“Sadly it looks as though we’ll be closing down next month.” I’m staring at the e-mail in disbelief. After eight years of following the Zimbabwean exile radio station SW Radio Africa, I somehow had managed to contact founder Gerry Jackson right at the moment she was forced to pull the plug. What was meant to be a nice follow-up interview at the iconic station’s undercover north London studios turned into a farewell visit during its final days of broadcasting.
For the last 13 years, a short wave signal from London reached Zimbabweans in all corners of the southern African country. The station was set up by Zimbabwean journalist Gerry Jackson as a direct result of the government’s restrictive independent media policy. A former DJ for the state broadcaster, she was fired after her reporting became “too critical” by Zanu-PF’s standards.
In 2000, Jackson won a court case to make independent radio legal and started a private station from a hotel room. After just six days on air in Harare, armed guards confiscated the transmitter, smashed the equipment and shut the station down. Together with a few ex-colleagues and friends, she moved to the UK and started broadcasting from exile in December 2001.
After just six days on air in Harare, armed guards confiscated the transmitter, smashed the equipment and shut the station down.
I first met Jackson and her colleagues in 2006, when I interviewed them at a media conference in Amsterdam. I had just returned from southern Africa, where I had lived and worked for a magazine and had met many Zimbabweans in exile. During discussions about media freedom, SW Radio Africa was often mentioned as a rare independent voice. Before long, I started to listen to the programmes via the online stream. They often included reports from stringers on the ground who sent their contributions via phone and email, often at great danger to themselves.
Back in 2009, I asked Jackson how long she thought she would be able to continue her work. “I will keep this going as long as I can”, she replied. “I don’t know how I would sleep at night without doing the only thing that I know how to do as a journalist: to let people know. And I do know that some people feel it’s a lifeline that their story is being heard, that maybe someone is listening to them, that maybe someone can hear it. And if you don’t have a lifeline, and if you don’t have a sense of hope, then you may as well die.”
Three years earlier, she had told me about her determination to continue broadcasting as long as needed: “[…] we do it seven days a week, 365 days a year. No one can stop us.” Since then, attempts to stop the station have been regular and real. Using equipment from China, the Mugabe regime has jammed the short wave signals and just last year a police crackdown saw radios confiscated following a ban on small wind-up radios with a short-wave dial. To get around the jamming, Gerry’s team used an SMS service to text news headlines and inform listeners of changed broadcast frequencies.
Within Zimbabweans you saw a spectacular collapse into depression.
Loss of hope
The station’s reliance on donor funding has been another cause for concern over the years. When last year’s rigged elections resulted in yet another victory for the now 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe, things took a turn for the worst. “Before the power-sharing agreement [with Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC], donors thought that it was worth supporting things that were providing information and discussion”, reflects Jackson. “There was a possibly credible opposition, who might take power. The July 2013 election was effectively the loss of hope. Within Zimbabweans you saw a spectacular collapse into depression. I cannot emphasise how massive that was.”
She believes that social structures and communities have been destroyed in dangerous ways: “We are interviewing a disturbing number of people who are openly saying: ‘Yes, of course I have turned to crime, I mug people, I beat them, and I take their van.’ Or mothers saying: ‘I prostitute my children, boys and girls.’ It is the only way to get money.”
The combination of Mugabe’s victory and the lack of delivery on promises made by the MDC saw the international community “re-engaging” with ZANU PF, says Jackson. “Some of the big donors stopped issuing grants to anybody after the elections, while they rethought their strategies and position. Donors always want to support projects that have a chance of helping the democratic process, but Mugabe is now back in full control until 2018 and the opposition has completely collapsed after doing very little in the unity government.”
Jackson also blames the “ineffective” donor-funded civil society in Zimbabwe, which, she says, has shown “little capability” in driving change from inside. Many donor organisations also had their own funding reduced. Others only want to directly support the economy, which is now in freefall. Added up, these factors made for uncertain times at SW Radio Africa. “When you are a grantee, you are like piggy in the middle. You don’t actually know what’s going on.”
She is quick to add that a number of donors have been “truly fantastic” in an attempt to save the station from closure, but in the end they could not bring in enough to cover the costs. “We literally have been funded month by month. It would be a challenge to run a sandwich shop on that basis. It has been spectacularly difficult. I had a meeting with various donors on July 1 and it became clear that there just was not going to be the support to go on.”
The individual human suffering is what is so disturbing.
One only has to listen to some episodes of Callback - one of the station’s most successful programmes - to get a sense of how challenging the job of SW Radio Africa’s journalists has been. On the show, people in Zimbabwe can leave their number on a local answering machine and someone in the studio rings them back. With millions of Zimbabweans now in exile, almost everyone has been given a mobile by relatives to stay in touch. On Callback, they can share their story.
“We have heard tragic stories that I can hardly bear to think about”, says Jackson. “The individual human suffering is what is so disturbing. One of the saddest calls we did was years ago, when there was a time when there was no food available to people. There was a call-back with a little girl. Someone had gone to a rural area for us and spoken to a father. He handed the phone to her and she was about nine, with this little girl’s voice. All she had to eat in the past three days was one avocado from a tree in the garden. She said: ‘I am very, very hungry. I don’t know if I will survive because so many of my friends have died. I know who is responsible for this: it is Robert Mugabe. If I do live and if I do grow up, I want to kill him.’ That was just awful.”
Amid the sadness and lack of hope in the ongoing Zimbabwean crisis, it has often been a genuine sense of caring and optimism that carried the team through. “Perhaps what is most extraordinary is that, after two years of airing mostly grim stories, the staff have managed to stay sane and keep a sense of humour”, wrote a Guardian journalist who visited the studio back in 2003.
A decade on, Jackson showed a room full of radio professionals how humour and cynicism still play their part. “I think we can be quite proud of the fact that we really get on the nerves of just about every politician in Africa”, she said during a talk at a conference last year. She proceeded by putting the station’s Christmas card on the big screen, showing the entire staff team dressed up as pirates to play on the fact that Zanu-PF has referred to them as a “pirate radio station” since its launch.
Through bouts of deliberate jamming and interference; often by candle, torch or firelight and with solar powered, battery or wind-up radios, we have followed them as they have told our story for us.
Since announcing the closure, staff have received messages of support from around the world. Listener Cathy Buckle, who regularly contributed her “letters from Zimbabwe” to the station, said she had dreaded the news: “Since February 2000 nothing has been normal or predictable about Zimbabwe but one thing has been constant and that is the short wave radio broadcast at 7pm every night from London. For the last thirteen years, since December 19 2001, SW Radio Africa has been our nightly companion. Through bouts of deliberate jamming and interference; often by candle, torch or firelight and with solar powered, battery or wind-up radios, we have followed them as they have told our story for us, been our voice to the world.”
The station’s producers and presenters face an uncertain future. For journalist Tererai Karimakwenda, reality has yet to sink in. “I was the very first person to speak on air. I remember in that week I interviewed the British foreign secretary Jack Straw, because it was such a big story that we were broadcasting to Zim and everyone wanted to talk to us. Earlier this week I said goodbye on our last short wave broadcast and that was very strange for me, because I remember saying hello, years ago.”
Journalist Tich Sibanda is another SW Radio Africa veteran. Both he and Karimakwenda are surprised that the station is being closed despite the fact that political change has not yet been achieved. “If you look at Zimbabwe now, you still don’t have any independent radio stations. The ones that are there are controlled by Mugabe. The independent radio stations are also controlled by Zanu-PF. For donors to cut off aid now, it is a shock.”
Karimakwenda adds: “The world has gotten tired of the lack of change in Zimbabwe. Even the language of the EU and others changed. There seemed to be this attitude of, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. But I can’t get my head around it, simply because of the reasons why and the fact that now more than ever it has become vital to have an alternative source of news.”
Going back home will not be an option for many of the staff, who have been both journalists and activists before fleeing the country. “I spoke about the farm invasions on TV, including BBC and CNN, so they [the Mugabe regime] have a particular fondness for me.” Karimakwenda laughs wryly. “I am sure they have a special jail cell waiting for me.”
Mthulisi Mathuthu joined the station last year, after working for charities and as a journalist covering human rights issues in Zimbabwe. He is worried about the regular contributors of the programme, who in many cases have no other way to express their views. “People talk to us because they know us, we are on the ground through the radio they all listen to. There was a story in a rural area which I followed for about three weeks, where some senior people belonging to the ruling party were abusing underage girls. They knew that the children’s parents would not be able to do anything, because the police knew the perpetrators and they wouldn’t touch them. We kept on giving a voice to the parents. Justice was not done because the perpetrators were not arrested, but at least we exposed it.”
You feel that you are on the ground, emotionally and spiritually. And that is gone now, switched off, just like that.
Like all his colleagues, Mathuthu says the end of SW Radio Africa is much more than losing a job. “We are split human beings now. You have got people on the phone from Zim telling you these stories all day and then you get on a train and you have got all these people looking beautiful and smart, on their phones and so on. You have got these conflicting emotions hitting you. Back in Zim I covered farm invasions, political rallies. When I speak to someone from an area I know, I ask them: ‘Is that shop still there; is that building still there?’ You feel that you are on the ground, emotionally and spiritually. And that is gone now, switched off, just like that.”
Presenter Nomalanga Moyo agrees that the personal stories out of Zimbabwe gave the station its edge. “When I was in Zim and I was among Zimbabweans I didn’t feel I was so much a part of them the way I do now. It is about that connection with ordinary people, hearing their voices, getting it straight from them, which most news organisations don’t do because they haven’t got that kind of reach. My parents live in a rural village. When the broadcasting transmission stopped this week they were really hit hard. They listened every day. They even said they missed me less because they could hear my voice on air.”
Back at the studio, Jackson is busy making arrangements to safeguard the station’s huge audio archive. It is yet to sink in that in just two days’ time, the online broadcast will stop too and the studio will be silent for the first time in over a decade. “I was stupidly unaware of the extent that dictators will go to to hold on to power”, she says, with a mix of sadness and disappointment in her voice. “I always had that strange thought that one person can make a difference and that if you are on the side of right, you will win through in the end. That is unfortunately not necessarily the case.”
Jackson’s eyes glance across the studio full of old tapes, cables and broadcasting equipment. “For me personally it has been a mission for 15 years. I have had to be really focused and I have hardly lifted my head up. It is learning how to let go of that now.”
DISCLAIMER: In 2010 I published a research paper about SW Radio Africa and the challenges of operating a Zimbabwean radio station from London.
Photo credit: Paul Riismandel/Flickr /Creative Commons