Things Fall Apart: Rebuilding Through Radio

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When violence swept across Kwamashu, South Africa, Sibonelo Sithole was one of the only youth radio presenters that could make it to the station, Vibe FM. When he opened up the lines for callers, Sibonelo learned that division runs deep within his community. Months later, he is still trying to understand both sides of the story.

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Sibonelo: Soon as you put on those headphones, the only thing you should think about is the information you have and how you’re going to deliver it. And the interaction you want to get from your listeners.

Lesedi (narration): Sibonelo Sithole just celebrated his second year in radio. He’s part of the Vibrant Youth Reporters, one of the Children’s Radio Foundation’s 41 projects across 5 African countries.

[SIBONELO ON AIR]

Sibonelo: I really enjoy the reporting side because it tackles the problems of the community, like we know that when we’re doing shows as the youth reporters, we have to do shows that will help the community in terms of the information that you bring and we do research, we go out, we ask people questions and they get to know us when we go out to get their insights and the topics we’ll be covering for the shows.

[SIBONELO ON AIR]

Lesedi (narration): Once a week they broadcast a show for youth on Vibe FM. It’s a community radio station in KwaMashu, on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa.

Sibonelo: KwaMashu [LAUGHS]  it’s a beautiful place. There’s a lot of good about KwaMashu, you know? We’ve produced some really iconic people around here, from KwaMashu, in terms of politics, entertainment industry, you know. KwaMashu is a very complicated township, you know.

[MUSIC]

Sibonelo: It has a lot of downfalls because it’s very backwards in terms of development. Most parts of the area are living under some very poor circumstances, you know, so that’s another issue we are facing as a township.

Unemployment is a crisis in South Africa. Especially right here in such communities as the townships. You know, it’s a serious problem, you see people every day, every morning you see them, maybe you go to work, you come back, they’re still there and you think maybe he or she is on an off day. Then you see it happening for a week, two weeks, three weeks, then you realize, no, that brother is not working and it’s been like this for years. 

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: KwaMashu was hit hard when a wave of violence swept across South Africa in July 2021. Shopping centers, warehouses and petrol stations were looted, some were burned to the ground. Videos show crowds entering the stores of Bridge City Mall and leaving with boxes and shopping carts piled high with whatever people could get.

Sibonelo: And at that time, there was no way anyone from KwaMashu was happy. There was no way.

Lesedi (narration): Burning tires blocked the streets and moving from place to place was nearly impossible. Sibonelo lives in KwaMashu, unlike many of the radio station staff at Vibe FM. So, he was one of the few who could manage to make his way to the station.

Sibonelo: So during that time we had a shortage of presenters. Well I’m from KwaMashu much closer to the station, that presented me with lots of opportunities during those two weeks because I’ve got to do a lot of three hour shows for the station.

Lesedi (narration): Sibonelo says the atmosphere at the radio station was heavy. You could almost feel the sadness in the air.

Sibonelo: It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t easy doing that show because you could see that even the guys, they were like really guys, right now we’re going to suffer and we had done our research. You know, what could happen? And we saw that a lot of people are going to lose their jobs and a lot of people are going to suffer. So even the way we presented was quite different. It was like a funeral of some sorts at the studio.

[MUSIC]

Sibonelo: People were calling in. Well we, our show takes 30 minutes, but on that day we were given an hour because there was so much interaction from the public. So the program manager said, “Guys, you can take an hour today so that you can talk to people.”

Lesedi (narration): And mostly, he listened. Sibonelo and his fellow presenters opened up the lines for callers to put it all out there, to share what was on their mind.

Sibonelo: There was a division of opinions, a division of hearts between the community members, and to be honest, some of them were like, “I did not participate in the looting because I work there, but I resent my brother or my mother because I saw her coming in with clothes from the store that I work in, which means my mom or my brother was selfish because now I don’t have a job. Because he or she went there to loot and most probably did some damage to the store that I work at and so now, I don’t have employment.”

I feel like that created some friction at some families in the community. So people, there was a lot of hate from people who did not participate towards people who went and participated in the looting.

[MUSIC] 

Lesedi (narration): When things began to calm down in KwaMashu, the scars of the looting were visible everywhere. Roads were filled with debris and shopping centers looked like a warzone. The community came to a complete standstill. So Vibe FM decided to step up and mobilize listeners to rebuild KwaMashu. And to help the community reconcile.

Sibonelo: We used the platform of radio to get people to come in numbers. People were calling in, they were sending voice notes saying, “Where are they going to meet us? Which was going to be the meeting point so that you we all go there in numbers to help with the cleaning?” 

So we had to bring shovels, spades and we had to wear obviously boots, some rather protective gears to work there. And yeah, we had brooms. The hard brooms for sweeping in the streets after we had removed dirt using shovels and spades.

Lesedi: I mean, do you feel any resentment? What what are your feelings about people who looted or is it just one of those things? Do you understand because you know them from the community?

Sibonelo: No, no, no, and there’s no understanding from me. I don’t want to lie. There is no understanding from me really. Almost every day I talk about, like, “Eish, had you guys not done this, we would not be doing this.” Especially now because it’s very hot here in Durban, it’s very hot. And now you have to go long distances just do a simple depositing. Simple. Something you could just have done, maybe a 15 minutes walk, but now you have to take a taxi to go and deposit some cash. That’s like forty rand, of which I could have saved.

Lesedi: So I know that you are going to be speaking to somebody who participated in looting. I would like to know what is it that you really want to find out and understand about what people did? What are you looking to get?

Sibonelo: Okay firstly, we got to know what was happening and what was going on in their mind at that time when they decided to take part in the looting and what it was like when they got to the scenes where people were looting and they were also doing whatever they were doing to take whatever they can take. And yeah, all of that, and what it was like when they started seeing people maybe getting injured.

Lesedi (narration): Let’s listen to a bit of that interview…

Mvelo Ngcobo: Ya cause uyabo futhi ngingaqala ngikchazele ngomuzi wami. Ukuthi kahle mina nganga feeli as if ngathi ngibe umuntu omele ayothatha…

Voiceover: Okay, let me start with explaining about my own situation. I feel as if I was never meant to go out and loot but then I saw all the people around me taking stuff and so many places were already looted when I saw it happening I thought we might go hungry. So I thought, let me get something just in case there is a food shortage because others were taking alcohol and at the same time people were exchanging alcohol for food and others food for alcohol. So I thought, I might as well grab something for myself. And I know that this was wrong because we were breaking into someone else’s business and this doesn’t sit well with me, but the way things were happening, ay, I figured if I didn’t grab something then we’d probably starve at home. A lot of places are now closed and when I think about it we were so privileged. Now, eish, there are lines at ATMs. Before everything was open, easy to access. To be honest, I do feel really bad about participating in the lootings. Things would’ve been much better if we didn’t loot. What happened really hurt us a lot. Right now, I really don’t see the possibility for any peace between those who were looted and those who looted. Ay, because it was just chaos.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi (narration): Sibonelo says that it’s not just peace and reconciliation that is needed in KwaMashu. The looting and violence left people out of work. It left many families hungry. Vibe FM stepped in with the help of community organizations to distribute food to those in need.

Sibonelo: So I think radio has to play a major role, you know? We have to do our part as the presenters of the radio, reporters, to help the community restore the peace that has been lost. As a radio station, I believe we are influential. You know, when we talk, people listen, you know? And when the complaints are coming from radio stations, directly from people at the radio station, we can record that and we can take it to to get maybe the the mayor’s involved with the rebuilding, maybe to be much quicker than the period we are estimating, which is approximately three to four years or maybe even longer than four years. You know, I think the radio stations could play a lot and huge role in terms of helping quicken up the process of rebuilding.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: That was youth reporter Sibonelo Sithole and I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe, the editor of the Radio Workshop. This episode is part of a three part series called Things Fall Apart and was produced by Jo Jackson, Mike Rahfaldt and Vibe FM.

A big thanks to our voiceover artist Sammy Ramodike.

This podcast and the work of the Children’s Radio Foundation wouldn’t be possible without support from UNICEF South Africa and their peacebuilding project.

Visit our website for more information and to support our work at childrensradiofoundation.org

Until next time.