Awards keep pouring in
[ By Fakir Hassen ]
In 1995, South Africa entered a new phase following its first democratic elections after decades of apartheid rule by a minority. The South African broadcasting environment also changed ra-pidly. From being the monopolistic state broadcaster with almost unlimited funding for propaganda programmes, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) suddenly found itself in competition with other broadcasters in a deregulated media arena. The SABC needed a new approach to content and to linguistic pluralism.
As part of this change, I was tasked to head a new unit called Educational Radio. The aim was to transform what was then known as School Radio. Its programmes were broadcasted in English and South Africa’s ten other official languages.
“If you can close down School Radio tomorrow, I’ll lick your boots,” the then Chief Executive Officer of the SABC, Rev Hawu Mbatha, told me. Many people shared his strong feelings about the existing educational broadcasting service. The School Radio programmes had been designed to reinforce apartheid indoctrination. The supremacist minority had held that the majority black community did not need to learn mathematics and science, but should be groomed for manual labour only.
There had been rumblings inside the various language stations, but they had been forced to carry the School Radio programmes daily. Supposedly, radios and supporting material were being used in schools, so the broadcast were said to be supporting education in general. In reality, such radios had long been taken away to serve other purposes or were gathering dust in principals’ offices.
One of my first tasks was to restructure the radio component of an SABC Department called Safritel. It produced educational programmes for both radio and television. Its work had to become more relevant to the new democratic order. The idea was not to get rid of the skilled staff and their experience, but to get them to accept the new challenge in transforming educational broadcasting. As was to be expected, there were three camps on this issue:
– the first could not identify with the proposed changes, and two staff members even resigned from their positions,
– the second was enthusiastic to the other extreme, and
– the third hesitantly considered the new plans.
Two days after the directive from the CEO (and just a day too late to make him keep to his promise regarding my boots!), School Radio programmes were stopped on all stations. There was an immediate outcry from Safritel, because there were still contracts in place for scriptwriters to produce programmes for another year. Moreover, there was also programme stock for up to six months in some cases.
But sticking to our guns, with support from the CEO, we decided to write off that loss rather than continuing with the perpetuation of support for the old school curriculum. Negotiations were started with the National Department of Education to align the new educational radio programmes with the new curriculum. The negotiations took several months, and in the meantime, the educational TV department also got a new head, Nicola Galombik.
The rollout of the Educational Radio unit proved to be quite a challenging task. We began employing producers at a central team in the Johannesburg headquarters of the SABC to research and develop scripts. At the same time, we set up production teams at the stations in the various provinces of the country. Their job was to rework the scripts in the local languages. This meant not just literal translation, but adaptation into the unique idiom of each language and its accompanying culture and audience.
At the audience level, we also faced challenges. The resentment that had grown towards School Radio over decades had to be overcome. First of all, we had to convince listeners that ours was really a new educational programme with the objective of development at all levels, including
– early childhood development,
– curriculum support at primary and high school level, as well as
– adult basic education in support of the millions who had been denied formal schooling in their childhood and youth.
Moreover, educators had to be won over with various awareness projects. Radios and later TV sets were provided to schools.
We even faced resistance from some of our radio station managers. After having gleefully welcomed the end of School Radio, they were not in favour of educational programmes and tried to give them late-night, low-audience slots.
The government provided funding through the Department of Education, but it was far from enough to accomplish everything that was planned. The times when SABC got almost unlimited government funding were over.
On the other hand, international support also started arriving thanks to the determination of many nations to support South Africa in growing its fledgling democracy. In the case of Educational Broadcasting, the prime supporters were the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which sent trainers to guide the new production teams.
USAID took Nicola Galombik and myself, as well as senior officials from the Department of Education on a whirlwind tour of half a dozen US cities to see first hand how educational broadcasting was done by both government and private institutions there. One of the main lessons we came back with was that it was possible to make financially viable educational programmes that would hold audience interest, by using formats such as drama, for instance. This resulted in series such as Soul City and Yizo Yizo, reflecting the reality of life in South Africa through radio and television programmes that drew huge audiences.
All told, we did succeed. The SABC’s educational programmes gained increasing attention, garnering local and international awards, something that continues more than a decade later.
A few years after starting Educational Radio, I became involved in another avatar in the SABC as Head of Broadcast Compliance. In other words, I was the custodian of editorial policies drawn up by the SABC Board after widespread consultation. Among other things, they make a firm commitment to education: “Educational Broadcasting is an essential leg of the SABC’s tripartite obligation to inform, entertain and educate. In implementing its Education Policy, the SABC recognises that the collective contribution of all educational authorities, institutions and individuals is critical to right the wrongs of decades of apartheid education.”
The SABC further commits in its Education Broadcasting Policy to providing innovative educational programming of excellent quality across its radio and television services, aimed at meeting the diverse formal and informal learning needs of its audience, including children, youth and adults. Areas that receive special attention are
– improving literacy and skills,
– rural development,
– urban renewal,
– citizens’ rights and responsibilities,
– healthy living,
– innovative solutions to personal, family and community challenges, and
– national identity, culture and heritage.
The commitment includes providing educational programmes in all the official languages as well as sign language on TV, depending on the needs of the audience. Other areas that receive attention in the Educational Broadcasting Policy include
– adhering to the highest broadcasting standards,
– using innovative technologies such as dubbing, multilingual programming and subtitling to increase effectiveness, and
– prescriptions regarding the use of commercial advertising in educational programming.
I have moved on to other things in the SABC and so has the then CEO, but even when we meet today, we reminisce about the boot-licking offer, and the seemingly daunting task of bringing about the change in the educational radio broadcasting environment.
The Educational Radio and Educational TV units were later merged into one SABC Education Department. It still faces the challenges of securing enough funds for the things it would like to do according to its mandate. In spite of such worries, however, it is certainly playing a critical role in nation-building, civic education and support for general formal and informal education. Local and international awards keep pouring in, bringing a special sense of gratification.