Saturday, 30 March 2019

Apartheid South Africa's radio psyops — the story of "Radio Truth"

Today, 30 March, is the last day of operations of the shortwave transmitting station at Bloemendal – usually referred to by the name of the nearby town of Meyerton – about 25 miles south of Johannesburg.

The Meyerton station is operated by the communications company Sentech which runs the transmitters across South Africa that carry most of the country's TV and radio services.

Sentech is a state-owned company that was hived off from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the 1990s. The Meyerton site was one of the assets that Sentech inherited from the SABC.

The closure brings to an end more than 53 years of transmissions from Meyerton. The SABC began transmitting its domestic radio services from the new station in October 1965. The Radio RSA external service was inaugurated, using the Meyerton site, on 1 May 1966.

The political nature of broadcasts from Meyerton changed radically over the course of that half century, reflecting developments in South Africa and the region. During the first half of its life the Meyerton station was named after the main architect of apartheid, H.F. Verwoerd (assassinated while serving as prime minister in 1966), while the second half was spent in the post-apartheid era.

In that post-apartheid period, many well-known names in global radio – including the BBC World Service, the Voice of America, Germany's Deutsche Welle and Japan's NHK – hired airtime on the Meyerton station to broadcast their shortwave signals to Africa.

Meyerton also aired the SABC's own external services: Radio RSA (between 1966 and 1992) and its post-apartheid successor Channel Africa (from 1992 until the present). It was also used extensively to relay some of the SABC's domestic radio services.

Alongside these open broadcasts, Meyerton is assumed to have been used in the 1970s and 1980s to carry various clandestine radio stations that operated in support of the apartheid government's efforts to subvert some of the black-ruled states in southern Africa.

This article looks at one of these stations, Radio Truth, which was on the air between March 1983 and September 1990.

Radio Truth: objectives and techniques

Radio Truth presented itself as being run by patriotic Zimbabweans who were concerned at the direction their nation was being taken by the Mugabe government, which had taken power when the country (formerly Rhodesia) gained independence in 1980.

In reality, the station's purpose was to serve the interests of the South African government by undermining the Mugabe regime.

This was done through various propaganda themes, including stoking resentment among the minority Ndebele people towards Robert Mugabe's dominant Shona community.

Ndebele insurgents were active, with presumed South African support, in Matabeleland (western Zimbabwe) from 1982. Radio Truth was launched the following year. [1]

Anti-Communism was a constant theme in the station's output. Joseph Hanlon described Radio Truth in his 1986 book Beggar Your Neighbours: Apartheid Power in Southern Africa:
Its message is hardly subtle; it defends South Africa and claims that the former [Rhodesian] colonial government had been a 'pro-Western Christian democracy', while it points out that 'quietly but inexorably the tentacles of Marxism are embracing all spheres of life in our country'.
Hanlon also noted that "Radio Truth was probably connected with anti-Mozambique and anti-Angola stations that broadcast from the same area". More about this below.

Radio Truth was still banging an anti-Communist drum towards the end of its life. A commentary broadcast in April 1990 said:
We are unashamedly anti-Marxist. We believe this to be an evil and worthless ideology that can only bring disaster to our land. We will expose its ruthless nature, its reliance on force, and its utter failure to bring anything but fear, misery and poverty to those countries that subscribe to its principles. We believe fervently in the principles of democracy and the outstanding merits of free enterprise. We value highly the basic freedoms inherent in the democratic system and traditions: freedom of thought, expression, association and worship, and the right to life and liberty for every individual.
To this end, we will support all those groups and associations dedicated to the same philosophy. Where they are denied a platform by government of party decree, or by mob violence, Radio Truth will ensure that their voice is heard. [...]
We are not a relic of colonialism, nor do we envisage white rule ever returning to Zimbabwe. We accept black rule, but we wish it could be just, efficient and democratic. For all these reasons, Radio Truth is strongly opposed to the concept of a one-party state, which conflicts with everything that we stand for. We will resist ZANU-PF because we know that their policies can bring nothing but hardship and misery to our people and will destroy our national pride. So stay tuned to Radio Truth, the voice of a free Zimbabwe.
Background: Southern Africa's battle of the airwaves

Southern Africa had been fertile ground for clandestine and subversive radio in the 1970s. Activity centred around Rhodesia, where Ian Smith's government was fighting insurgents of the China-backed Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA  the armed wing of the underground political party ZANU) and the USSR-backed Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA  the armed wing of the rival ZAPU).

Rhodesia became both both a target for, and source of, such broadcasts. After Rhodesia became independent, as Zimbabwe, in April 1980 some of the focus switched to South Africa.
By the early 1980s South Africa was running clandestine radio stations targeting Angola and Mozambique, both under Marxist governments following their independence from Portugal in 1975.

Against Angola, two stations  Voz da Verdade (Voice of Truth) and Voice of the Resistance of the Black Cockerel  had been active from South Africa since the late 1970s. The latter station spoke on behalf of Jonas Savimbi's rebel movement UNITA and was often known by the acronym Vorgan, based on its Portuguese name, Voz de Resistência do Galo Negro.

Against Mozambique, Rhodesia had run Voz da África Livre (Voice of Free Africa) from July 1976. Broadcasts from Rhodesia ended in February 1980 (two months before independence) but resumed from South Africa the following month. The Mozambican authorities named the station Radio Quizumba (Hyena). In June 1983 the station's name was changed to Voz de Resistência Nacional de Moçambique (Renamo), formalising its support for the insurgents of the Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance, MNR) group. [2]

(The story of the radio activities of Renamo, and of Renamo's creation in the 1970s by Rhodesia's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), deserves a separate article. For some details, see the 1992 book by Hilary Andersson, Mozambique: A War against the People. Rhodesia sought to use Renamo to undermine the Frelimo government that had taken power in Mozambique after independence. The Voz de Renamo radio station closed down after South Africa and Mozambique signed a non-aggression pact known as the Nkomati Accord in March 1984. Broadcasts resumed, probably from within Mozambique, in the 1990s.)

By mid-1983, by which time Radio Truth was also on the air, the South Africans were therefore running at least four separate subversive clandestine radio stations against three countries  Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

South Africa also ran various psychological radio operations in the 1970s and 1980s targeting the Cuban military forces deployed in Angola in support of that country's Communist government. I'm not covering these Spanish-language operations in this article as I'm not as confident in asserting that they emanated from Meyerton as I am with Radio Truth, Voz da Verdade, Vorgan and Voz de Renamo. This is partly because their activities are much less well documented than the English and Portuguese-language stations. [3]

Launch of Radio Truth: taking time to establish a regular schedule

Radio Truth began broadcasting in March 1983. It was first heard by BBC Monitoring with test transmissions on 10 March and its first commentary on 25 March. (Just over a year later, on 26 March 1984, Radio Truth noted that it was marking its first anniversary, using the occasion to deny that it was a South African operation and to assert that its broadcasts were not specifically aimed at the Ndebele community. Instead, it said it was the "voice of all anti-ZANU-PF parties and peoples" in Zimbabwe.)

Broadcasts appear to have been daily from the start, though the precise transmission schedule took a while to settle down. 

Initially the station was on the air with a morning programme in English (at 0630-0700 Zimbabwe time) and an evening broadcast in Shona and Ndebele (at 1900-1930 Zimbabwe time).

(Zimbabwean local time is two hours ahead of GMT.)

The Shona and Ndebele services were suspended in January 1984, resuming in August 1984.

Frequencies:

All Radio Truth broadcasts were on a single shortwave frequency, initially 6010 kHz in the 49-metre shortwave band.

In April 1983 the frequency was changed to 4902 kHz in the 60-metre band, but in June 1983 there was a further move to 5015 kHz. (Note: 5015 was one of the channels used by state radio in Harare both before and after independence.)

Radio Truth remained on 5015 kHz for the rest of its life. (The evening transmission was carried on the frequency of 3370 kHz in the 90-metre band for a week in December 1986. This may have been because the 60-metre band aerial at Meyerton was unavailable for use at that time.)

The schedule expands

By late 1986, Radio Truth's schedule had been expanded with the addition of an evening repeat of the morning's English programme.

By the middle of 1987 there had been a further expansion with the addition of a morning transmission in Shona and Ndebele. The daily schedule was then (Zimbabwean local times):

0600-0630 Shona and Ndebele programme
0630-0700 English programme
1900-1930 Repeat of the morning's Shona and Ndebele programme
1930-2000 Repeat of the morning's English programme

This schedule remained in place until the station closed in September 1990.

Links with other stations

The New York Times reported in October 1983:
Three radio stations beam anti-Government propaganda into neighboring countries from South African territory, in part as retaliation for the antiapartheid broadcasts beamed the other way. A station called the Voice of the Resistance of the Black Cockerel has been broadcasting in Portuguese and vernacular languages in support of the Savimbi movement [in Angola].
The Voice of the Mozambique National Resistance came on the air in July [1983], four months after Radio Truth, which broadcasts in English, Shona and Ndebele to Zimbabwe.
The schedules of Voz da Verdade, Vorgan and Radio Truth were consistent with the use of the same transmitting facilities. For example, in January 1985 both Voz da Verdade and Radio Truth were using the same frequency (5015 kHz) for their dovetailed morning programmes (at 0330-0415 and 0430-0500 GMT respectively). Meanwhile, Vorgan was using 4950 kHz at 0430-0630 and 1730-1930 GMT, with Voz da Verdade using that frequency at 2000-2045 GMT.

The 1986 book Destructive engagement: southern Africa at war by Phyllis Johnson and David Martin, describes an incident in November 1983 when, presumably because of operator error, listeners tuning in for a scheduled broadcast by Radio Truth instead heard on its frequency the signature tune of the anti-Mozambique station Voz da África Livre.

Where was Radio Truth broadcast from?

Several sources in the 1980s named Meyerton as the transmitter site, though these may not have been separate individual confirmations. (See for example the above-mentioned book by Johnson and Martin, and the 1992 book South Africa's destabilisation policy: the Zimbabwe experience by Donald P. Chimanikire.)

Meyerton was indeed the obvious location. There was certainly no shortage of transmitters available there.

The website of the authoritative Transmitter Documentation Project lists a total of 17 transmitters being installed at Meyerton between 1966 and 1979.

The most powerful of these (four of 250 kilowatts and three of 500 kW) would have been used for the Radio RSA external service. The remaining 10 transmitters (all of 100 kW) were shared by Radio RSA and the SABC's domestic services.

The 1985 edition of the World Radio TV Handbook showed that at any one time a maximum of nine frequencies were in use by Radio RSA and four by the domestic services. That would have left up to four transmitters available to be used by the clandestine stations.

There was a suggestion in 1985 that the broadcasts were coming from an older SABC transmitting station at Paradys, near Bloemfontein. But elsewhere it is reported that the Paradys station closed in the late 1960s once Meyerton became fully operational.

The Paradys station was listed as still active in the 1968 edition of the World Radio TV Handbook, but the listing had disappeared by the time of the 1972 edition.

I assume that Meyerton was just the transmitter site, with the programmes being produced elsewhere. My guess is that the programmes were recorded, rather than going out live. One can only speculate where the recordings were made. It might have been at the SABC’s Auckland Park studios in Johannesburg. If this was the case, the recordings would have been played out by the Auckland Park control room down the lines used to feed the Radio RSA and SABC services to Meyerton.

Allegations of US involvement denied

The US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, David Miller, cut short his tour of duty in April 1986 following repeated criticisms by the Harare government of US foreign policy. Just days before Miller's decision was announced, Zimbabwean Information Minister Nathan Shamuyarira accused the United States of providing funds and personnel to Radio Truth

The US Embassy in Harare called the charge "preposterous" and Miller was later quoted as saying it had "no factual basis".

Writing to Radio Truth

Radio Truth gave out two addresses for listeners' letters, both of which tell a story.

The main address was a Post Office Box number in the UK, which was first announced over the air in October 1984. It was given as "Mr J. Brown, P.O. Box 4, Stockbridge, Hants [Hampshire]".

The postcode was SO20 6LB, though Radio Truth's staff appeared to be unfamiliar with the British postal system. Postcodes for three London districts and five other large British cities start with a single letter, but all others start with two letters. In the case of Stockbridge, this is SO (for Southampton).

However, the announcer at Radio Truth would read out the start of the code as "S zero", rather than giving the letter O. The announcer also announced a dash between the two parts of the code, which is never done in the UK.

Similarly, in replies from Radio Truth, the postcode was given various non-standard forms, such as incorrect spacing (e.g. S 020 6LB) and use of punctuation (e.g. S.020 6LB).

The replies were indeed signed "J. Brown".

Although letters sent to "J. Brown" at the address in Stockbridge were answered, this tiny Hampshire town was almost certainly not Radio Truth's HQ.

Two letters from Radio Truth received by listeners and now available online were dated 17 June 1986. In both cases they were in response to letters sent several months earlier (in one case as far back as January of that year). In both replies, "J. Brown" apologised for the delay and attributed it to "extreme pressure of work which has kept our limited staff fully occupied".

The delay may have instead been the result of mail sent to the P.O. Box in Stockbridge being collected only infrequently and then forwarded to South Africa to be answered (and perhaps the replies having to be returned to the UK to be posted from there – to maintain the pretence of a UK base for the station).

In addition to the UK address, Radio Truth also asked listeners to contact the station c/o a Mr Stanley Hatfield at the address of an apartment complex in Silver Spring (incorrectly given as "Silverspring"), a Maryland suburb of Washington DC.

An investigation by Robert Horvitz on behalf of Radio Netherlands in 1986 established that mail sent to "Stanley Hatfield" at the Maryland address was collected by the Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, a one-time ally of Mugabe who by the mid-1980s was an opponent of the Zimbabwean government living in self-imposed exile in the USA. Sithole told Horvitz that he forwarded the mail to another, undisclosed, address.

The end of broadcasts

Radio Truth closed down in September 1990 as southern Africa moved into a new era. Events in the region had been moving fast. The hardline South African President P.W. Botha was replaced by the reformist F.W. de Klerk in August 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regimes across Eastern Europe later that year made Radio Truth's anti-Marxist rhetoric seem redundant. The following February, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

De Klerk's government moved to improve relations with South Africa's neighbours, including Zimbabwe, a development that Radio Truth itself noted. A commentary broadcast by the station on 24 July 1990 said:
Political analysts see a slight thaw in the frosty relationship between our ZANU-PF government and the Pretoria regime. This was attributed, in part, to years of patient work behind the scenes by South African diplomats and representatives. It was noted that, for the past 10 years, Comrade Mugabe and his colleagues have spurned every offer of cooperation and dialogue except, of course, on the economic front, when the assistance has been to their advantage.
Even when other leaders of Frontline States began talking to the South African government at official level, our president refused to allow any government-to-government contact. He sustained, even intensified, his international campaign to isolate South Africa and toughen economic embargoes.
The first possible sign of change featured in Minister Mahachi's announcement about the lifting of our state of emergency. He referred to the good neighbour policy being pursued by Pretoria, which was now seriously extending the hand of friendship. How far ZANU-PF intends to reciprocate, if at all, remains to be seen.
Hopes have been raised that Odile Harington might be given an early release from jail on compassionate grounds. She was initially sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for trying to infiltrate the ANC cells in our country. This vicious sentence was subsequently cut in half on appeal, when note was taken of her terrifying ordeal at the hands of her captors and interrogators. She was cruelly tortured, starved and sexually abused – facts ignored by the original trial judge, Mr Justice Sandura.
South African spy Odile Harington, referred to in that commentary, was released by Zimbabwe at the start of November 1990, in a move that the UPI news agency at the time linked to the closure of Radio Truth less than two months earlier:
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Zimbabwe has released a South African woman serving a 12-year prison sentence for spying on the African National Congress. The release marked a significant thawing of relations between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the South African government.
Odile Harington, 29, released Thursday [1 November 1990] after serving nearly three years of her sentence, was put aboard a special flight back to South Africa and received a welcome from President Frederik de Klerk in Pretoria Friday, a government statement said. [...]
The Zimbabwean news agency, Ziana, confirmed Friday that Harington was pardoned by Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980 and remained a most consistent foe of apartheid among the southern African leaders.
"The president's decision was prompted by the general improvement in the political climate in southern Africa, including the cessation of hostile acts against Zimbabwe by the South African government," Zimbabwean Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa told Ziana.
Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, had been the target of South African destabilization efforts since the end of white minority rule in 1980, including scattered sabotage attacks by South African agents. At the center of the southern African region, Zimbabwe not only sheltered ANC exiles but allowed its territory to be used as a base for guerrilla attacks into neighboring South Africa.
While leaders of less prosperous southern African states, including Zambia and Mozambique, have welcomed moves by South Africa to patch up relations with its black-ruled neighbors and expand economic ties, Mugabe has remained publicly cool toward de Klerk.
The thaw began publicly last month when a parliamentary delegation visited Harare and held talks with Zimbabwean legislators and the South African government halted broadcasts of the anti-Marxist Radio Truth into Zimbabwe.
Recordings of Radio Truth

There are two compilations on YouTube of fairly good quality off-air recordings of broadcasts by Radio Truth, both of which start with the station's bird-call tuning signal.

The first is said to be recordings of the 30-minute English-language morning broadcasts of 1 and 2 November 1984. Note the announcer reading out the UK postal address and speaking of the "evils of Marxism".

The second includes two complete English broadcasts, and some vernacular material. These recordings are also said to have been from 1984. However, one of them refers to the outcome of the 9 June 1985 presidential election in Mali, and appears to have been made shortly before the June-July 1985 general election in Zimbabwe.

Notes and sources

[1] The New York Times explained in November 1987: "The anti-Government rebels have operated in the Matabeleland countryside surrounding this city [Bulawayo] since 1982, generally with violent protests against what they assert is Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's unfair treatment of the opposition leader Joshua Nkomo as well as Mr. Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union and the Ndebele ethnic group supporting it. Western diplomats in the region say the dissidents are believed to be receiving supplies and training from neighboring South Africa. Some weapons have been traced to South Africa, and Radio Truth, a station that supports the dissidents, is beamed into Zimbabwe from South Africa."

[2] Renamo's formal name was later changed slightly from Resistência Nacional de Moçambique to Resistência Nacional Moçambicana.

[3] These Spanish-language stations targeting Cuban forces included Radio Siboney, Cubanos en África and one said to have been operated by the anti-Castro exile group Agrupación Abdala. Cuban military forces were deployed in Angola from 1975. Their withdrawal began in 1989 and was completed in 1991.

The quotes from Radio Truth's broadcasts and details of its schedule, and that of the other clandestine stations, have been taken from BBC Monitoring publications of the time.

© 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.