Media: Democracy means dial-a-leader: Political talk-shows have been given free rein on South African radio and television. David Cohen wonders whether it will last

Jon Qwelane, radio talk-show host, is forthright: 'You say your hands are clean, Mr President, that you have apologised for apartheid - but I personally still feel very sore at having being locked up by your government without trial. You say, 'Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,' and you think that's enough?'

President FW de Klerk adjusts his headphones, balls his fist and leans towards the microphone. Out there, hundreds of thousands of South Africans - from the rich, white mansions of Sandton to the sprawl of Soweto - are tuned to Talk Radio 702.

'I have admitted mistakes were made, and that they resulted in injustice,' replies Mr de Klerk, eyeballing his host.

'And you're sorry,' Qwelane interjects.

'And . . . I'm sorry,' says FW.

'So that's the end of the story?' says Qwelane.

'If we keep anger alive, will we ever have peace? But if you want to lambast me . . . you have the opportunity.'

Lines jam, lights flash - anyone with a telephone, and lucky enough to get through, can put their question to the President. Last week, Nelson Mandela was in the hot seat; last night, Helen Suzman. The only rule is, there are no rules.

'Mr de Klerk] Can you tell me, with as little political hogwash as possible, why I should vote for the National Party when you people actually started apartheid?' demands Tony from Tembisa.

'Mr President, why don't you answer my question]' asserts Sam from Soweto.

The lines flash. 'Mr President' . . . 'Mr President'.

Extraordinary. Five years ago, to engage a minister on radio, you had to fax a list of questions in advance. The ANC could not be quoted, Mandela's face had never been seen on television, and radio and television unashamedly spouted National Party propaganda. Unbiased reporting, democratic debate: these were imprisonable offences.

But now, switch on the television or tune in to the radio, and everyone is debating with everybody.

From the Pan African Congress on the militant left to the Freedom Front on the militant right, panels of politicians-in- waiting have been about everything from expropriating white land to the possibility of a volkstaat.

Such openness. Such tolerance. A silenced, politically repressed nation has exploded into a glut of debate.

The initiator of the media revolution was Radio 702 - and more specifically, a 'loud- mouth Irishman' (his own description) by the name of John Robbie.

He arrived in South Africa as a replacement scrum-half for the 1980 British Lions, toured again with the Irish rugby team a year later and, having lost his full-time job in Britain, decided to stay. Robbie, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, landed a position as sports editor on Radio 702, which had been launched in 1980 as an independently owned music radio station, broadcasting to the Johannesburg-Pretoria region from the newly 'independent' homeland of Bophuthatswana. (The National Party refused to award radio licences to anyone but the government-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), hence the transmitter's odd location).

Through the Eighties, Radio 702 developed a reputation for bold news coverage. It took risks, such as putting Murphy Morobe, the United Democratic Front activist on the run from the security police, on air, live from an undisclosed venue in Soweto.

When, for commercial reasons, it switched from a music channel to full-blown talk radio, Robbie was offered the evening slot - and he started on 26 January 1990, one week before De Klerk announced the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC.

Suddenly, everyone wanted . . . needed, to talk. With the SABC unsure whether it was allowed to broadcast ANC views, Robbie threw open the airwaves as a no-holds-barred forum. Racists and democrats, Communists and capitalists, security troops and freedom fighters - all were encouraged to have their say.

But Robbie's show was not merely a platform for the greatest expression of freedom of speech the country had ever experienced; the man also had opinions, and he put them across with a candour that made him the most talked-

about stirrer in the country.

With his crew-cut hairstyle, dented forehead and crumpled cheeks, Robbie, 38, looks as if he has just emerged from the bottom of a scrum. He says he has 'a good face for radio'.

His job is to cut through the waffle. His style is direct, irreverent and blunt, and listeners either love him or hate him.

'No question - Robbie is biased towards the ANC,' claims Solly Stein, an avid listener from Johannesburg. 'But he has pioneered freedom of speech and provided a forum for communication between ordinary whites and blacks that we desperately needed. The diversity of views on his show opened my eyes, educated me, allowed me to understand what black people were really thinking.'

People accuse Robbie and Qwelane, the other political talk-show host, of being pro-Communist, pro-black, pro-ANC. 'Nonsense,' says Robbie. 'We're none of those things. We hold a liberal position that apartheid is wrong, a position that many whites still find hard to accept.

'Criticism doesn't bother me. In this business, you've got to have a neck like a jockey's arse, a thick skin . . . and luckily, as a sportsman, I developed both of those things.'

Ironically, Mandela is given a rougher ride on Radio 702 these days than by the SABC. Three key political appointments by the ANC to the SABC board have prompted fears that the corporation will be as scared to criticise the new government as it was to challenge the old. Already, the SABC is being harangued as too left-wing, and media pundits are wary of a mere changing of the guard rather than a much-needed shake-out.

The print media, monopolised by four big corporations, try to be more balanced. While individual newspapers broker the bias of particular political panics, they broadly reflect the liberal democratic agenda of the future government of national unity. But there is no publication sympathetic to the PAC or the extreme right.

What will a change of government mean for press freedom? Some believe that the journalists have merely been enjoying a pre-election honeymoon, and that the ANC's attitude to them will harden.

Cases of intimidation of journalists by corrupt black administrators are reported to be on the rise, even in the relatively benign area of sports reporting - as illustrated by this quote from Qwelane, in his capacity as editor of Tribute magazine:

'The sudden appearance of pistols at formal meetings of the football hierarchy has had a fantastic effect on sportswriters, inspiring them to lofty heights of lucid and imaginative prose in praise of certain football administrators.'

Although 'freedom of the press and other media' appears to be enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the interim constitution, Mandela and De Klerk have both acknowledged that this right could be circumscribed by ambiguous qualifications and contradictions in the small print.

Radio 702 has pledged, privately and on air, to give the new government as hard a time as it gave the old. 'Open your mouth when a politician puts his foot in it,' encourages their advertising hoardings. 'The only thing that keeps a bad politician in office is silence,' blazes another.

But for now, with 85 per cent of the population about to vote for the first time, Qwelane is content to tee up his guest and let the voters decide. 'That was the state president of South Africa, Mr F W de Klerk, giving what I'm certain will be his last live broadcast before the election. Sixteen minutes to midnight and we're cruising on an open line . . . the white people of this country never had it so good, let's be totally frank. What do you think? Taking your calls on 883 0702 . . .'

(Photograph omitted)