Index on Censorship
Radio wars
Keith Somerville
Natasha Joseph

The long battle over white rule in South Africa and its hinterland in the second half of the twentieth century was not just a matter of military conflict, popular movements, state oppression and economic sanctions. It was also a radio propaganda war. Keith Somerville tells the story from both sides
Launching Radio RSA, the external service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), on 27 October 1965, Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd said it would allow “South Africa’s good work to become known throughout the world”. Opening the transmitters to enable apartheid South Africa to broadcast to Africa, North America, Europe, Australasia and Asia, he painted a picture of a misunderstood country seething with goodwill, and intent on building a new style of society based on separate development of the races.
Throughout the apartheid era, the official media inside the country and broadcasts transmitted externally sought to present the apartheid system as more sinned against than sinning, as a bulwark against communism and protector of Christian civilisation. Apartheid was portrayed as a brave experiment that would prevent racial conflict through segregation. Every effort was made to present white hegemony and black subordination in a positive light domestically and abroad; to denigrate African governments and black political movements; and to present the South African government as the dependable ally of the West against the Soviet bloc and China.
South Africa’s version of events at home and in southern Africa did not go unchallenged. Independent African states supported the liberation movements in South Africa, Namibia, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique. They gave airtime on their radio services to broadcasters from liberation movements. The liberation struggle was also a propaganda war.
The thrust of South African propaganda was to play up the threat of the Soviet Union to the West and to seize on the failings of African governments
South Africa had the strongest and most advanced economy in the region and a developed network of newspapers and public radio. The print media was owned by – and served the interests of – the white elite, denying column inches and airtime to news about the black majority. Although a few publications, such as Drum magazine, were able for a while in the 1950s and early 1960s to give space to such African writers as Can Themba and Richard Rive, and although a few liberal or left-wing publications struggled to report news accurately and to represent opinions other than those of the ruling elite, the dominant media discourse was of support for white hegemony.
Before the Afrikaner National Party election victory in 1948, the media was dominated by English language newspapers owned or strongly influenced by powerful mining companies such as Anglo-American. The Afrikaans press took off after 1948. It had a more strongly conservative and overtly nationalist and racial focus than the English press. Across the mainstream press there was a broad consensus on racial segregation as well as widespread self-censorship and obedience to the commercial interests of those who owned the papers. The more liberal members of the elite – and some papers, such as the Rand Daily Mail – expressed distaste for the crudity of apartheid but few criticised it root-and-branch. The white population was the target readership for the press and, particularly after the institutionalisation of apartheid and the extension of political and economic segregation, it was fed a diet of news and comment that set the agenda for acceptance of separate development and the suppression of non-white demands for equal rights.
The SABC was a key part of the agenda-setting. Established in 1936, it was modelled closely on the BBC. At first it broadcast only in English and Afrikaans and was not set up to serve the black majority in any way. It started broadcasting in African languages in 1949, by which time it was very obviously a tool for the entrenching separate development. In that year Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho services were broadcast on shortwave. In 1960 the services were expanded but moved to FM, and cheap FM sets flooded the market to discourage short-wave listening, as this would, in the National Party’s view, lead to black South Africans hearing broadcasts from independent states, such as Ghana and Egypt, advocating an end to white minority rule in southern Africa. The SABC under the National Party regime was closely linked to the elite Broederbond organisation that was at the heart of Afrikaner political, economic, cultural and military dominance. The SABC was wholly committed to supporting the development of apartheid and the use of the media to promote it and drown out any dissenting voices.
Under apartheid, the media were used to attack aggressively even the mildest critics of the regime, to advance the arguments for apartheid as a system of government at home and abroad, and to press the case for western support for the survival of a white South Africa as a defence against communism and its radical African nationalist allies. One key tactic, as described by John Laurence, a former propagandist with the South African Department of Information, in his 1968 book The Seeds of Disaster, was to project a view of “injured innocence” in the face of accusations of racism and brutality, and to describe South Africa as “a benevolent Christian state, faced with unique racial problems and earnestly and even generously doing its best to solve them in a manner which will prove fair and just to all concerned”. This would be a constant theme of South African propaganda as broadcast through SABC and its external services and encouraged in newspapers.
The dominance of the National Party-run state over the broadcast media, along with government control of and heavy self-censorship by the commercial print media, ensured a consistent message was given to South Africans that there really was no alternative – that white support of the system and acquiescence by everyone else was the only viable course. Liberation movements and dissenting voices were vilified or not reported. When what remained of the liberal press tried to step outside the parameters of allowable reporting or comment, journalists faced harassment and legal action under a panoply of laws. After Donald Woods, editor of the Rand Daily Mail, championed the cause of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and demanded an investigation into his death in 1977, he was forced to flee the country in fear of his life. The Rand Daily Mail correspondent Ben Pogrund was subject to relentless persecution for nearly 30 years.
Direct censorship was used by the National Party when self-censorship didn’t work. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 prevented certain people being quoted by the media and criminalised the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). During the state of emergency period in the mid-1980s, reporting of political violence and internal civil movements was severely curtailed. There were constraints even on what could be said about poverty and deprivation in the black community. Propaganda, or “telling our side of the story” as one senior NP politician, Adriaan Vlok, told me in 1990, was a valuable and consistently used tool for developing and protecting apartheid within South Africa.

The launch of regime-run Radio RSA in 1965 was a response to a growing number of African states achieving independence, declaring their enthusiastic support for the ANC and the PAC and allowing southern African liberation groups to broadcast from their radio stations. Regular broadcasts giving an African nationalist version of the news and relaying speeches or commentaries from such leaders as Oliver Tambo attacking apartheid were heard in South Africa. The South African regime decided that it had to broadcast its version of events to Africa and counter opposition to apartheid across the world. Radio RSA was expanded rapidly from 1965 to cover the whole of Africa in a variety of languages – initially English, French, Portuguese and Afrikaans, but later also Nyanja, Zulu, Swahili, German and Spanish.
What the ANC was trying to encourage through Radio Freedom was not hatred against whites in general but a broadening of the resistance to apartheid
I monitored South African domestic and external radio for the BBC Monitoring Service in the early 1980s and edited transcripts from South Africa and the ANC’s Radio Freedom from 1983 until late 1988. The thrust of South African external propaganda was to play up the threat of the Soviet Union to the West and to Africa, to seize on any example of the failings of African governments, of conflicts, coups and corruption, to try to undermine domestic support for those governments and to portray the liberation movements as a threat to Africa. News was carefully selected and angled to give the worst possible picture of such African leaders as Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere and to run down Western critics. Governments and people in target areas, such as Zambia and Tanzania, were aware of these broadcasts but evidence from interviews with radio listeners in Dar es Salaam and Arusha in 1986 and 1988 and later in Zambia in 1991 did not indicate a wide listenership or a massive effect. Kaunda told me in 1991 that he was more concerned about economic destabilisation and direct attacks or infiltration of South African agents than what was said by Radio RSA.

Apartheid: A journalist’s story
Natasha Joseph interviews her father, a journalist in South Africa during apartheid, about how the state tried to pump propaganda through the newspapers
One Saturday, sometime during the late 1970s or early 1980s, police officers raided the South Africa Sunday Times’ offices. It was a blessing in disguise for Joe Sutton, then news editor of the influential weekly: until the officers burst into his newsroom, he had been scrambling to find a lead story. Sutton called his photographic team from their office upstairs and commissioned pictures. Just like that, the Sunday Times had a page one lead.
Raymond Joseph is laughing as he tells me the story. Yes, Joseph is my father – and, like me, he’s a journalist. I, however, came of age as a reporter after democracy, taking up my first full-time newsroom job in 2000 when I was 19. My dad started out as a cub reporter in 1974 and worked for The Rand Daily Mail, the Sunday Express and the Sunday Times.
As a junior, I battled to develop contacts and refine my nose for stories. When he was a junior, my dad was trying to figure out which of his colleagues were spies working for the apartheid government and the vicious security police. “The spooks were very good. You knew there were spies in the newsroom, and it was a situation where you eyed people around the room and no one trusted anyone. You were very careful. There was a guy called Gordon Winter – he turned out to be spying for (the Bureau of State Security) BOSS. His handler, Hendrick van den Bergh, was head of BOSS.
“As a young reporter, the system we had at the Express was that every junior was assigned to a senior as a mentor. Winter was mine. He taught me a lot of good stuff. “He knew that stories were being planted, but the role of reporters like Winter and other spooks was to find others to do the writing so the “obvious people” wouldn’t have their names associated with pro-government stories.
This sowed a great deal of mistrust in South African newsrooms, which worked in the government’s favour as it made journalists extremely cautious and led to self-censorship that was often as tough as the draconian rules imposed by the apartheid state. “You never really knew where a story was coming from. We knew that sources used us, but we used sources… and as long as you can begin to understand how you’re being used…” he trails off.
To avoid being fooled, he, and other journalists, used the basic tricks of the trade: multiple sources, thorough double- and triple-checking. “As a news editor during the states of emergency (in the late 1980s), I can remember a time when the South African Sunday Times carried on its front page week after week after week, a warning to readers to ‘be aware that what you’re reading in this newspaper may not be the entire story’. Newspapers were never censored. (The government) passed draconian laws with serious implications so you were self-censoring.”
Nowhere was this clearer than in a handy little legal guide for South African reporters called The Newspaperman’s Guide to the Law. Dad has all three editions. The first, published in 1968, was “a thin little book which had just more than 100 pages”. The second edition came out in 1977, it was 302 pages. The third ran to 410 pages.
“There were constantly new laws, some of which are still on the statute books in South Africa today. Under the Police Act, if you published something about the police, you must have taken reasonable steps to prove it was true…in this case, the way to do that was to ask the police, who would deny it. So if you published in the face of a denial, you were breaking the law.”
“You were constantly approached, being offered money to work for the police – it happened to me as a young journalist. The conventional wisdom was that if you accept money, they only have to pay you once, because then they can blackmail you.”
Once approached, a journalist who wanted to stay clean would go straight to their editor or news editor to report it so it “couldn’t be held against you.”
“Those were strange days and the apartheid government was very successful, because you never felt you could trust the person in the desk next to you. You didn’t know who was saying yes.”
©Natasha Joseph
Natasha Joseph is news editor at City Press, Johannesburg

South Africa also sought to influence events in southern Africa by funding and providing technical assistance and transmitters for the radio stations of the pro-western National Union for the Total Independence of Angola guerrilla army, Voice of the Resistance of the Black Cockerel, and Renamo in Mozambique. These had more effect because of the civil wars in those countries, the existence of rebel-held areas with large populations and a level of opposition to governments resulting from poverty and conflict.
The ANC’s first brief foray into radio propaganda was in June 1963 – three years after the banning of the ANC in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. A station calling itself Freedom Radio was broadcast from Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, the covert base for the underground ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP). The station lasted weeks before the police raid on the farm led to the imprisonment of most of the internal leadership of the ANC-SACP alliance.
The ANC broadcasts then relied on transmitters and airtime provided by Egypt, Tanzania and Zambia to get messages across. The external services of these countries transmitted regular ANC broadcasts and were later joined by Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Madagascar. By 1965, Dar es Salaam Radio was broadcasting material on behalf of the ANC. Radio Freedom itself started in 1967 with transmission from Zambia. Broadcasts were intermittent but became regular from Dar es Salaam and Lusaka by 1969. Programmes were broadcast to South Africa in English, Tswana, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans.

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ABOVE: A local newspaper billboard proclaims the Commonwealth decision to give South Africa a six-month deadline to dismantle apartheid before major economic sanctions are introduced, in Johannesburg, October 1985
Credit: Greg English/AP/Press Association Images
Before the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the drawn-out domestic resistance by the United Democratic Front, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions and other movements in the 1980s, the broad thrust of Radio Freedom was to tell black South Africans that the ANC still existed, to broadcast messages from Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki and other leaders, and to call for support for liberation. Its impact was limited by shortages of short-wave sets, by government attempts to block broadcasts and by the failure of the ANC to launch a credible armed struggle inside South Africa. Soweto was a turning point. ANC radio and other propaganda – often spread by word of mouth or through group listening to radio – assured black youth activists that the ANC still existed and supported them. Around 4,000 young black South Africans left the country between June 1976 and early 1977, the majority to join the ANC and get military training.
But it was in the 1980s – particularly after the declaration of the state of emergency on 20 July 1985 in areas of the Eastern Cape, the PWV region (Pretoria, Witwatersrand and Vereeniging) and later in parts of the Western Cape – that Radio Freedom became particularly influential. During the emergency period, SABC became a key instrument for the government, with increasing restrictions on the commercial press. Radio Freedom was increasingly important at this time even though relatively few people had short-wave radios and listening was banned by the government. The United Democratic Front (UDF) activist Raymond Suttner, a member of the ANC and the SACP, recently told me that groups of activists would gather to listen to broadcasts. The UDF activist Murphy Morobe, a former student leader, has said that even when little of the content of the broadcast could be heard, the sound of Radio Freedom, with a burst of machinegun fire in its opening station ident, was enough to give encouragement. Suttner believes the numbers listening were low and “these had to be small groups or individuals on their own because it was illegal. So it cannot be quantified. It had quite a lot of influence… during the 1985-86 state of emergency, we in the UDF were guided by some of the broadcasts, especially on negotiations and popular power.” Perhaps as little as 1 per cent of the population listened, but leaders of the domestic protest movements tuned in and messages from the ANC spread by word of mouth.
The most controversial aspect, and one brought up recently in the debate in South Africa over former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s public singing of the liberation war song “Shoot the Boer”, is the extent to which Radio Freedom promoted hatred of whites, Afrikaners in particular.
The writer James Myburgh has suggested that the radio was propagating a message of hate through its encouragement of attacks in rural areas and the planting of landmines. He quotes a Radio Freedom broadcast from Addis Ababa on 28 November 1985 in which the ANC took credit for planting landmines, saying that this was a “sign of the intensification of the struggle” and that for white South Africans this would soon “become the order of the day”. In February 1986, Chris Hani, the political commissar and deputy head of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, broadcast that white farmers were part of the apartheid rural security network and economy and were legitimate targets. Hani stressed that MK was not targeting white civilians indiscriminately or because of their race.
A closer analysis of Radio Freedom broadcasts shows a consistent policy of stressing – in broadcasts by Hani, by SACP and MK leader Joe Slovo and others – a clear delineation between “legitimate targets” and the white population in general. A broadcast in July 1987 included a recording of Hani saying: “It’s not a racial war…the country is in a state of civil war… We must go for installations in the white areas. We are already going for the farmers, because the farmers are an important element of the South African Defence Force.”
What the ANC was trying to encourage through Radio Freedom was not hatred against whites in general but a broadening of the resistance to apartheid, setting an agenda of broad support for the armed struggle and warning white South Africans that they would not have a secure future under apartheid.
Radio Freedom was an instrument of liberation propaganda, strongly supported the armed struggle and was vehemently anti-apartheid but not anti-white. Neither it nor the SABC and Radio RSA spread overt messages of hate or incitement to hatred – they were about propaganda. The difference was that SABC and RSA were covertly propagandistic to support a system of racial hegemony through the broadcast of slanted and very narrow news and comment, while Radio Freedom was overtly an organ of propaganda seeking to advance the ANC’s struggle.
Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches in the School of Politics and International Relations and the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; and edits the Africa news
and analysis website