The politics of ethnic minority radio in South Africa

Mhlanga, B. 2010. The politics of ethnic minority radio in South Africa. PhD thesis University of Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design

TitleThe politics of ethnic minority radio in South Africa
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsMhlanga, B.

The discourse on the implications of ethnicised radio, for example, in the Nigerian ethnic conflicts, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and in the Kenyan ethnic violence of 2008 have brought more focus on challenges involved with policing ethnic media and managing ethnic relations in contemporary Africa. This study focuses on attempts by the reformed South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), to develop and manage an ethnic minority radio sector in ways that would promote “simunye” or “national unity” as part of its public service mandate and to foster majority rule, in the post-1994 period with the objective of building a “rainbow nation”. The South African case is chosen on account of its long and complex history of apartheid and the overt use of ethnicity for political purposes. Further, it is informed by the post-apartheid efforts to emphasize the centrality of ethnicity; as part of the pluralist policies furthering the neo-liberal economic agenda. My research in 2008-2009 involved five carefully selected ethnic minority radio stations (Lotus FM, Munghana Lonene FM, Phalaphala FM, Radio Sonder Grense FM (RSG) and X-K FM), all owned and managed by the SABC as part of its public service mandate. Using a case study research methodology, the study investigated the development of ethnic minority radio broadcasting policies in post-apartheid South Africa, in the context of residual and incremental broadcasting policy models from the apartheid era. The nexus of ethnic minority radio and nationalism cohesion is a huge challenge in many other African countries and South Africa’s attempts at radio pluralism are a cautious walk on a tight rope given their history, which much like her economy, have local, regional and global aspects. Various theories are used as a conceptual framework; the public service broadcasting (PSB); models of ethnic minority media; and theories of ethnicity and nationalism. The study shows the challenges faced by PSBs in an African context. The discussion also involves the role of radio in the construction of a transient national identity and nation-building as a process. The main findings included the simmering tensions, intense politics and rivalry between groups running the ethnic minority radio stations. The appointment of top SABC personnel on ethnic basis feeds into the perceptions of ethnic relations at the stations and the marked feelings of ethnic consciousness at the radio stations that ubiquitously feed into the ‘rainbow nation’ project as part of the ‘retribalisation’ process. It affirms the rights of ethnic minorities to communicate through radio in their own languages within a multi-ethnic society; thereby giving meaning to its enigmatic instance. However, South Africa’s bold experiment with cultural pluralism in the radio sector offers Africa a delicate but workable way of dealing with ethnicity in public radio broadcasting. This research is an original analysis of policies, politics, history and aspects on the continuity of the ethnic radio sector in a local but rapidly globalising context. The study is important for its epistemological rethinking of public broadcasting and ethnicity in a non-Western context.

PublisherUniversity of Westminster
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