Radio station run by right-wing whites draws loyal following in South Africa

January 06, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

DONKERHOEK, South Africa -- Surrounded by a three-foot deep moat, a barbed-wire fence and a wall of sand-filled tires, Radio Pretoria is on the air.

The voice of Boerdom broadcasts from a trailer set amid farmers' fields, taking advantage of new freedoms to broadcast the old orthodoxy. The flag of an independent Afrikaner state, known as the vierkleur, or four-color, is affixed to the top of the radio tower, flapping in the breeze that regularly whips across the high veld.

Outside, a handful of men dressed in the uniform of the ultra-right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) and Boercommando march about with guns on their hips. Inside, the smiling face and gracious manner of the announcer, Anieta Armand, send out the station's mixture of old-fashioned music and Volkstat message: the demand for a separate state, dominated by whites.

"We speak the truth, and people believe us," Miss Armand said as an Afrikaner song played. "Even though the truth is sometimes not easy to look at. What we are saying feels genuine, not superficial."

It has been a rocky five months for Radio Pretoria since it went on the air with a license to broadcast for 10 hours on a single Sunday. Despite threats from government authorities, it has been on the air ever since.

The FM station is one of the many signs of the white right wing's stubborn refusal to join the new South Africa, holding out for an independent homeland for Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch and French Huguenot white settlers. They are the people who instituted the apartheid system of racial segregation, entrenching white domination.

Ironically, under apartheid, the electronic media were tightly controlled, run by the government, incessantly driving home the message of a South Africa at risk of a Communist takeover led by the opponents of apartheid.

In the post-apartheid era leading up to the first non-racial elections April 27, there has been some relaxation of the government's reins, which allows the old holders of power to express their dissent.

"I depend on this station for the truth," said Johan Robbertze, a farmer from the Eastern Transvaal. "I think this country is being brainwashed and manipulated by the government media."

Chris Conradie, the station manager, echoed Mr. Robbertze's analysis. "The SABC is now controlled by the Communists and the ANC," he said, referring to the government's South African Broadcasting Corporation and the African National Congress, the party led by Nelson Mandela, which is favored to win the April vote.

"There's no other independent station out there," he said. "It's a sickening thing."

Mr. Robbertze and his family were among what seemed to be a constant stream of visitors who stop by Radio Pretoria's broadcast encampment.

The station appears to have become the center of an Afrikaner electronic village. Miss Armand said that on Saturdays, a spontaneous flea market springs up on the grounds, attracting upwards of 3,000 people, with vendors contributing 10 percent or 20 percent of their take to support the station.

But other times, the gatherings are more serious. A few weeks ago, when the threat of a government shutdown loomed, the station told listeners that it feared the government was about to use force. Within hours, about 2,000 armed men had gathered to protect it.

"I couldn't believe how many people were there," said Mr. Conradie. "We had offers from 24,000 people to come defend it."

Another of the station's temporary licenses was due to expire at midnight Tuesday night, explaining the presence of the armed uniformed men.

Station executives, accompanied by political leaders of the right wing, were negotiating with the government Tuesday afternoon even as Miss Armand's gentle voice asked for old tires to help erect more sand-filled walls around the station. Only a few minutes later an elderly gentleman drove up with some spares in the back of his pickup.

Later Tuesday night, station personnel told listeners that the crisis was averted when government granted another one-week license, but about 50 men made the drive over the dirt road to the transmitter site just to be sure.

The news media came to see what was up, of course.

"I really think the government should have just ignored us," said Mr. Conradie. "For one thing, they wouldn't have given us all the free publicity that we've gotten."

Mr. Conradie said he was one of 12 people who started the station and that he has been amazed by the response.

"Originally, we were going to be on the air for four hours a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, but people wouldn't let us go off," he said.

Currently, the station broadcasts 14 1/2 hours a day and, according to Mr. Conradie, is doing a bit better than breaking even on advertising revenues, not counting about $75,000 in donations that have come in.

"We have eight announcers, but only two of them are paid. We've never had to pay for security. The whole thing's run on a skeleton staff," he said.

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