`Rainbow' radio upsets SA's English speakers

The renamed national station has adopted a new tone, writes Hugh Pope in Johannesburg
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From the drawing rooms of the Johannesburg's northern suburbs to the barbecue parties of Natal, ethnic English voices are being raised in revolt as South Africa's new "rainbow" culture hits home where it hurts: on their radio sets.

Angry missives are filling the letters pages of newspapers and stacking up on the desks of the controllers of SAfm, the state broadcaster's new flagship English programme, once known as Radio South Africa.

"What they have done is imposed their will on us. You vill listen to Black music and mangled Black English, ve haf vays and means!" wrote one irate listener to the Johannesburg Star.

Withstanding the onslaught in his bunker two floors underground in Johannesburg's Radio Park, SAfm's new head of current affairs, Charles Leonard, had just drafted another letter defending the record of his 22 young and mostly newly recruited staff. "We are catching a lot of flak from arrogant white English speakers. These people cannot come to terms with the exciting new rainbow society we are trying to create," he wrote. "The letters always begin `I am not a racist, but ...' I know that means one thing. They are raving racists."

The English? Racists? The charge stings a community that has always seen itself as more progressive than the Afrikaners, who built the apartheid regime that gave whites 46 years of privileged rule until last April.

And the native English speakers, just 5 per cent of the population, do have a tough role in choosing which colour they are going to be in the rainbow. The older generation, hankering after familiar shows like Just a Minute or Any Questions, feel that their English culture is being unfairly cut off from mother Britain.

"We oldies paid our dues. We don't want to change our ideas now. We don't want to be brainwashed," said Daphne Christie, one of the grand ladies of the English lite running Johannesburg's Turffontein race-track.

It is hard not to sympathise with the old-timers when the chief executive of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Govan Reddy, cuttingly referred to the existing national audience of 400,000 listeners as mostly over 55 and "dying".

"Only the English language is positioned to foster mutual understanding among our diverse cultures, kept apart for so long by apartheid," Mr Reddy wrote later in his defense. "SAfm was launched to attract a larger, younger and more multi-racial listenership ... its programmes had to change from dated English sitting-room types."

It was only 10 years ago that the plummiest English accents were heard on Radio South Africa. Barely one such presenter remains. What was once denigrated as "Seffrican" English is gaining confidence with thoroughly African overtones as young people, of all colours, try to forge a new South African nationalism and culture.

"One of the consequences of this shift of power [to the African National Congress] has been to cut English-speakers off from Britain as completely and as finally as the British occupation cut the Afrikaners off from Holland," wrote Ken Owen, editor of South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper.

SAfm producer Kenosi Modisani, a 36-year-old Tswana, felt that way as he yelped out "howzits" of greeting to the day's guests in the radio's hectic and understaffed studio last week. The actor Anthony Sher was about to be interviewed about a new South African-accented production of Titus Andronicus.

"These are earthy, muscular accents, a way to get closer to Shakespeare. Elizabethan and African society sit together very well," Mr Sher said. "We seem to be whipping up a controversy."

Odd programming decisions have been made, like removing the early morning farmers' programme. But with the introduction of live interviews and international coverage that no longer leap-frogs over the rest of Africa to Western capitals, opinion formers are beginning to tune in.

The pioneer of South African independent radio news and the first station to accustom whites to black voices on air in English, Johannesburg's 702 Eyewitness News, feels threatened enough to be revamping its programmes to keep ahead.

"The aunties on pensions in Sandton really hate this: a black economist," said an unrepentant Mr Modisani, gleefully watching a tape of a thickly accented African English starting to roll.

"If they don't like it, they can go back to England. We didn't ask them to colonise us, so they've only got themselves to blame."