Building Our Phungashe Community Radio – challenges and possibilities

I have always loved radio.  My dream to be a radio journalist started when I was very young listening to my granny’s radio sparked my curiosity and life-long passion to understand the world. Every day I would ask myself about the lives of the people whose voices I heard on radio.  How were their lives similar to mine, and to the lives of my peers?  How were they different? What were their biggest challenges?

As a child, I moved through rural life, without analysing whether or not it was fair that we studied under a tree, when others didn’t, or sacrificed hours supposed to be dedicated to study, in order to fetch water from the river for our school.  Still, I wondered if the people that I heard on my granny’s radio had the lives that were like mine – or different, perhaps different in interesting ways.

When I enrolled at Rhodes University in 2009, I faced a shocking challenge. I still remember my first lecture – a course in politics, taught by Professor Louis Vincent.   I could not understand even a single word of what she was saying!  In Grades 4 through 12, our school instruction was nominally in English – but, in my community, no one – not even our teachers – was really able to speak or understand English.  The pain of suddenly having to cope with unintelligible lectures by native English speakers was unbearable. I was hurt and angry. I had been a good student.  I was supposed to have been taught English.  Why should I be tortured like this?  One day I made a decision – I would work to ensure that, in future, no child from Phungashe would suffer as I had to suffer. I started a tutorial project.  Unfortunately, the project was short-lived, as I was studying far away in Grahamstown.  But I never abandoned – and never will abandon – my commitment to helping to expand the horizons of younger people in my home community.

When I finished at Rhodes in 2011, I looked for jobs serving my community, without success. Then, early in 2012, my mother told me about the Family Maths programme, which was just being launched in seven schools in my community.  At last, the opportunity I had been waiting for – the chance to work for and with my community!

In Family Maths, I met amazing people.  My peers were very fun, hard-working and inspirational young people. The project director was a 60-year-old, white, American woman who broke every stereotype.  She asserted that, “South Africa’s wealth is not in gold or diamonds. It’s in the untapped talent of its young people – especially in rural areas.”  Across barriers of language and culture, she was able to see each team member’s intelligence, talent, and leadership potential.  She challenged us to consider the kind of future we hoped for – in South Africa, and in the world – and encouraged us to take responsibility for building that better world.  With her support, our entire team of seven Family Maths youth facilitators gained admission to the Activate! Leadership Program.  

Meeting other inspirational young South Africans was an honour – and an explosion of discovery!  . We realised that we are not alone in making the world a better place. There are many other powerful, intelligent, young South Africans who are committed to building justice and democracy.

The first Activate home task was an eye-opener.  In order to complete the task we had to get the municipality’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP).  I didn’t know that an IDP was a public document which any citizen is entitled to see, or that it was intended to empower communities to keep their local government accountable and responsible.

We asked our ward councillor to give us our IDP, and got every kind of excuse and stalling tactic.   He ‘couldn’t find it’, or ‘forgot’ that we had asked for it.  We never received it, and learned from Activators in other parts of the country that they encountered similar delays and dodges.

This experience was frustrating – but it also inspired a great idea.  I started asking myself what my community knows about its own local government, and their rights as citizens.  Do they even know what the IDP is – much less their rights vis a vis the IDP – not merely their right to see it, but their right to help to shape it?   And, if my community is not aware of these rights, what can I do to help change that?  

We can’t keep our government accountable unless we know our Constitution and laws.  But Phungashe is a poor rural area with high illiteracy.  How could we reach our population with news of their rights, and effective ways to exercise them?  This is where the concept of Our Phungashe Community Radio was born.  

To build democracy in our community we need the means to communicate within the community and to receive news from the larger world.  We need to know our rights and how to use them, how to access resources.  We need a place to learn, and to teach, to express ourselves culturally, politically, spiritually, and musically – in our own language. Radio is the medium that can reach every citizen regardless of literacy.  Community Radio can broadcast essential information, and cultural heritage, in the local language, as well as offering exposure to languages local people may want to learn (so that, in future,  no child of Phungashe needs to suffer like I did, when they leave the local community to attend classes at University.)  Phungashe Community Radio reflects the both name of the location of the broadcast signal, and the name of the community which we serve.  Hence, Phungashe Community Radio.  When we say Our Phungashe Community Radio, the Our emphasizes that we are building a station owned and controlled by the whole community.

Our Phungashe Community radio was conceived via Activate, and Activate has helped us at each stage of our development this far.  The SWITCH programme helped me to fine-tune the idea of Phungashe radio, and to articulate who is it for, and why we need our own community controlled radio station.

Of course, there are challenges along the way.  I am currently studying in Johannesburg, and all the team members need to make a living. On one hand, our other work takes time away from the development of the station.  On the other hand, we need to work – not only to pay our rent and to eat, but also to earn money to the make phone calls and pay for the data to communicate with people who can help us build this project.

Similarly, Activate! has introduced us to experts who can help us, pro bono, with the process of building a community radio station. This is good!  But, like us, they have day jobs.  Which means we must wait until they have free time to consult with us.

Even stakeholders like ICASA and SENTECH take time to respond to our emails. On their end, their budgets do not support sufficient staff.  On ours, there isn’t enough money to go to their offices and ask things face-to-face, when emails and phone calls prove insufficient.

Dealing with official offices has also involved many delays.   Registering our NGO took us more than six months. Every time we went to our local social development office, they would say the manager was working “out of office’, and that we should we should return the following day. After this happened several times, we learned from Activate! that we could apply online!

Applying online solved our bottle-neck, but it reinforced the need for other sources of income.  Where we live, like many other rural communities, there is neither internet, nor a copy/scanning shop.  We could not have found the resources to take a taxi into town, and pay internet charges, etc., if we were not all working at other jobs, in parallel with developing Our Phungashe Community Radio.

The idea of a community controlled radio station also sparks challenges internal to the community.  Who is the community? Politics in Phungashe is dominated by parties – one party has a strong majority; another has the loyalty of a small but devoted minority.  Prominent citizens have well-known affiliations.

We are about to present the proposal for Our Phungashe Community Radio at a public meeting.  My greatest fear has always been that those in positions of power would attempt to co-opt Our Phungashe Community Radio, for their own ends, as they have done with many structures in our community.

Our Phungashe Community Radio is not for the powerful, for any party, for me, my colleagues, or our families. It must exist for the whole community, if it is to exist at all.

How, then, can we gain the support we need and avoid being co-opted?  Is mobilizing support from individuals in the community the solution?  If we had a one (or a few) major donors, would they not expect to be able to dictate our programming and editorial policy?

With support from our colleagues in Activate!, we move forward, step by step, understanding that sustainability of community radio with local democratic control  is a conundrum for us, and a puzzle whose solution will be of interest to Community Radio across South Africa, and across the world.  

Related Articles

SuperNova Castings

Sibanda and Mathe aim to bridge the gap between film and television content producers, production companies and create a sustainable direct entrance platform for local emerging film and television practitioners.