’t speaking into a void. Many listeners attribute their political awakening to the broadcasts. In the Zimbabwean context, a listener recalls how the broadcasts urged him to sign up for military training.

Marissa J. Moorman’s chapter includes recollections of adolescent Angolan listeners, many of whom “hid to listen”, often in groups and without their parents knowing.


Read more: Radio in Ghana: from mouthpiece of coup plotters to giving voice to the people


Tshepo Moloi explains how the “trial and error” approach of tuning in to Radio Freedom in South Africa further electrified audiences. A listener recalls:

One quiet night as I twiddled a transistor radio, searching for a disco music station, I heard the statement, ‘the terrorist regime of Ian Douglas Smith’, delivered in thick African tones … my body tensed with every turn of the knob.

Moloi’s chapter argues, convincingly, that Radio Freedom helped to revive the ANC’s dormant reputation among Black Consciousness Movement supporters, encouraging them to join the movement’s armed wing, MK, in exile.

The battle for the airwaves became linked with the armed struggle – most famously symbolised by Radio Freedom’s iconic opening machine gunfire riff. Almost all chapters highlight this relationship.


Read more: Radio is thriving in South Africa: 80% are tuning in


The broadcasts also transcended the armed struggle. They suffused all aspects of civilian life – domestic, cultural, even spiritual. For instance, Dumisani Moyo and Cris Chinaka’s fascinating chapter plumbs the memory of Voice of Zimbabwe veterans, who explain how they built links with spirit mediums in order to unsettle the confidence of black Rhodesian army soldiers, appealing to their religious beliefs.

Insightful

Edited volumes often lack focus or collate chapters with spurious connections, resulting in interesting but disparate collections. That is not the case here. The editors’ tight focus on a single medium in a connected geographical area has resulted in a cohesive and thought-provoking read.

The book will be an insightful read for scholars of media, culture and history, as well as anybody interested in southern Africa’s past. We may never have a full picture of the role played by guerrilla radio in the liberation struggle, but this book goes some way towards stamping down some important history that might otherwise be lost.

Guerrilla Radios in Southern Africa: Broadcasters, Technology, Propaganda Wars and the Armed Struggle is available from Wits University Press

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