Radio’s resilience: 100 years of broadcasting in South Africa 

“Seventy percent of South Africans get their main source of news from radio, and it’s still considered the most trusted source in the country,” said Head of Regulatory Affairs, Julia Sham-Guild. 

The Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ) joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) at their Radio Park auditorium to celebrate World Radio Day on February 13, 2024.  

Director of the WCJ, Dr. Dinesh Balliah and SABC radio general manager, Siphelele Sixaso extended a warm welcome to all media practitioners who gathered to commemorate the centenary milestone.

“Of course, we will go down memory lane to honour the legends that have graced our airways and dedicated their lives to the mission of informing, educating and entertaining the radio-loving listener,” said Sixaso.   

The WCJ strategically chose this day, to launch their state of the newsroom report titled, ‘100 years of radio broadcasting’. Published annually by the centre, the report looks at emerging issues in South Africa’s media landscape and fosters public discourse. The 2022 edition investigated the evolution of radio broadcasting in South Africa, featuring nine articles by experienced media professionals. 

SAfm radio broadcaster, Cathy Mohlahlana led the first session of the day, a discussion on public interest radio and it’s role in the democratic process. She was joined by the director of Radiocracy, Robin Sewlal and SABC’s head of advertising media strategy, Florence Kikine.  

Sewlal agreed with Kikine’s perspective that “radio is the original social media,” and a two-way stream where the broadcasters and audiences engage interactively, something which has sustained the medium through the years.

The first radio station in the country started broadcasting on December 18, 1923, while the early 1950’s marked the introduction of broadcasting in indigenous languages. Presently, South Africa has 40 commercial and public broadcast stations, along with 284 community stations. “The latter number is staggering, considering that community radio only launched as a sector less than 30 years ago,” wrote Balliah in the preface of the report.  

Despite the “staggering” growth, media consultant, Jayshree Pather added that community stations face challenges of being under-resourced and lacking sufficient funding which contributes to their underdevelopment. 

The idea of ‘content is king’ garnered different perspectives among panelists and audience members. Kikine said listeners increasingly influence what broadcasters talk about on air and warned against discussing topics that resonate with a select few instead of the broader community.  

Shaking his head, Sewlal said a topic should be discussed despite its narrow focus because it can be significant for some individuals or educate others. “Take care of the quality, and the quantity will take care of itself,” he said.  

A debate about podcasts versus traditional radio soon followed. Talk radio host, Morio Sanyane said people opt for podcasts because they have absolute freedom to discuss a variety of topics while broadcast practitioners are governed by codes and ethics of journalism which can curtail their scope.     

Radio broadcast student, Mzwakhe Radebe made his preference for podcasts clear, saying that they are more relatable and personal. “No offence but nobody listens to SABC in my class,” said Radebe. 

“When young people say that they are disillusioned and don’t feel accessed it means that the stories that we’re telling don’t speak to them, it’s not that the story is not important, “said Balliah. She further expressed the need to build a future for radio to ensure that it survives for another 100 years. However, this is a challenging task considering the loss of over a million listeners in 2022, according to the report.


Wits to revolutionize journalism through research centre 

Through advanced scholarship and direct engagement, the purpose of this Centre connects with evolving African journalism, fostering a link between academia, professionals, and the public. 

The Wits Journalism department was formally rebranded as the Wits Centre for Journalism, signifying a new chapter in its academic journey. The launch to mark the shift was held on Friday, August 10 at the Wits Club on West Campus.  

Inaugurated in 2001 within the Graduate Centre for Humanities then integrated into School of Literature, Languages and Media SLLM, the Wits Journalism department began as a postgraduate initiative that was coordinated by Eve Bertelsen. Anton Harbor assumed the externally funded Chair in Journalism, becoming its first department head and as they say, the rest is history. 

According to the Wits website, a centre (centre of excellence) is a name used to refer to a research unit in the university which has maintained a high level of consistent research and external funding. The Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ) has done this through projects like the Africa-China reporting project, the Justice Project and the annual State of the Newsroom report. Harber said, “Wits Journalism becoming a centre is a natural evolution.” 

The keynote speech by Judge Bernard Ngoepe underscored the importance of responsible education and research in the field of journalism. “The media can change a country’s course in history… All of the brutality of 1976 [the Soweto Uprising] was exposed to the whole world through one picture. That is how powerful the media is,” he said.  

Ngoepe also touched on the ethical fault lines in South African journalism today, which he said comes from the need to “get the scoop first”, something which can ruin reputations and lives with very little recourse he lamented.  

Dr Dinesh Balliah, WCJ’s inaugral director, said that the work done at the centre for journalism would not be possible without the support of its industry partners, who continue to support budding journalists through bursaries and work opportunities. 

Former student and Wits Vuvuzela journalist, Tannur Anders is one such recipient and now works as financial journalist at Thomson Reuters.  

She said, “It is great to be here for the official launch of the Wits Centre for Journalism; I studied at Wits last year and it was just the most amazing experience, not only did I learn a lot about journalism, what’s news and what’s newsworthy but I made really great friends.” 

FEATURED IMAGE: Director of the Wits Centre for Journalism Dr Dinesh Balliah on the far left with fellow attendees at the Wits Club for the launch of the Centre. Photo by: Kimberley Kersten


University Corner renamed to honour Es’kia Mphahlele

The name change was delayed by the covid-19 pandemic, but the home of the Wits Art Museum is now linked to the ‘illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than 30 short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems’.

The plaque signifying the change of name of University Corner to the Es’kia Mphahlele Building. Photo: Ayanda Mgwenya

Wits University has officially renamed University Corner as the Es’kia Mphahlele Building in honour of the late legendary journalist, author and academic, on Thursday, June 1, 2023.

Officiating at the ceremony that took place on the ground floor of the building at the corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets, Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi said that this gesture was “long overdue” and believed that there were many more [legendary African pioneers] yet to be recognised. “Personally, to have the privilege of having the [Mphahlele family] here to witness this historic occasion is truly humbling,” he said.

Mphahlele was the first black professor at Wits University in the 1980s and founded the one-of-a-kind department of African Literature in 1983, which explores aspects of history, politics, indigenous knowledge, traditions and cultural heritage. He was also one of the founders of the first black independent publishing house, Skotaville in 1982.

The building houses some of the literature- and culture-related departments associated with Mphahlele’s work, such as the Wits Art Museum, the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, Voice of Wits FM (Vow FM), Drama for Life and the Wits Centre for Journalism.

In a media statement released after his death on October 27, 2008, then minister of arts and culture, Pallo Jordan, described Mphahlele, who was born in Marabastad, Pretoria on December 17, 1919, as a “doyen of African letters”.

“Soft-spoken, humble, urbane, cosmopolitan, erudite and exuding ubuntu, Es’kia Mphahlele embodied in his person and in his work what he described as ‘the personification of the African paradox – detribalised, westernised but still African’,” wrote Jordan, who also described him as the “illustrious author of two autobiographies, more than thirty short stories, two verse plays and a fair number of poems”.

The statement continued: “’Add to these, two anthologies edited, essay collections, innumerable single essays, addresses, awards and a Nobel Prize nomination for literature and what emerges is to many the Dean of African Letters,’ writes Peter Thuynsma, a leading Mphahlele scholar, in Perspectives on South African English Literature (1992: 221).”

Rorisang Maruatona-Mphahlele, Mphahlele’s grandson, said, “I am actually overjoyed because [Wits University] was my first choice of university but I didn’t get in; I went to University of Johannesburg instead where I found [The Es’kia Mphahlele Room] and was overjoyed to find that at U.” He feels thrilled that “Wits University is doing the same.”

Acting SRC president Kabelo Phungwayo said that the change of name for the building was proposed in 2020 by former SRC president, Mpendulo Mfeka, and championed by former SRC transformation officer, Luci Khofi. As the year 2019 marked a century since the birth of Mphahlele, this motivated the plan to change the name of University Corner.

Phungwayo told Wits Vuvuzela that, “The SRC sees [Mphahlele] as a revolutionary scholar who shaped the [African] discourses in literature, and it teaches us African humanism as students.” He added that the SRC would like to encourage students to look into Mphahlele’s educational journey for inspiration as they undergo their studies as well.

Wits head of communications Shirona Patel said that the delay of the name change was caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

The name change ceremony concluded with Vilakazi unveiling the name plaque to applause by the guests bearing witness to this occasion.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Es’kia Mphahlele Building at the corner of Jorissen and Bertha streets is one of the tallest buildings in Braamfontein. Photo: Ayanda Mgwenya


Paid to speak, yet state spokespeople refuse to 

A lack of transparency about government activities is a result of media contending with increasingly unresponsive officials, whose taxpayer-funded job is to communicate.   

Government spokespeople need to be held accountable for their unresponsiveness. This was the message of an online seminar hosted by the Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ) on April 26. 

Titled “Why We Investigated the Thabo Bester Story”, the seminar was addressed by Nathan Geffen, editor of GroundUp, the media outlet that broke the Thabo Bester escape story. He said, “Government spokespeople are paid well for their work, but don’t seem to be doing a good job in responding to journalists.” He lamented that “The quality of information framing from the state has declined.”

Geffen added that although one can “never be sure that what [they] publish is definitively true”, there needs to be a great deal of evidence to support their story. Facilitated by Wits adjunct professor Anton Harber, the seminar learnt that newsrooms are facing a big problem in which government spokespeople are becoming increasingly unresponsive, which has resulted in a lack of transparency in the media. 

In a recent article, “Thabo Bester escape: Many unanswered questions about the death of Katlego Bereng”, GroundUp revealed that a South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson had refused to provide comment about how a body had ended up in Bester’s cell. 

One Twitter user was moved to comment that “Something is fishy,” emphasising the public’s mistrust in state officials. 

Responding to a question by advocate Glynnis Breytenbach in Parliament, retired justice Edwin Cameron of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services said it was out of frustration at the law enforcement officials dragging their feet that he leaked the information to GroundUp about the burnt body found at the Mangaung prison not being that of Bester.

The reality is that journalists need information from state officials to ensure the credibility of their stories. How then, can the officials be held accountable or even be absolved of their actions if they refuse to speak? 

As Harber concluded: “There needs to be transparency from state officials” (regarding the Thabo Bester investigation) as it is “their constitutional duty” to bring forth critical information to the public.

FEATURED IMAGE: An Illustration of reporters holding microphones and taking notes. Photo: Adobe Stock