The recent looting and unrest in South Africa extensively hit the local economy, affecting various sectors including the media.
At the community level, Alex FM, Westside 98.9 MHz FM, Mamas Radio, Intokozo FM and Kasie FM were all affected as their studios were ransacked and some were destroyed.
Weeks after looters attacked Westside FM in Kagiso Township outside Krugersdorp in Gauteng, armed robbers arrived after new equipment was installed and stole the new computers and a brand new microphone leaving the station in a crisis.
Westside FM station manager Onkabetse Mmolawa was shocked by the fact that his community station had been targeted twice.
“Together with the challenges we had post-looting, this recent incident has rendered us inoperable. Our frequency is dead, whilst we are streaming some of our listeners who can’t afford data will not have access to community information,” said Mmolawa.
Other radio stations have managed to rebuild and are now broadcasting and supporting their communities. But a few are reporting continued challenges after the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng riots of July 2021.
The recently held ,Nat Nakasa awards hosted by the South African Editors’ Forum (SANEF) recognised these five community radio stations for their determination and bravery in serving their communities after being targeted during the July unrest.
“All four stations have been of great service to their communities […] It is sad when properties are vandalised by criminals purporting to have a cause to fight for, yet they choose to use violence and vandalism to achieve that cause,” SANEF said in a ,statement.
Alex FM and Kasie FM are now fully operational, while Westside FM management is trying to find a way to survive.
“We had technical challenges with our frequency and the quality of what we can present is compromised and it affects us in terms of what Westside FM is […] beyond the award and recognition we need action mobilisation, support and protection,” said Mmolawa.
Community radio value chain
The Mapping Community Radio in Sub-Saharan Africa ,report by FOJO Media Institute and Wits Journalism highlights the value of community radio as it bridges mainstream media coverage information gaps in African communities in 2021.
“Millions of people now rely on community radio for their information needs. Often it serves audiences in remote rural areas and urban informal settlements. If information is power, community radio stations do a great deal to redress imbalances in power,” the report said.
Alex FM station manager Takalane Nemangowe said while contributions and donations have meant they can get back on air, the challenges are now income-related. That is because local businesses remain shut after rioters plundered their premises.
“We’ve lost a lot of business because as a community radio station we rely on local businesses to invest or play adverts for us to survive, Malls like Pan Africa mall and Yarona building where we are based were damaged and 80% of our revenue was coming from these local businesses,” said Nemangowe.
Thulani Thomo, a radio presenter at Kasie FM based in Spruitview east of Johannesburg said that besides the data that was lost when computers were stolen, they experienced a challenge connecting with the community and participating as the mall they are based at remains closed.
“The community had no access to us as there were no walk-ins and this limited our ability to serve the community as we did. This affected the community and us as journalists in doing our work,” he said.
Nmangowe emphasises that a lesson learnt as they rebuild is that as a community radio station, they needed to avail themselves to the community physically as they do on air.
“ We need to go back and be closer to them and bring the services they need most from us to them,” he said.
At the same time, stations such as Westside FM have found inventive ways to continue informing their listeners.
“The unrest like COVID taught us to adapt and in retaining audiences, we’ve had to make use of digital technologies […] we were keeping afloat with the community presenting the cases,” said Mmolawa.
Alex FM has championed pillaring the community by initiating a programme where they converse and facilitate solution-based dialogue that continues to hold leaders accountable.
“We want people to tell us what their issues are and be able to put executives on the spot to answer the people […] we are building our platform to find solutions to the problem that people might be faced with as opposed to people going to destroy property,” said Nemangowe.
Westside FM has another problem which many stations affected by the violence are reporting. Their staffers are in physical danger but they are determined to continue the task of educating and informing their audience. At the same time, this station may have to move out of an area that is considered dangerous.
“We have tough choices to make in terms of what’s best and we might have to move out of the township and from outside the community, we would be out of touch with the communities we try to empower, ” said Mmolawa.