Community radio as participatory communication in post-apartheid
South Africa

Anthony A. Olorunnisola1 


This paper evaluates the evolution of community radio in post-apartheid South Africa where a three-tier broadcasting system - public, commercial, and community - has replaced the monopoly of a state-run behemoth, the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The paper commences with an overview of South Africa's institutionalized culture of exclusion in the broadcasting sector and in other social spheres. A conceptual review of participatory communication precedes and provides foundation for the examination of the operations of two community radio stations located in two of South Africa's previously marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Though South Africa's adoption of community radio answers perpetual questions about the sustenance of community radio, the ongoing experience poses a few challenges. 

The word 'participation' is kaleidoscopic;

it changes its color and shape at the will of the hands

in which [it] is held.

Shirley A. White



The advent of community radio in South Africa is one of the less publicized but direct outcomes of the country's transition to multiracial democracy in 1994. A few short years ago, community radio was virtually unknown in South Africa. By the end of 1999 there were already sixty-five community radio stations broadcasting in and to communities in rural, semi-urban and urban areas of the republic (Siemering, Fairbairn and Rangana, 1998). In addition, community radio stations whose license applications are under consideration may soon bring the total to a little over 250 (Siemering, Fairbairn and Rangana, 1998). With the sixty-five or more stations currently on air, South Africa now has the largest and most vibrant community radio sector on the African continent (Nell and Shapiro, 2001).

Before South Africa's transition to multiracial democracy in 1994, the minority white government's use of apartheid laws won global notoriety for separating citizens into geographical, social and political enclaves. For instance, the Group Areas Act of 1949 separated the different population groups into distinct geographical areas. The South African Defense and Police Forces secured the apartheid state and ascertained that all races remained separated and unequal as stipulated by the stringent laws. As a state monopoly, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) policed the airwaves and controlled the broadcasting industry. As Hachten and Giffard aptly stated

Eventually, the apartheid-era language policy codified and institutionalized nine African languages used in broadcasting services disseminated to the 'ethnic' groups identified with those languages. As Barnett noted,

In this way the structure of the South African broadcasting sector mirrored the socio-political cleavages of its context.

Notwithstanding the history of exclusion of and discrimination against the majority, the evolution of community radio stations in South Africa is not peculiar. The experiences of minority groups in Europe, Australia, North and Latin America showed that community radio has traditionally grown out of repressive socio-political experiences. Marginalized communities have typically adopted community radio as a tool for highlighting their fundamental rights. Such communities have used radio to raise and address issues unique to their experiences. In particular, minority groups marginalized by the mainstream media find solace in the capabilities of community radio. In Latin American countries, community radio, otherwise known as peoples' radio, became the voice of the poor and the voiceless, the landless peasants, the urban shack dwellers, the impoverished indigenous nations and the trade unions. Given the kind of populations to whom they are targeted, community radio outlets have also been used as tools for development (Siemering, Fairbairn and Rangana, 1998).

The black, “non-white” and “non-European”1 communities in South Africa share all of the foregoing factors with marginalized communities around the world. However, the evolution of community radio in South Africa offers its own peculiarities. In the first instance, the segment of the population that was politically repressed and marginalized by the mainstream media was indeed the majority, not the minority as the case may be in otherwise similar contexts. Using population figures available in 1984, Hachten and Giffard reported as follows:

The foregoing demographic information is evidence that apartheid was, in part, government by the minority over the majority.

Secondly, given that the political tables have now turned in South Africa, the Afrikaans-speaking Afrikaners and the English-speaking South Africans have become the de facto minorities. Hence, a discussion of the historical growth of community radio in South Africa would be incomplete without the inclusion of the participation of white supremacist groups. There is in fact evidence that the evolution of community radio in South Africa owes its genesis to supremacist organizations such as the Pretoria Boerkammando and the Afrikaaner Volksfront (AVF), who “stole the airwaves” by setting up their own radio stations in some cases, without a license. Radio Vryheid, Radio Donkerhoek, Radio Koppies, Radio Volkstem and Radio Pretoria fall into the category.

Against the historical background of institutionalized and non-participatory conditions, the development of community radio in South Africa is particularly newsworthy. There is additional worth in examining its operational circumstances and the challenges faced by the mushrooming sector. As such, this paper places South Africa's socio-political context and the transformation of the broadcasting sector in proper perspective by: (1) Examining the radio broadcasting scenario in South Africa at the precipice of the country's transition to multiracial democracy; (2) reviewing the notion of participatory communication as a post-apartheid possibility and as a concept whose development is fluid enough to be contextually unique; (3) assessing the role of two community radio stations in enabling previously marginalized South Africans to participate in the new environment of multiracial democracy. In the process, the strategic roles of donor agencies that have assisted the growth of community radio stations in South Africa is acknowledge and critiqued.

A universal hunch connected all three objectives of this paper. We suspected that the apartheid history and notoriety of South Africa should present the adoption of community radio with challenges equal in magnitude to the peculiarity of the operative context. If there are indeed peculiarities in the growth of community radio and in the roles that they are playing in post-apartheid South Africa, we suspect that the experience may answer some of the perpetual questions about the sustenance of community radio and raise new ones. Both possibilities should be of interest to radio scholars. 

Radio broadcasting in South Africa at the precipice of transition

By the beginning of the 1990s, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had become an information behemoth with controls over radio and television broadcasting. In addition to operating as a national network of radio and television, the SABC was the propaganda arm of the Afrikaner-controlled National Party. The corporation's affiliation with the ruling National Party influenced the programming, the channel structure, the staffing, and the language policy of all the radio and television outlets under its management (Giffard, de Beer, and Steyn, 1997).

Until the reforms and negotiations of the early 1990s, the SABC dominated the airwaves with a vast network of 30 radio services broadcast over 500 FM transmitters linked by Intelsat satellite. Some of the outlets were national (Radio South Africa, Radio 5, Afrikaans Stereo, Radio Metro); others were regional (Highveld Stereo, Radio Oranje, Radio Port Natal and Radio Algoa) while a number of the outlets were aimed at particular groups in the vernacular (Radio Sesotho, Radio Venda, Radio Swazi, and Zulu Stereo). Seven of SABC's radio channels could be received from high-quality FM transmitters nationwide (De Villiers, 1993).  

The reforms of the 1990s

Former President F. W. De Klerk accomplished three remarkable political feats with his February 1990 policy speech. One, he repealed the state of emergency regulations with which South Africa had been held bondage for four years (1986-1990). Two, he lifted the ban on liberation movements that included the African National Congress (ANC). Three, he freed political prisoners that included Nelson Mandela who had been jailed for twenty-seven years.

The political changes that De Klerk's actions initiated had immediate implications for the dissemination of information and media operations in South Africa. In particular, the broadcasting system entered a democratization and transformation phase. By 1991, the Council for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a negotiating body, had placed the need to reform the broadcasting sector on the agenda of the major political stakeholders that benefited from De Klerk's initiative. This marked the beginning of the struggle for and the negotiation of the liberation of the South African airwaves.

While negotiations were in progress, the ruling National Party issued some community radio licenses to stations handpicked by the Ministry of Home Affairs without the participation of other political parties. In response, two stations in Cape Town went on air in defiance of government's action. One of those was Bush Radio that targeted audiences in the Cape Flats area. Bush Radio was immediately shut down and its owners prosecuted. The charges were, however, later dropped. The other was Radio Zibonele,2 a health focused station broadcasting to a section of Khayelitsha. Unlike Bush Radio, Radio Zibonele kept a low profile. As a result agencies of the government did not consider its operations a threat and, therefore, ignored its activities (Gumucio Dagron, 2001; Siemering, Fairbairn & Rangana, 1998). 

The 1993 IBA Act

As South Africa's first multiracial elections drew near, political parties interested in breaking the monopoly of the SABC over the airwaves began to put pressure on CODESA. In response, CODESA drew up the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act. The 1993 Act established the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) whose tasks included: (1) making policy on broadcasting; (2) issuing broadcast licenses and; (3) regulating and monitoring broadcasting activities in South Africa.

The Act also mandated the IBA to administer the airwaves without any interference whatsoever from the government. However, by far the most important aspect of the IBA Act was its recognition of a three-tier broadcasting system -- public, commercial and community -- in place of the monopolistic coverage of the airwaves by the SABC.3 The same IBA Act provided for broadcasting services that catered to all linguistic and cultural groups. While the services of the broadcasting outlets were to be responsive to public need, the Act emphasized the need to protect a national and regional identity. The IBA was equally charged with the additional responsibility of limiting cross-media ownership, enforcing local content quotas and inquiring into ways of financing broadcasting (Barnett, 1999; Giffard, De Beer & Steyn, 1997). Among IBA's additional responsibilities, enforcing of local content quotas proved more time consuming.

There were multiple reasons for enforcing local content quota. One is to ensure the promotion of a national and provincial identity. The other is the need for broadcast programs to cater to the wide-ranging languages spoken by the peoples of South Africa. By implication, however, IBA's enforcement was expected to create an economically buoyant local production sector. Given the need for measured transformation, however, the IBA left ample room for operatives' adjustment. In its specification of timeline for implementing local music quotas, for example, the agency allowed broadcasters room to phase in South African music. By 2000, however, community radio stations were expected to have achieved a 55% local music quota.  

Origin and categories of community radio stations

In the weeks following the first multiracial elections in 1994, the IBA determined that community radio was top priority and that the first few radio licenses would be issued to operatives in this sector. The first recipient of the IBA license was Radio Maritzburg in the Kwazulu-Natal Region. Quickly deluged with applications from prospective radio stations, the IBA had issued 82 community radio licenses by August 1995. At the beginning, only temporary licenses were issued. Each station with a temporary license was to renew every year. In 1996, the IBA introduced a four-year license for community radio operatives.

Also among the early recipients of community radio licenses were right wing radio stations that the IBA could not deny licenses. In the new democratic atmosphere, the latter development broadened the definition of community radio in South Africa to encompass four distinct types.  

In the first category are stations serving geographical areas. Examples include communities disadvantaged during the apartheid era. The development of early 'geographic' community radio stations was motivated by the efforts of donors and activists in the Non Governmental Organization (NGO) sector. Both Bush Radio and Radio Zibonele fall into the category of 'geographic' community radio stations.

In the second category are campus-based radio stations that are active on college and university campuses.4 A good number of the stations in this category are daytime deejay booths in students' cafeteria. Examples of campus-based community radio stations include Radio Matie FM (University of Stellenbosch), Durban Youth Radio (University of Natal/Durban) and Rhodes Music Radio (Rhodes University, Grahamstown).

The IBA also issued licenses to various religious stations. Most of these are evangelical Christian and Muslim radio stations. There are also a few Hindu stations.5 A fourth category of community radio stations targets cultural and ethnic communities. In this category is a strong network of stations owned by Afrikaner communities. A wide range of radio stations also serve South Africans of Portuguese, Chinese, and Greek origin.  

The notion of participatory communication

Many authors have noted that the concept of participatory communication lacks a definition capable of enabling a thorough understanding of the processes and outcomes involved. In her introduction to a recent assessment of participatory communication sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, Gray-Felder (2001) noted, “the most interesting work of a participatory nature can often defy the written word,” (p. 1). In the same vein, White (1994) observed, “the word 'participation' is kaleidoscopic; it changes its color and shape at the will of the hands in which [it] is held,” (p. 8).

Neither the absence of an accurate means of capturing the essence of participatory communication nor the fluid nature of participation has reduced the realization that the varying forms of both appear to have become useful in contexts with histories of exclusion and discrimination. In many African, Asian and Latin American countries, participation and communication are often bedfellows in the movement toward engaging previously disenfranchised populations in social dialogue.

Two questions appear fundamental to our understanding of the notion of participatory communication as it relates to community radio. One, in what ways do the roles and association between political actors, the mass media and the public change in a participatory communication environment? Two, what should the notable dividends of participatory communication be?

Generations of mass communication scholars (see, e.g., Bogue, 1979; Ezrai, 1990; Gumucio Dagron, 2001; Habermas, 1989; Katz, 1996; McQuail, 2000; Melkote, 1991; Olorunnisola, 1997) have considered the foregoing questions. Their contribution to our understanding of participatory communication is useful in the current exercise. Undoubtedly, the introduction of the notion of participatory communication to a context that has had South Africa's level of institutionalized disenfranchisement deserves critical examination. 

Role alternation and associational changes

In what ways do the roles and associations between political actors, the mass media and the public change in a participatory communication context? There appears to be consensus around the notion that the alternation of power and control between otherwise contesting stakeholders such as political actors, media and the public lie at the base of what constitutes participatory communication. By nature, participatory communication puts decision making in the hands of the public. This translocation enables communities to express their own ideas and opinions. The change also democratizes the local political process (Gumucio Dagron, 2001). Given that power does not reside in a vacuum, the control that the stakeholders in traditional media structures lose shifts into the hands of newly empowered community members. In the ensuing context, communities are able to express their thoughts about problems pertaining to their livelihood and daily existence.

The radio medium has been a frequent stakeholder in both participatory communication and in the oscillating trends in social development. Radio is popularly recognized as one of the best ways to reach excluded or marginalized communities in targeted and useful ways. Apart from its ubiquitous presence in most African homesteads (Bogue, 1979; Olorunnisola, 1997), another advantage that a radio medium owned by the community offers is the ability of the listener to “hear” content, context, passion and pain in the words and terms used by the targeted communities (Gumucio Dagron, 2001). 

Dividends of participatory communication

What should the dividends of participatory communication be? One anticipated dividend of participatory communication is the restoration or installation of cultural pride, self-esteem, and identity in communities that have been marginalized, repressed or neglected over lengthy periods of time. Social and political abandonment are often characteristic of communities in authoritarian contexts. Neglect has also been a feature of development programs whose strategies fail to include the cultural perspectives of the communities that would be the recipients of planned social change initiatives (Melkote, 1991).

When a community's participation in the public sphere is welcome, members become actors whose voices are included in the content. This is contrary to being passive recipients of information that may have nothing to do with the realities of their daily experiences. In this new context, third parties are not involved in making communications decisions on issues that affect the communities. This process is a departure from the trend notable in the dominant paradigm of development where decision-making is top-down with no built-in mechanism for feedback from the community during the planning, the execution and the evaluation stages of the programs. Where participation is inculcated as a dimension, people are involved in the process rather than being human subjects of social change campaigns (Katz, 1996).

Also, the involvement of communities in development processes changes the goal from a short-term one primarily concerned with showing prompt results to donors and external evaluators to one with the tolerance that allows communities to appropriate the essence and management of the program. In this process, one expected outcome is collective appropriation. The collective does not lose power to the few individuals with the resources to usurp community interests for private purposes (Gumucio Dagron, 2001).

When participatory communication involves such an enterprise as community radio, the predominance of ownership over mere access is emphasized. The argument is that a communication process that is owned by the community tends to provide equal opportunity to members (Gumucio Dagron, 2001).

Ezrahi (1990) has noted that functions of media in democratic settings include making the political process transparent and teaching political norms, e.g., that the constitution has made provisions for the impeachment of a president and for succession in case of assassination. Avenues through which communities are able to feed their responses back to the government should also be high on the list of political norms to be disseminated. Should the participation of previously marginalized communities include a process that eliminates feedback to the government? There is agreement that the public sphere lies between the 'base' and the 'top' of society and that mediation should take place between the two locations (see, e.g., McQuail, 2000; Habermas, 1989; Katz, 1996).  

Community radio outlets in context

A better way to gauge the extent to which community radio stations in South Africa exhibit the ideals of participatory communication is to examine them in context. The following paragraphs profile Bush Radio and Radio Zibonele -- two geographic community radio stations that commenced operation without licenses and before the creation of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). Today, both stations operate under licenses issued by the IBA in the Western Cape region. 

Bush Radio

By self-acclamation, Bush Radio6 is the “mother of community radio in Africa.” Bush Radio has its origin in the communal activities of members of CASET, an organization of community-minded individuals who produced, duplicated, and distributed cassette tapes in townships in the Cape Town area. The content of CASET's tapes took on issues such as literacy, personal hygiene and the dangers of criminal activities in the community. When operators of CASET found out that Afrikaans' supremacist groups were broadcasting without a license in the Pretoria area, they publicized their decision to go on air and did so in April 1993. The law enforcement agents responded immediately. Officers of the police force broke into CASET's studio, seized equipment and arrested two of the members. The charges were later dropped. We have no evidence that any of the white supremacist groups suffered the same fate in the hands of law enforcement agents.

Located in the heart of Cape Town, Bush Radio eventually received an official license on August 1, 1995. Bush Radio broadcasts in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa to cater to the diverse population of the target area. Six full time workers and many volunteers staff Bush Radio. About 250,000 listeners are estimated to receive Bush Radio's programs daily.

Programs on Bush Radio fall into four categories. One set falls under the talk show category with each providing community members with the opportunity to explore issues that range from health through gender relations and current affairs to the administration of the radio station. For instance, Focus on Bush is a talk show that welcomes listeners' opinions on and criticisms of all radio programs. The program is itself an extension of a monthly open forum dedicated to the same purpose. Through Focus on Bush and the monthly open forum, listeners are also able to offer suggestions of programs that they would like aired while station operators inform the listening public of developments at the radio station.

Bush Radio also runs a slew of music programs dedicated to music and musicians from the Western Cape and international locations. Its Everyday People, aired daily for three hours, profiles local music and artists. Soul Makossa, aired every Wednesday, plays music produced by artists on the African continent. Head Warmers, a Friday evening program, focuses on American Hip Hop music and the accompanying culture.

Bush Radio also broadcasts community outreach programs. Many of the programs under this category are products of collaboration with various community organizations. Some are CO-created and CO-produced by members of staff and “experts” in the local community. For instance, fourth- and fifth-year law students at the University of Cape Town ran Bush Radio's weekly Community Law program. The program explains legal issues to listeners in a language that they understand. Bush Radio also participated in a 1998 Voter Education pilot program sponsored by the Netherlands Institute for South Africa (NIZA). The thrust of the program was for participating radio stations to facilitate voter literacy in their communities. Drama and radio spots were used to encourage voter registration in the days leading to the 1999 elections -- the second since South Africa's transition to multiracial democracy in 1994. Listeners were also encouraged to vote in the elections. As the election progressed, Bush Radio aired spots that promoted political tolerance and denounced violence as an unnecessary part of the election process.

International programs make up the fourth category of programs aired on Bush Radio. Unlike the local programs, international programs are rebroadcasts of foreign programs. One of such programs is the Voice of America's Talk to America, carried live from Washington, D.C. Bush Radio listeners are able to call in to the program, at no charge, to voice their opinion on the issues on the agenda. Also, Bush Radio rebroadcasts BBC's Focus on Africa, a feature length program that takes an in depth look at contemporary Africa. Frequently, VOA and BBC programs are rebroadcast overnight on Bush Radio.

Bush Radio's audited financial statements for the years 1998 through 2000 show that consistently, more than 50% of the station's revenue is generated through grants donated by local and international funding agencies. In 1998, when the station had an income of R461,8927, fifty-three percent of the sum (R248,857) accrued from grants. Also in 1999, R1,075,627 (or 70.3%) of Bush Radio's total income of R1,528,197 accrued from grants. In 2000, Bush Radio posted an annual income of R1,255,463. Though the amount represented a budgetary decrease for the year, R1,027,756 (or 81.8%) of the sum were grants donated to Bush Radio by funding agencies.

When compared to grants, Bush Radio's advertising revenue consistently decreased as a percentage of total income in the years covered by the audited financial records. In 1998, advertising revenue amounted to R182,795 (39.5%) of the total income of R461,892. In financial years 1999 (R214,920) and 2000 (R186,243), advertising revenue fell to 14% of total revenue. While most community radio stations in South Africa speak to a small advertising market, Bush Radio addresses a suburban audience with the potential to offer extensive advertising income.

There are, however, two connected explanations for the radio station's dwindling advertising revenue. One is Bush Radio's unmatched success in securing large sums of grant income from local and foreign agencies. Another is Bush Radio's reputation for socially conscious advertising revenue generation. For instance, as a demonstration of its support for a healthcare message dedicated to the eradication of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Bush Radio enforced an advertising policy that shuns alcohol promotions. Also by editorial choice, Bush Radio does not carry tobacco advertising. These policies are evidently affordable given Bush Radio's access to grants from donor agencies.

Beyond audience calls-in to its talk, music and international programs, Bush Radio has not conducted a structured impact assessment of its program offerings. However, one accomplishment that many stakeholders in the community radio sector agree on is the success of Bush Radio's cross-media training program (Gumucio Dagron, 2001; Nell and Shapiro, 2001). Courses offered in the station's facilities include basic and advanced news, feature/program production and management. Other courses include election reporting, coverage of gender and violence issues, accounting, finance and marketing for community broadcasters. The station also offers internship programs for high school and college students. Since its inception Bush Radio has trained many journalists who now work in public, commercial, and community radio stations nationwide.

Bush Radio's Prison Radio program has also won accolades. The training program, developed in collaboration with the University of Cape Town's criminology department, was designed to equip young people convicted of various offences with radio station management skills. Prison authorities are reportedly convinced that the therapeutic effect that the program had on the inmates has been beneficial to the rehabilitation of convicts (Gumucio Dagron, 2001; Nell and Shapiro, 2001).

Though Bush Radio devotes a lot of air and off-air time to community focused and outreach programs, there are concerns about the amount of program time it devotes to foreign rebroadcasts. One of the foreign programs featured under its Global Talkshow time slot is Talk to America, received from Voice of America (VOA) via satellite and rebroadcast live everyday between 7:00 and 8:00 P.M. The other foreign program, BBC's Focus on Africa, is broadcast weekly as a fill-in. In addition to airing VOA and BBC programs overnight, between 1:00 and 6:00 AM, there have also been rebroadcasts from Radio France International (RFI) and Radio Netherlands.

While Bush Radio's menu of programs may meet the local content quota stipulated by the IBA, the station's daily devotion of prime time to the rebroadcast of foreign programs may compromise its mission as a community radio station that should devote more air time to community-focused programs. Bush Radio's audited financial reports indicate that Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa, Radio Netherlands and the Voice of America are among the sources of grants that the community radio station received in 1999 and 2000. We, however, have no confirmation that the rebroadcasts are conditions for the grants donated by the respective organizations. It should, however, be safe to note that Bush Radio's comparatively low advertising revenue is a financial difficulty waiting to occur should donor contributions to its budget dwindle in the future. 

Radio Zibonele

Radio Zibonele,8 whose original studio was located in an old container truck that also served as a clinic for the Zibonele Community Health Center,9 had also “stolen the airwaves” at inception. Radio equipment, constituted of homemade equipment that included a transmitter, power supply, amplifier, a mixing console and a small ghetto blaster, were set up under a hospital bed. Once a week, for about two hours, 20,000 listeners in the Khaylitsha area of Cape Town received Radio Zibonele's broadcasts. Khayelitsha is a semi-urban township about 12 miles outside of Cape Town. The township is home to approximately one million black South Africans who were victims of the apartheid-era forced removal and displacement policies. The township had and still has a high rate of illiteracy. Unemployment is reportedly as high as 80% (Nell and Shapiro, 2001).

Radio Zibonele became legal when it secured a license on August 2, 1995. Currently, Radio Zibonele's audience approximates 120,000 (Gumucio Dagron, 2001; Siemering, Fairbairn and Rangana, 1998). As confirmed in its mission, Radio Zibonele is run by

Operated by nine full-time staff members and between 40 and 70 volunteers, Radio Zibonele broadcasts exclusively in isiXhosa, the dominant language of the Khayelitsha community. A board of directors10 whose membership is drawn from the community manages the radio station.

Radio Zibonele currently offers a five-day menu of programs that are extensively community focused and predominantly talk radio. The station does not broadcast on Tuesdays and Thursdays because the facility is used for production on those two days. Each broadcast day begins and ends with prayer offered for the health and unity of the community. Given Radio Zibonele's location and affiliation to the Community Health Center, primary health care has remained the cornerstone of the programs offered. All of Radio Zibonele's health programs enjoy the direct input of health workers at the local Community Health Center. Health workers and residents of the community collaborate with producers at the radio station to craft the content and format of each program. Among the outcomes of the creative collaboration are health songs, role-plays, storytelling and poetry that combine to encourage precautions and healthy practices. Specific health programs are focused on women, children and senior citizens. The radio station also provides publicity to the activities of the Community Health Center, with which it maintains close affiliation.

Over time, Radio Zibonele's programs have expanded to youth, life skills issues, literacy, sports, and religious programs. Local and national news intersperse the menu of programs. The radio station is also popular for its weekly broadcast of trendy music. The station's only international program is International Top-20 Countdown that is broadcast on Saturdays between 7:00 and 9:00 PM. The program, located just before Party Time, another music program, plays the top-20 records of non-South African artists. We were unable to confirm the station's modality for rating the records selected. When their time slots are combined, Top-20 and Party Time offer four uninterrupted hours of music that rounds out Saturday programs.

Radio Zibonele has come a long way from the early days when its programs were broadcast once a week on an annual budget of R1,500. Currently and unlike Bush Radio, Radio Zibonele relies more on advertising income than on donor funding. The radio station's un-audited income statement for the year that ended May 31, 199911 showed a gross income of R775,352. A sizeable portion of that income (R737,291 or 95%) accrued from advertising placed by local businesses and agencies. Only R12,039 (or 1.5%) of its income were donations and grants. The grants were in fact non-monetary training and equipment subsidies. Training and equipment are two key areas in which Radio Zibonele has consistently lacked budgetary allocations. In 1994 and 1995, the station was awarded financial support by the National Progressive Primary Health Care Network's (NPPHCN) media training center. The award enabled some of Radio Zibonele's staff to undergo intensive training and capacity development. The Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) also awarded a grant that enabled Radio Zibonele to purchase equipment that replaced the homemade and progressively inadequate one used at its inception. Reportedly, Radio Zibonele became financially self-sustainable in 1996.    

Community members in the Khayelitsha area are involved in Radio Zibonele in multiple ways beyond their membership on the board of directors and their participation as volunteers. A phone-in program encourages the community to evaluate radio programs and ask questions about issues ranging from station management to township affairs. A City of Tygerberg slot on Sundays allows community members to ask questions of councilors and officials of the township. Annually, Radio Zibonele organizes a program summit to which it invites community members that include non-governmental organizations and other organizations in the station's target area. Summit participants are encouraged to express their opinion on the nature and quality of programs and are invited to participate in program development. Resolutions passed at the end of each summit supply management with programmatic and related problems to solve between annual summits, (Gumucio Dagron, 2001; Nell and Shapiro, 2001).

Though there is indication that Radio Zibonele has conducted an impact assessment of its programs, we had no access to the findings. We, however, used an indirect yardstick for measuring the impact of Radio Zibonele in the Khayelitsha area. For instance, there has been an increase in broadcasting time since the station debuted. Initially, the station's program was broadcast every Tuesday morning for about two hours. Audience demand, solicited through Radio Zibonele's weekly phone-in program and the annual program summit, increased broadcast time to three days a week for five hours per day. Currently, and also in response to communal demand, Radio Zibonele broadcasts five days per week for nineteen hours per day.

Among Radio Zibonele's successes are its capstone programs on health and environmental awareness. Beyond assisting wider distribution of health programs in its target area, many of Radio Zibonele's outreach programs emphasize the direct connection between caring for the environment and good health. Periodically, Radio Zibonele organizes a clean up campaign for which it solicits donations of trash bags, gloves, a dump truck and drinks for participants. Independent sources affirm that one of the successful campaigns attracted the participation of about eight thousand people on a Saturday morning (Nell and Shapiro, 2001).

A number of connected challenges have, however, daunted Radio Zibonele's ability to grow faster than it has. One such challenge is an ongoing desire to extend its coverage to areas beyond Khayelitsha to include Philippi, Langa, Nyanga, and Gugulethu. Radio Zibonele has been unable to secure the approval and licensing of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). There is potential for increasing advertising revenue in Radio Zibonele's plan to extend its coverage area. Such a revenue increase should allow the radio station to budget for training so that the sizeable but predominantly illiterate volunteers could receive professional training in broadcast journalism. Currently, a lot of hours are expended by staff members in training a volunteer crew with a high level of turnover. 


Going by our review of participatory communication, a community radio at its utilitarian best should primarily be geared toward the empowerment of community members who would also be CO-owners, CO-planners, CO-producers and CO-performers in the statement of communal issues. Broadcasting in a participatory environment should differ significantly from centralized broadcasting. While the latter deals with relatively passive audiences, the former interacts with actors whose voices are included in program content and radio station administration. Among other outcomes, broadcasting in a participatory environment should enable a community's ability to restore cultural pride, self-esteem, and identity.  

The litmus test

In what ways do the roles and associations between political actors, the sample community radio stations and their respective publics exemplify a participatory environment? Given the history of the structure of broadcasting in South Africa, our profile of Bush Radio and Radio Zibonele indicates that a significant alternation of power and control over information is well underway in the target communities.

Though the two radio stations operate in different geographical locations, contend with demographically unique target audiences and have varying financial sources and resources, their respective community members are actively engaged in message creation, message dissemination and station administration. The participation of ordinary folk in the process may not only have altered hierarchical roles but may have demystified the complexities of mass communication for the benefit of the respective communities. Also, the two stations' programmatic mediation between listeners and political actors should reduce political disconnection and empower the communities in the process. With the community members' level of engagement in the creation of radio messages, role assignation is directly opposed to that characteristic of centralized public communication systems.

The running success of Bush Radio, Radio Zibonele and that of others serving many of the rural and semi-urban communities in South Africa have combined to alter the apartheid era monopoly of the airwaves by the state-owned SABC. Besides diversifying the airwaves, an important yardstick in its own rights, more that sixty-five communities appear to have gained the ability to speak and “hear” content, context, passion and pain in the words and terms used by kinsfolk (Gumucio Dagron, 2001). Also, more than sixty-five previously excluded communities are now able to exercise the urge, if not all of the resources, to participate in social dialogue.

What are the notable dividends of participatory communication in the communities served by Bush Radio and Radio Zibonele? In the absence of an independent impact assessment or audience analysis carried out in the target communities, the latter question is difficult to address in specific detail. There is, however, operational evidence that both stations provide avenues for the dissemination of information relevant to the realities of the communities' daily experiences. In addition, both radio stations are open to the communities' continual evaluation of the programs aired. Also, our sample radio stations provide opportunity for members to learn the political norms needed to negotiate with the new multiracial democratic culture. Each facilitates feedback to governments and officials at different levels. There is potential in this participatory environment for these previously excluded communities to find the means of restoring cultural pride, self-esteem and identity. The duplication of the latter possibility in more than sixty-five communities around the vast Republic of South Africa should amount to the reawakening of a previously silent majority.  

Notable challenges

The ability of communities in South Africa to appropriate the financial management of radio stations represents the single most important challenge facing the evolving sector. Our review of the sample stations' budget finds them at two ends of the financial continuum. While Bush Radio draws a significant part of its income from local and international donors, Radio Zibonele relies predominantly on advertising. Though Bush Radio is currently able to meet its operational needs, the radio station is evidently not as self-sustaining as Radio Zibonele is. There may be a long-term problem in Bush Radio's financial base should donors' grants dwindle. 

The place of donors

Given that the shortage of funding is often used to justify the centralized broadcasting paradigm, participatory broadcasting should be realistic enough to leave room for third- party and non-governmental assistance with funding. The operative condition should, however, build enough tolerance into the budgetary assistance process to allow the recipient community radio stations to eventually appropriate the financial management of the outlets.

Remarkably, South Africa's fledgling community radio sector has attracted the interest of a consortium of local and international donors whose funds have sponsored start-up budgets, training and the purchase of broadcast equipment. The Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA)12 is credited with having given the utmost support to the sector. Between 1995 and 2000, OSF-SA gave grant support of about R 15 million to community radio stations. A sizeable part of the grants went to equipment purchase, planning and development, program production and training. Both Bush Radio and Radio Zibonele have been beneficiaries of the grants. Uniquely, the OSF-SA has a two-pronged training emphasis. One training program supports innovative and seminally important interventions while another supports human resource capacity development. Though the OSF-SA uses a hands-on approach that includes ongoing and non-financial support, its modus operandi includes stepping back at a point when self-sustenance is realistically expected (Nell & Shapiro, 2001).

When the donor steps aside, the expectation is that the recipient radio station would have the readiness to appropriate the management of the radio station. Whether or not enough tolerance time is built into the enabling process could be contested. However, given that cross-media ownership is not a possibility in this sector the running concern is whether or not community radio stations with financial constraints will falter when donors such as OSF-SA steps back. Survivors left in the sector may be radio stations in communities that are able to sustain the operational budget with advertising revenue. A possible outcome of this development may be that some stations will lose focus or totally abandon the idea of community radio by converting into commercial stations. Though the latter possibility defeats the purpose, perhaps a crucial question to pose is whether or not community radio stations should exist in localities that lack the potential and/or ability to appropriate the process of maintaining them. Evidently, there are creative ways of staying afloat. In its early days, Bush Radio shared frequency with another station until the other shut down its operations (Gumucio Dagron, 2001). We, however, agree with stakeholders such as Ibrahim (1999) who shared that state funding as an alternative will at best compromise the very notion and character of community radio.  


South Africa's broadcasting sector may have undergone the most far-reaching reforms following state rationalizations in the early 1990's (Giffard, de Beer and Steyn, 1997). Four interconnected factors -- the de-institutionalization of apartheid, the introduction of multiracial democracy, the decentralization of the broadcasting system and the accompanying empowerment of rural communities - are responsible for the rise of community radio in South Africa.

Though the inability to survive donors' largess may regrettably clean the stable of financially weak stations, the evolution of the community radio phenomenon in South Africa represents a remarkable landmark. On the other hand its successful take-off in South Africa has proven that state-owned radio operations can be decentralized when the central government is willing (see Olorunnisola, 1997). On the other hand the success stories among South Africa's budding community radio stations should serve as models for duplication in other African countries. Certainly, there are cautionary lessons to be learnt from the financial constraints that may be faced in the absence of non-governmental donors' participation in the sector. South Africa's ongoing experiment has, however, verified that African governments do not have to solely bear the cost of extending radio services to and engaging disenfranchised rural and semi-urban communities.


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1 Anthony A. Olorunnisola (Ph.D. Howard University, 1994), is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the Pennsylvania State University at University Park. His research interests include the cultural aspects of international and development communication and media roles in transitional democracies.

1 These terms were used interchangeably in the parlance of apartheid. Some have argued that the terms “non-white” and “non-European” are derogatory given that they emphasize the attributes that blacks do not and cannot have. The use of the terms in this paper are reportorial and without prejudice.

2 Radio Zibonele was issued a formal license in 1995. At the time of writing Radio Zibonele was active in service of residents of Khayelitsha, broadcasting on 98.2fm.

3 In broad terms, public broadcasting refers to service provided by a statutory body, usually state-funded but publicly owned. Commercial broadcasting refers to private broadcasting service operated for profit and controlled privately by independent commercial groups and individuals. Community broadcasting refers to service not for profit, owned and controlled by a particular community under an association, trust or foundation. In some instances it can be owned by non-governmental organizations working in communities.

4 Many South African university campuses served as outposts of activist wings of liberation movements during the apartheid years.

5 South Africa has a strong Indian population.

6 The University of the Western Cape played host to the history making radio station. Bush Radio got its name from the University's nickname, “Bush College.” At its inception in 1960, the University of the Western Cape was located several miles away from the nearest settlement and had mostly been surrounded by bush.

7 Currently, US$1=R9.6

8 Zibonele is isiXhosa for self-reliance.

9 The Zibonele Community Health Center was one of the community-based programs set up in partnership with the community of Griffith Mxenge, the Child Health Unit, the Community Health Department and the Student's Health and Welfare Organization of the University of Cape Town (UCT).

10 The present 10-person board meets weekly and is primarily focused on budgetary issues and the maintenance of station policy.

11 Income statements, audited and un-audited were not available for prior or subsequent years.

12 Open Society Foundation of South Africa has a global mission of supporting freedom of statement, diversity and open media. Other donors active in the community radio sector include the British Council, the Communication Assistance Foundation (CAF), the Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS), the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NIZA), and the Swedish International Development Agency.


The Course


The Students

The Itinerary

The Organizations

The Resources

The Photo Gallery