Monday, November 24, 2014

The Antenna of Radio Freedom

I was watching the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, the story of guitarist Sixto Rodriguez. Part way into the film, this South African music journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom was listing off the greatest mysteries.  They were as follows:
  1. Look for the lost South African Elvis Record
  2. Find the antenna of Radio Freedom.
  3. Look for Shawn Phillips
  4. Find out how Rodriguez died
  5. Find out how Sun City really works

You can guess which one grabbed my attention. While the movie thoroughly explored question four, the rest were never mentioned again. In the years since the movie was filmed, most of those mysteries have been answered. Sun City even gets a write up on Wikipedia, and you can buy that Elvis record on eBay. But what about Radio Freedom?  Information is scant.

Radio Freedom was a pirate radio station that grew into a shortwave radio program. It was the voice of the African National Congress (ANC) in the apartheid years. Try to remember that in South Africa racial segregation and repression was the law until 1994. So when you look up the history on this topic, it's not on a parallel timeline with the U.S. civil rights movement. South Africa was three decades behind. The program was carried on a number of radio stations across the African continent. Because the ANC could never operate legally within apartheid South Africa they tried to penetrate the radio dial from outside their borders. More here. Affiliates included the below:

  • Voice of Revolutionary Ethiopia - 9.595 MHz. 
  • Radio National de Angola - 9.720 MHz
  • Radio Luanda - ???
  • Radio Zambia - ???
  • Radio Madagascar - ???
  • Radio Tanzania - 5.05MHz
  • Radio Cairo - ???
  • Radio Ghana - 410 MHz

Some stations were more active than others. Radio Tanzania devoted over 10 hours a week to programs by freedom fighting groups. The program was 30 minutes long in the early 1980s, and aired at various different shortwave outlets. The mailing address of record was in the UK: 49 Rathbone Street, London, W1A 4NL England. The address was for both the ANC and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) aka  Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Part of the strength of the ANC was it's alliance with the SACTU and the South African Communist Party (SACP). This was called the Tripartite Alliance. Much hay was made by the ruling apartheid government over those commie. Every freedom demanded, every document released was dismissed as "communist" regardless of it's author or contents. Though Nelson Mandela was a communist that really over simplified all the things they all were. More here, here and here

Radio Freedom debuted in Johannesburg in 1963 shortly after the ANC was banned. Walter Sisulu made the inaugural address starting with the words
"I speak to you from somewhere in South Africa. I have not left the country. I do not plan to leave. Many of our leaders of the African National Congress have gone underground. This is to keep the organization in action, to preserve the leadership, to keep the fight going. Never had the country and our people, needed leadership as they do now, in this hour of crisis. Our house is on fire."
It reads like an urgent metaphor, but the house was literally on fire. Smoke attracted the police who seized the transmitter. Radio Freedom didn't broadcast again for six years and only then via the facilities of Radio Tanzania. They didn't broadcast inside south Africa with any regularity again until the party was legalized in the 1990s. This is probably the antenna that  Craig Bartholomew-Strydom was referring to. One that has been lost for over 50 years.  But the story here is that while Radio Freedom initially had only one antenna, it grew to have many. So while the search may be fruitless it's eventual victory was far more important.