How NBC radio helped to create Namibia
It was divided not just racially but also along ethnic, regional and language lines.
As the country’s only broadcaster (no independent or commercial radio was allowed before independence), the SWABC (South West African Broadcasting Corporation) had not only split the country into tribal, geographic and language groups, but, in terms of content, ensured that each tribe had a ‘unique’ culture, language, and even music.
To this end, a world-class network of high-quality FM transmitters was created, reaching from Lüderitz in the south to Katima Mulilo in the north. The nature of FM broadcasting meant that these transmitters only had a limited geographical reach, and this played into the hands of the apartheid regime, who used this technology to divide the nation into tribal areas. Thus, the Oshakati transmitter would only broadcast the ‘Owambo service’, the Katima transmitter the ‘Lozi service’, etc.
The content of these language radio services was created by teams of music producers who would criss-cross the country recording music in Oshindonga, Khoekhoegowab, etc. This extensive collection of ‘SWABC Transcription Recordings’ still lives on today at the NBC radio centre in Windhoek’s Pettenkofer Street as a valuable archive of locally produced music.
This was all to fulfil an apartheid policy of ‘divide and rule’.
As there were more black people than white people, one way to control the majority black population would be to deny them a national identity and, instead, create and reinforce their individual ‘tribal’ identities.
It meant that, come 1990, the NBC inherited a divided network of radio language services, each serving a specific ‘tribe’ and even a specific area. In a sense, the concept of the ‘Namibian Broadcasting Corporation’ didn’t exist.
However, even the transitional government in the 1980s realised that this could not continue and that, at the very least, there had to be an attempt to build a national identity. Under Anton Kruger, a new concept – national radio – was formed, starting with a regular morning radio news programme, which I co-presented with Frikkie Wallis, called ‘Front Page/Voorblad’.
It was the first time that two languages (Afrikaans and English) were broadcast from the same radio studio and broadcast on all radio services. Thus started a gradual process of bridging the previously divided radio language services and unifying the nation.
After independence, this process was further extended, and the now full-time radio station, National Radio, under the leadership of Rector Mutelo, embraced the freedoms outlined in the new constitution. Whereas previously, Namibians were forbidden from expressing their views – and certainly would not have been able to broadcast those views on a national (as opposed to regional) level – the new National Radio embraced the constitutional concept of freedom of expression, and created platforms (Chat Show, Open Line) that allowed all Namibians, for the first time, to phone in and express their views in the (new) national language, English.
That process, of course, involved some unpopular decisions, and listeners to their beloved language services were distressed to be ‘forced’, at certain times of the day, to listen to this new National Radio in English.
However, for the first time, an Otjiherero-speaking farmer in Otjiwarongo could call live on the radio and share his views on farming with an Afrikaans-speaking farmer from Mariental. Bridges were built, and, for the first time, Namibians realised that they had more in common together than they had apart.
The NBC, of course, played a key role in other aspects of the new nation. The national anthems – there were more than one – were played on radio, and listeners were invited to vote for their favourite. NBC television, for many years, displayed the words to this new national anthem each evening, including a small bouncing ball graphic that hovered over the words when they were sung. Viewers were being taught how to sing the new anthem.
Key events, including the opening of parliament and budget speeches, were broadcast on all radio stations, and it was even decided that commentaries on all soccer matches featuring the national team – the Brave Warriors - would be broadcast on all radio stations. Again, this seems obvious, but in those years immediately after independence, Afrikaans listeners would have wanted to hear a rugby commentary of the South African Springboks rather than a soccer commentary of the Namibian Brave Warriors, so, again, tough decisions had to be made in the national interest.
Those pioneering days are over, and to a large extent, we now take for granted the concept of Namibia, our flag, our national anthem, and our common language of English. And the now renamed NBC radio language services have gone back to broadcasting uniquely in their various languages. But it was, to a large extent, the NBC that, in those years immediately after independence, did a lot to force us to speak a common language, to have a common national identity, and, in a sense, to become Namibians.
Robin Tyson is a former manager of NBC National Radio and is now a communications consultant based in Swakopmund.