Radio GaGa

After coming to power in 1948 the Nationalist government started drawing up and enacting legislation to enforce apartheid. The separation of races had an effect not only on people, but also on the radio!

The SABC took to extremes the obsession of “separateness” of the races. Lyrics sheets of songs that were submitted for airplay on SABC radio had to accompany the recordings. If the lyrics of a Zulu song contained an English word, the song could be rejected and not receive airplay.

If the song lyrics were considered too political or subversive in any way, the song would also be rejected and not be played by the SABC. As a result, the record labels would sometimes alter the lyrics that appeared on the lyrics sheet in an attempt to gain airplay, if they thought that the song might be judged to be seditious.

The SABC would also not play music that was too “esoteric, too rocky, or too rolly or too loud”.

The committees charged with scrutinising the song lyrics sheets were known as Central Record Acceptance Committees (CRACs).

An employee of the SABC during the apartheid years said, “[the] SABC was state-run, it was really the voice of government […] Radio was a very powerful tool. It was manipulated, very seriously, to assist with the social engineering process in apartheid South Africa”.

The SABC, at first refused to play any rock ‘n roll music. As a result, for years, South African fans of popular music listened to LM Radio a radio station that was situated in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique. The government also did not permit foreign-produced records to be sold in South Africa. This ruling meant that South African recording companies were forced to lease overseas recordings and to release them on local labels.

As a result, a powerful duopoly was formed. The recording companies decided what music to import and the SABC allocated airplay to only artists that the government would consider to be appropriate. Retail outlets were cut out of the loop and consumers in turn, were provided with a state-sanctioned selection, when it came to popular music. In the event of any “inappropriate” music slipping through, the Publications Board (the state censor) had the power to ban it.

The irony is that, whilst the state censor took into account the artistic merit of literature and films prior to deciding whether or not these were “undesirable”, the censorship of music fell largely to station managers, record library managers and librarians employed by the SABC.

The bureaucrats who decided what music was played on the radio, based their decisions mainly on the lyrics of the songs. As a result, it is has been suggested that music may have been the most repressed art form during the apartheid era because it was at the mercy of a musically illiterate group, which did not wish to displease its master, the apartheid government.