Sunday, May 20, 2012
Radio Freedom: Voice of the African National Congress and the People's Army Umkhonto We Sizwe, 1985
This album is a mostly document of the time that two Rounder Records representatives spent in a Lusaka, Zambia radio station where the African National Congress was broadcasting programming that reached South Africa, where it was prohibited. Apartheid was in full swing, and South Africa’s Black population routinely experienced harassment and violence at the hands of the state. The government had by that point developed a wide array of strategies to prevent black people from gaining power. It had long pressured Black Africans to live in Bantustans, designated areas of the country for each major ethnolinguistic group to reside in as ethnically pure homelands. By separating indigenous ethnic groups from one another and trying to augment the barriers between them, the apartheid government sought to prevent Black Africans from consolidating power.
Another strategy prominent during apartheid’s last decade, which is addressed on this record, was the tricameral legislature that president P.W. Botha established with the passage of a new constitution. The legislature consisted of one house for white representatives, one house for Coloured (i.e. mixed race) representatives, and one for Indian representatives, who would legislate for their respective racial communities while the white house remained in control of the nation as a whole and the pure blooded African majority was excluded. The record includes a radio drama (track 15) in which a few characters try to convince a stubborn old man who doubts that Botha’s intentions are as bad as they seem. The others argue apartheid could not be worked out from within the government’s framework; true change could only be achieved from outside the bounds of legality. One of the revolutionaries says that true reform must leave open a path for struggle. On the other hand, Botha’s system puts the white population firmly and permanently in control of the country. The characters’ entreaty to boycott the elections in protest of apartheid’s vision of governance apparently resonated with the popular sentiment of the day as the Indian and Coloured elections saw dramatically low voter turnout.
The African National Congress is now the reigning political party in South Africa, but when this record was cut roughly ten years before apartheid’s fall, when the mostly Boer-run government systematically and violently oppressed the country's indigenous population, the organization was an unofficial revolutionary party. The People's Army was its armed division, its name meaning "spear of the nation". The station touts itself as the sole station that broadcasts from the perspective of South Africa's oppressed majority. This album is a compilation of messages broadcast from the station and South African anti-apartheid music. At the time this record was made, the punishment for a Black person caught listening to these types of radio broadcasts was up to 8 years in prison. One could also be jailed 5 years for owning a record by the outspoken singer Miriam Makeba, who was living in exile by that time.
Radio Freedom broadcasts came at staggered intervals from Angola, Ethiopia, (the sole sources of spoken material for this record,) Madagascar, Tanzania, and Zambia with the consent of the governments there. The Madagascar station was temporarily put out of commission in 1983 by South African commandos, and not surprisingly the South African government’s military ventures into foreign countries are condemned on this album. Programming was recorded in all the languages spoken in South Africa but only English selections were included on this record given its target audience. Many pop songs from those days used encrypted lyrics to criticize the government while avoiding censorship on South African radio stations, and some of those songs are included here. (Though not on this record, the station apparently also featured the music of ex-pats such as Dollar Brand and Dudu Pukwana.) This album notably lacks daily news bulletins; the producers felt that because of the country's hectic political state, news items could become outdated so quickly that it was best to focus on the overall commentary about the state of the nation. The proceeds of the original sale of this record went to Radio Freedom.
The content of the album is relentlessly revolutionary. With an address to both the people of South Africa and the international community, one speaker began by describing the “state of war ... developing between the police and the people.” He scorned the Boer government’s Western supporters with accusations of hypocrisy: "The people of Europe and the world at large breathed a deep sigh of relief when Hitlerite fascism was defeated in Europe by the allied forces. They prayed that never again should mankind ever experience such inhumanity and cruelty. Little did they realize that even at that moment in time fascism was rearing its ugly head in the Southern tip of Africa... It is indeed ironical that the governments of the West, who joined forces in the struggle against Hitlerite fascism, are the same countries which today are supporting apartheid militarily, economically, and politically... One cannot help but wonder whether this does not in itself smack of racism. They did not invite Hitler. They did not council negotiation with Hitler; because their people, white, were dying, they took up arms and fought.” He goes on to warn these nations that their actions are not only immoral but lacking in political wisdom as well: “we shall not forget that the guns and bullets used to murder our people come from the Western countries. The planes used to invade neighboring countries are supplied by them... Our country will be free with or without the support that Botha enjoys from the Western imperialist countries. And then they will have to contend with the aggrieved people of South Africa. We shall never forget, never” (track 4).
History has seen the ANC distance itself from this type of rhetoric, notably in South Africa’s decision to host the 2010 World Cup. This kind of speech was more effective in rallying the troops than garnering confidence in trade partners, but more importantly, the shift away from it reflects a desire by post-apartheid South Africa’s leadership to hold the most egregious offenders against human rights accountable while engineering a national, interethnic reconciliation. In any case, the message back then was clear: the people needed to find the strength to defeat Botha’s government within themselves because sufficient international aid would not be forthcoming.
Another speaker reiterates this point later when he bemoans Reagan’s reelection in the US because with it, “the apartheid government is assured more support of their oppressive system” (track 11). But rather than be deterred by setbacks, another announcer proclaimed, the people of South Africa were compelled by their collective ethos and bare necessity to fight for their rights. “The path of compromise that has been taken by the traitors and puppets is not open to us. The path of surrender and subservience is also not open; it is foreign to us. There is only one path and one path only, it is the path of relentless struggle. It is the path of sacrifice. It is the path of war and glory... Our children have died of malnutrition in the Bantustans while food was being destroyed to maintain high prices” (track 6). In other words, the physical, political and economic violence against all Black South Africans was so indiscriminate that even children became its targets. It was this reality that motivated Radio Freedom to broadcast the following message: “Let [the government and its collaborators] fear each and every Black man in South Africa. For indeed, the truth, the profound truth is that each and every one of us is a freedom fighter, each and every one of us is a guerrilla” (track 18). South Africa became a place where ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds because they had little other choice. This happens countless times across the globe in every generation, and this brings us closer to the thoughts and concerns of the South African rebels, whose heroism and valor is mirrored in the bravery on display today in the various Arab Springs, as well as in the Middle Eastern countries where such uprisings have been silenced or squelched before they could articulate themselves of mass levels.
Although this album does not document one single continuous broadcast, I left each side whole instead of splitting apart tracks to preserve the feeling of a radio transmission that the producers created through their editing choices. The song I've posted below is a chant by rebel militants, very disciplined and ferocious.