Radio Freedom comes home

Radio Freedom was the voice of millions of subjugated South Africans and tuning in brought the latest world news, updates on the liberation struggle, music and songs banned in South Africa and a place for political education.

16 May 2019

By Lennox Klaas

During the darkest days of apartheid, Radio Freedom, the voice of the oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress, was the revolutionary tool that inspired many South Africans to actively join the fight for the liberation of South Africa.

Broadcasting over shortwave radio from five African countries, its unmistakeable themed opening of the piercing sound of an AK 47 firing and rhythmic marching of cadres became a rallying point against the apartheid regime.

The station was the voice of millions of subjugated South Africans and tuning in brought the latest world news, updates on the liberation struggle, music and songs banned in South Africa and a place for political education.

It guided young black South Africans seeking their space in the fight for freedom, particularly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, where police opened fire on a crowd of nonviolent protestors, killing 69 people.

The station heightened the fight for liberation and instilled the hope that one day a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society which respects human dignity and rights would be created.

Importantly, Radio Freedom offered an alternate view of the socio-political landscape and a different perspective of South African history. At the time the airwaves were used by the apartheid regime to peddle disinformation and propaganda.

It distorted the ideas of freedom and sowed seeds of division. Furthermore, in response to Radio Freedom's broadcasts the apartheid state often tried to jam its transmissions and imposed a maximum penalty of up to eight years in prison for those caught listening to it.

Radio Freedom first took to the airwaves in June 1963 when it broadcast for 15 minutes from the Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia. The voices of stalwarts Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada were among the first to be heard, while Denis Goldberg was the radio engineer. It was ten days later that the Liliesleaf farm was raided which resulted in the famous Rivonia treason trial.

Radio Freedom was then broadcast from different radio stations in countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Ethiopia and Madagascar. Over time, Zambia became the ANC headquarters in exile and home to Radio Freedom.

Following a successful engagement between the governments of South Africa and Madagascar, the equipment of Radio Freedom that was used in Madagascar has been repatriated to South Africa to the Freedom Park Museum.

The handover ceremony held at the end of April this year was a historic moment and allows us to reflect on the difficulty that our country and people experienced under colonialism and apartheid.  

South Africa is the country it is today because of their countless sacrifices and that of many other South Africans who fought tirelessly to overcome the brutal apartheid system.

Today South Africa has made significant progress in transforming from an apartheid state into a democratic one. Our nation is founded on the values of human dignity, non-racialism and non-sexism, the rule of law and universal adult suffrage, as enshrined in the Constitution.

The handover ceremony is also a fitting tribute to South Africa as our country marks 25 years of freedom. Over our democratic journey we have restored the dignity of millions of South Africans and changed our lives for the better.

One important area is that media are free to report without fear or favour, and shine a light on issues that are vital to the public and to our democracy.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press and other media is enshrined in our Constitution. The Constitution protects the freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research. 

These freedoms are important and we must continue to nurture and protect them. Our nation's commitment to freedom of expression and a free media remains steadfast.

Radio Freedom broadcast for the final time in August 1991 after ANC president Oliver Tambo assigned Thami Ntenteni to attend a conference in Holland – later known as the Jabulani Conference – to officially switch off Radio Freedom transmitters.

While the Radio Freedom broadcast was stopped, the baton was in 1992 handed over to community radio stations such as Bush Radio in Cape Town. Just as in the early days of Radio Freedom two broadcasters of Bush Radio were arrested.

As a result of our democratic dispensation, today not only Bush Radio has acquired its broadcasting licence but more than 200 local community radio and television stations are today broadcasting as part of the government's efforts to democratise the airwaves.

These advancements are important milestones for our hard earned freedom. These facilities have the capacity to sustain public confidence in making real the dream of the National Development Plan.

The role of Radio Freedom in defeating apartheid will forever remain in our collective memories. Through its unyielding efforts the path to a free South Africa was realised.

Lennox Klaas is Deputy Director of media production at GCIS. He is a former producer and presenter of Radio Freedom and headed up the Lusaka Unit of Radio Freedom in the late '80s.