S. Africa's black on white radio Reception: A formerly all-white radio station in Johannesburg has scored a hit with a morning talk show that features hosts from both races.

Sun Journal

June 14, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The voice of the new South Africa can be heard from 5: 30 to 9 every morning on Radio 702.

During the station's AM drive-time program, listeners hear the clipped Irish tenor of John Robbie, who is white, and the rich South African baritone of Dan Moyane, who is black.

Unlikely -- even illegal -- just a few years ago, the Dan and John show is now the highest-rated on 702. The hosts' faces turn up on billboards all over Johannesburg, and in the nearby black townships. (One, showing Robbie's crew cut head next to Moyane's visage read: "The short and the curly.")

These juxtapositions -- of face and voice -- remain remarkable.

A relentless chronicler of change in South Africa over the past six years, Robbie's show had become a listening post for the fears and hopes of a country in dramatic transformation. His alliance with Moyane makes him a part of that change.

With the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Radio 702 turned to an all-talk format, giving South Africans the chance to say on the radio what only a few years before they dared not utter in public.

Under apartheid, the government-controlled South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) used only proper English-type speakers on its English-language station, making it sound like the BBC of a generation ago. Even when black voices began to be heard on "white" radio, the English they spoke was usually of the polished prep school variety.

Moyane's rich accent -- long vowels, rolled r's, an occasional click on the "qu" sound -- is familiar to the vast majority of South Africa's 43 million people. But it was rarely heard on the airwaves even after racial barriers began to fall.

"I hope an accent like mine puts 702 on the map as a South African station," he says. "If you go to New York and turn on the radio, you know you are in America. But the way it was in South Africa, you actually never placed a radio station where it was supposed to be."

For different reasons, John Robbie's emergence as a talk show star was also unlikely. He moved to South Africa 15 years ago to play rugby and found himself in the right place at the right time as his playing days ended. He started a post-game talk show on Saturday afternoons and the station asked him try out on a nighttime talk show.

"For me, this was what we used to do sitting around the pub," he says. "You'd talk about whatever was in the news. If someone took one position, you'd take the other just so you could argue about it. But this was all new for South Africa. They had never been allowed to talk about these things openly before."

His enthusiastic demeanor and ability to slice quickly to the heart of a caller's argument were reminiscent of the early days of Phil Donahue on American television over 20 years ago. But his reception was a bit different.

Middle-of-the-road values -- such as treating each person as an individual, not as a member of a group -- got him labeled as a radical by many in 702's predominantly white audience.

"I wish I had saved all the hate letters I received," he says now. "They would have made a great book. They called me every name you could think of, a Communist, a member of the Politburo, everything."

Robbie's favorite was one that described a particularly gruesome means by which he deserved to meet his death.

"It was signed 'A Concerned Christian,' " he says with a laugh. "I threw all of them away."

Moyane's career was traveling a somewhat rockier road. Like so many members of his generation, he had fled the country in 1979 to avoid the oppression of apartheid -- brutally enforced by the South African police in the years after the 1976 student-led Soweto uprising. He was 19.

Moyane ended up in neighboring Mozambique, where he began his radio career. By the time he returned to South Africa in 1991, he had 11 years of experience on Mozambique's state-owned station. During five of those years, he also was heard reporting on Mozambique's civil war for the BBC.

Moyane was soon hired by 702 as the station's first black journalist. But after a few months, he lost his news reader's position as white listeners found his accent jarring.

"I was very, very, very down," he says of those days. "I wanted to leave 702. They always said they were a station that did things differently, but they weren't acting that way. My wife and some other friends told me to stay, that things would change."

He stuck it out at the station working as a writer and occasional reporter, and returned to the air full time about a year later.

Soon, he was substituting as host on various programs. This time, listeners were enchanted by his infectious humor and incisive journalism.

Township accents were not as uncommon by then and, besides, many in all aspects of South African business were beginning to realize there was a black market out there.

So when 702 made a format change and moved Robbie to the early morning, the 36-year-old Moyane became his co-host.

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