Alfonso Gumucio Dagron
Publication Date
January 1, 2001

Making Waves

Stories of Participatory Communication

for Social Change


1993 South Africa


TITLE: Radio Zibonele

COUNTRY: South Africa

FOCUS: Community development and health

PLACE: Khayelitsha, Cape Town

BENEFICIARIES: Approximately 120,000 listeners

PARTNERS: Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, National Community Radio Forum, Deutsche Welle Radio Training Centre, National Progressive Primary Health CareNetworks, South Africa (NPPHCN), Vuleka Production

FUNDING: Open Society Foundation of South Africa, Vuleka Production

MEDIA: Radio


At the beginning the audience of Radio Zibonele thought something "magic" was happening: After the first illegal broadcast, an old lady that was listening to the station recognised the voice of the presenter. She was mesmerised and amazed. Later she came to the station and asked how it was possible that the voice of her friend was coming through the radio. How have they managed to put the person inside?

Radio Ziboneles competence in local affairs and its prestige has helped to solve local social problems many times: On a Tuesday morning, when Vusi Tshose, the Station Manager, learned of a possible school strike because of overcrowding, he called the local Minister of Education and mediated a meeting with the different parties involved in the problem. They met on Wednesday and Thursday and announced the solution on-air on Friday, averting the strike.

And again: When rival taxi groups were in dispute, they were invited to come to the station, state their cases and ask the community how they wanted them to operate the services.

The station has supported educational activities on environmental and cultural issues, promoting grassroots participation in actions that benefit the whole community: Radio Zibonele organised a clean up campaign for the community of Khayelitsha in partnership with a donor and the local authorities, which provided trash bags, gloves, a truck and also drinks for the participants. Eight thousand young people showed up on a Saturday morning to pick up trash.

Self-help is the underlying theme of the station. Vusi Tshose said it was up to the people to make Khayelitsha beautiful: No one is going to come from heaven and develop it. Radio Zibonele wants to make sure that each particular person is safe and healthy, from the individual to the family; from the family to the community.

As one volunteer presenter said: If there's a shot, we hear it too. If the power goes out, it goes for us, too.

Based on anecdotes reported by Gabriel Urgoiti.


Radio Zibonele was established in 1993 in Khayelitsha, a homemade radio station that was set up under a hospital bed in an old container truck. The container truck served as a clinic for the Zibonele Community Health Centre. Radio Zibonele provided illegal broadcasts, which reached the community of Griffith Mxenge in Khayelitsha (i.e., approximately 20,000 people) initially every Tuesday morning for a period of about two hours. When Radio Zibonele went on the air, it did so with homemade equipment using a transmitter, power supply, amplifier, a mixing console, and a small ghetto blaster. The total funding to set up the initial radio station was R2,500.00. Additionally, R1,500.00 (US$1 =R6.9 dollars approximately) was needed to run the station for one year, with only one weekly broadcast.

On August 2, 1995, Radio Zibonele went on the air legally. At present the station employs nine staff members and has a pool of volunteers between 40 to 70 people from the broader community. The ages of the volunteers range from 10 to about 50 years. Many of the volunteers have no formal education, resulting from the legacy of the apartheid era that was fraught with inequities. To keep Radio Zibonele operational as a radio station, it was essential to provide aggressive ongoing training and capacity building interventions as a fundamental process.

The result was that a skilled group of broadcasters have been developed and now form a resource pool of skilled people who continue training on an ongoing basis. Training and capacity development is broad-based and gives attention to areas such as technical radio skills, general management, budgeting and financial management, administration, research, marketing, advertising and fund raising.

The granting of a license to Radio Zibonele required the station to transform, from a small illegal radio station, broadcasting primary health care programmes for two hours a week to the community of Griffith Mxenge, to a radio station that would reach the entire community of Khayelitsha. Radio Zibonele increased its broadcasting time to three days a week, five hours a day, for the first few months. There was a resounding demand from the listenership to increase the broadcasting time. Radio Zibonele rose to this challenge and began broadcasting five days a week for a period of nineteen hours a day. This was a marked increase.

One of the key objectives of Radio Zibonele was to become a self-sustainable community radio station. During 1994 and 1995, the station received financial support from the NPPHCN Media and Training Centre (MTC). In addition a grant was received from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa to purchase appropriate equipment and to soundproof the container truck in which the station was based, and where it is still located today.

As part of the strategy to increase Radio Ziboneles chances of becoming self-sustainable, the NPPHCN's MTC provided a period of intensive training, capacity development and support.

Since 1996 the station has been financially self-sustainable through revenues from advertising, sponsorship of programmes, and donations. Today Radio Zibonele is a full fledged radio station, broadcasting a whole range of programmes, from community issues to sports; to music and women's programmes; local and national news; children's programmes; and messages based on Primary Health Care, thus contributing to keeping the community informed and healthy.


Khayelitsha is a peri-urban township about 26 kilometres from Cape Town; 300,000 people live in the area, their home language is Xhosa. It exists as a result of the forced removals and displacement of people during the Apartheid years. Khayelitsha can be defined as a deprived community that has a high rate of unemployment and illiteracy. Public health conditions and public health services are poor. Community-based health workers programmes played a fundamental role in delivering Primary Health Care services during the Apartheid era. The Zibonele Community Health Centre was one such community-based programme established in partnership with the community of Griffith Mxenge, the Child Health Unit, the Community Health Department and the Student's Health and Welfare Organisation from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

In 1993 Khayelitsha was experiencing political violence and unrest. The possibility of reaching the community through radio was an appropriate alternative because of the high rate of illiteracy and because most of the people in the area owned or had access to a radio receiver.

Originally, the aim of the radio station was to reinforce face-to-face communication and education performed by the community health workers from the Zibonele Community Health Centre. In addition, it was also to establish a community radio station that would serve the broader community of Khayelitsha.

However, the Apartheid state had a monopoly on the airwaves, and it was not possible to access the airwaves legitimately. The decision of broadcasting illegally was reached on the basis that people have the right to access the the airwaves. At that stage community residents did not recognise the government as being a legitimate and true representative of their interests.

A significant gain was made when the IBA granted Radio Zibonele a temporary community radio license to enable it to function as a legitimate radio station. On August 2, 1995, the station went on the air, and legally broadcast on FM 98.2 for the whole community of Khayelitsha.


As one of the first community radio stations started in South Africa, Radio Zibonele played a significant role. The participants applied their experiences gained from Radio Ziboneles rich history of community involvement through participatory processes, and lobbied and advocated for community radio throughout the country.

Radio Zibonele has shown that communities can become empowered and take responsibility for their own development, using radio as one such means. Community residents have access to Radio Zibonele and use the opportunity to express their opinion about the programming, as well as to actively participate in the development of radio programmes.

One of the achievements of Radio Zibonele was to demystify the medium. This was achieved through the processes of community involvement in the radio station. Anybody is capable of broadcasting, working behind a mixing console and producing programmes with some basic training and support.

This was successfully achieved at Radio Zibonele in spite of the fact that not all the volunteers were literate, nor were they exposed to formal education. The message was achieved in a powerful way (i.e., "you don't have to be an expert in radio technology or broadcasting; you need a strong will and a deep sense of commitment...").


The philosophy behind Radio Zibonele is that of a community radio station. This means that the radio station is owned and managed by the community of Khayelitsha. In addition, the community of Khayelitsha programmes the station's broadcasting. Radio Zibonele is a non-profit radio station, responding to the community's expressed needs and priorities, and, it is accountable to the recognised local community structures.

The annual general meeting representing the Khayelitsha community elects a board of Directors to monitor and oversee the operations of the station in accordance with the station's aims and objectives. A general council exists, and this comprises the membership of the station (i.e.,members of the community).

There is no doubt that the core factor underpinning the success of Radio Zibonele as a community radio station has been the culture, philosophy and approach used to implement and promote all activities and processes through community involvement and community participation. The implementation of such an approach was a time-consuming process with slow incremental progress. The rewards and gains made from this approach resulted in the real empowerment of the people involved.

Since the beginning of 1993, at the inception of Radio Zibonele the station had a participatory approach to programme development and programme production. The community health workers workshopped the contents and format for each health programme with community residents. During the workshops the community health workers had to ensure that the content of the health programmes were adequate and relevant to the target population.

A range of methodological approaches was used to develop and produce programmes. Examples of these include health songs, role-plays based on common health issues and themes pertinent to the community, story telling, and poetry.


Radio Zibonele broadcast illegally for a period of one year. During this period several constraints were faced, including financial restrictions, violence in the area, and perhaps most importantly, the status of Radio Zibonel as an illegal community radio station. This was exacerbated by the constant fear of being persecuted through raids of the radio station by the security forces.

During March 1994, the Independent Broadcasting Authority(IBA) came into existence. Following its establishment, the IBA requested all existing illegal radio stations to stop broadcasting so that the process of licensing these stations could commence. In response to the IBA's request, Radio Zibonele agreed to stop broadcasting as of April 27, 1994. This date coincided with the implementation of the first free and fair democratic elections ever to be held in South Africa. This period saw a heightened awareness of communities in terms of their role and involvement in forming the statutory processes in the country.


This chapter is mainly based on Brief Information Summary on Radio Zibonele by Gabriel Urgoiti, July 2000, and e-mail exchanges with him and Vusi Tshose, station manager.

Community Radio Stations in South Africa: Six Case Studies prepared by Bill Siemering, J.Fairbairn and N. Rangana, Open Society Institute for South Africa. here to return to the Table of Contents.