This is a slightly modified excerpt from Guerrilla radios in Southern Africa: Broadcasters, technology, propaganda wars and armed struggle (Wits University Press, 2021), edited by Sekibakiba Peter Lekgoathi, Tshepo Moloi and Alda Romão Saúte Saíde.
Since the 1950s, radio has been the predominant medium of mass communication in Africa. Not only was broadcasting employed by colonial states in the service of empire, but the forces of liberation also appropriated it as a weapon in the struggle for independence. With the turn towards armed struggle and the movement towards exile in the early 1960s, access to a radio station became a top priority for nationalist movements in southern Africa. Through radio, guerrilla movements have sought to maintain a sonic presence among their supporters at home. It was a means by which they could shape the political opinions and behavior of their followers – and more particularly their activities of resistance to white domination.
The liberation movements also, of course, used other media (notably the written press), but radio occupied a special place in the struggle for independence in southern Africa. The sound had the most appeal. Thanks to the radio, the liberation movements could address their supporters instantaneously and directly behind enemy lines. They could maintain their presence at home without being physically present. The appropriation of the radio by the nationalist movements nevertheless provoked great nervousness on the part of the white minority regimes in the region, which were reluctant to give up their monopoly on the airwaves.
Radio first arrived in Africa as a tool of empire. This was the case with radio throughout southern Africa, where this modern technology was inaugurated, as Mhoze Chikowero writes in chapter four of this volume, “as an instrument in the fight against the imperial European propaganda wars against each other and against the colonized Africans”. The radio symbolized a European presence.
The first broadcast stations were mainly in European languages and catered primarily to white audiences in the colonies. The first propaganda radio station that made a concerted effort to influence political opinion in southern Africa was the Nazi station Radio Zeesen. Broadcast in Afrikaans in the 1930s, before World War II, this radio was aimed at certain elements in Namibia and South Africa who were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Broadcasting in African languages was first established in the early 1940s, against the backdrop of growing interracial distrust during the war. There were growing fears among white leaders at the time that Africans would sabotage the war effort unless they received regular war communiqués, in their own language, urging support for the war. Advocates of broadcasting in African languages saw it as the most effective tool to educate the masses and retain the empire.
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In apartheid-era South Africa, as Sekibakiba Lekgoathi argues, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) introduced ethnically divided African-language radio stations. Collectively named Radio Bantu, the radio in African languages was introduced to reinforce the Bantustan policy of ethnic separatism. Radio “became an essential tool of modern technology to realize the ambitions of those who were determined to rule the black population by domination rather than consent”. It was in the interest of those in power to control and contain Africans’ access to radio, and when African nationalist movements reversed the script and embraced radio as a means of challenging colonial rule and achieving liberation, a protracted air war ensued.
Radio played an inimitable role in the liberation struggle in southern Africa, particularly after the turn to armed struggle. It became a tool to push liberation struggle propaganda and galvanize opposition against the white minority regime. Yet no substantial work has been done that has attempted to situate guerrilla radios in a broader regional context – apart from a few cursory allusions in the voluminous body of essays, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies of former Southern African activists and political leaders on the role radio played in the liberation struggle. Most of the works produced tend to take a parochial approach, analyzing each guerrilla radio within the framework of the nation-state. There has been very little sustained research to provide historical and social analyzes of the use of sound in the liberation struggle across the region. We know very little about how nationalist movements were able to engage in air warfare against white minority regimes, or to capture people’s hearts and minds from their bases in exile. We know even less about the production of content and the reception of the messages broadcast on these radio stations.
Guerrilla radios in Southern Africa is a collection of chapters on the history of the radios attached to the armed arms of the liberation movements in the region. It is about the experiences of broadcasters and listeners in the era of armed struggle. Using archival sources such as the sound recordings of guerrilla radio stations, as well as interviews conducted with former broadcasters and listeners, the chapters in this volume ask complex questions about the social histories of these stations. They explore the inner workings of propaganda and counter-propaganda and probe the effects of radios on activists and supporters of liberation movements – and, on the other hand, on colonial counter-insurgency projects. The chapters also examine the relationships these radios have forged across their multiple operating sites in host countries, and examine international solidarity and support, particularly for broadcasting initiatives. Ultimately, this book pushes the boundaries of knowledge production beyond the exploration of broadcast content towards a more nuanced conception of radio as a medium shaped by social and political processes.
In our view, guerrilla broadcasting has become a very powerful technology for disseminating the propaganda messages of liberation movement insurgents and for mobilizing African workers, peasants, students and youth in the struggle against minority domination. white throughout the region. From Angola to Mozambique, and from Zimbabwe to Namibia to South Africa, modern radio technology has provided liberation movements in exile with a platform for a sound or sonic presence among supporters of the liberation movements back home. It became an effective instrument for propagating the ideologies of liberation movements and for countering the propaganda messages of oppressive white minority regimes.
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The cheapest and most direct means of communication, guerrilla radios transcended borders and were widely listened to, albeit illegally. These radio stations existed, according to Marissa Moorman, “beyond the jurisdiction of colonial law but within the broadcast reach of the colonial state and the territory it claimed”. Their public and legal operation behind enemy lines and beyond the reach of colonial or apartheid laws, coupled with the reality that many people in colonial territories plugged in, caused serious anxiety on the part of the state. We borrow the concept of the nervous condition of the colonial state from Mhoze Chikowero (in this volume), who in turn coined the term from the work of Nancy Rose Hunt on the condition of the Belgian colonial state in the Congo. Due to the invisibility and transience of the sound and the insecurity of the authorities, the police and the army were put on the defensive. As Moorman shows in chapter three of this volume, the colonial state listened to guerrilla radios and transcribed the messages broadcast – and arrested and prosecuted anyone caught listening. Very often, as Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu illustrates in Chapter 9, white minority regimes have sought to counter guerrilla radio propaganda with their own propaganda broadcast by state-owned channels such as Radio Republic of South Africa (Radio RSA). Simultaneously, surveillance was put on the guerrilla radios and their frequencies were jammed.
The support that independent African countries (Egypt, Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa and Angola, among others) and other international solidarity groups and governments have given to the liberation movements of he southern Africa in exile has been immense. Yet existing studies of liberation struggles only give superficial clues at best. Very little historical work has unraveled the multi-layered histories of these radios and analyzed the dynamics of relationships maintained at points of operation in exile. The lack of regional scholarship on the liberation struggle in general, and on broadcasting in particular, is regrettable given the shared experiences of white minority domination in the region, continental initiatives to combat it, and the growing importance of radio as a means of mass communication in the post-World War II era.
In his chapter in this volume, Lekgoathi shows that substantial financial and logistical support has been extended to Radio Freedom of the African National Congress by governments, solidarity groups and civil society organizations in Eastern Europe and of the West (the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and others). While fighting the injustices of the apartheid system was important, these countries and support groups also had other underlying motivations. During the Cold War, the communist bloc supported liberation movements in order to expand their ideological influence in Africa. The Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands saw support for Radio Freedom as part of a larger fight against state monopoly on the airwaves and the promotion of media pluralism and democracy. Informed by their pan-Africanist vision and commitment to a decolonized Africa, sovereign African countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia (despite their own struggling economies and socio-political challenges) hosted these radios on the external services of their national broadcasters. The sacrifices they made were significant. Some have suffered a series of military incursions and aerial bombardments by the South African army which have destabilized the whole region. Radio Freedom, Voice of the Pan Africanist Congress, Voice of Namibia, A Voz da Frelimo, Voice of the Revolution, Voice of Zimbabwe and others have benefited greatly from such magnanimity from frontline states.