Interview by Louisa Meintjes
Louisa Meintjes: In analyses about popular culture produced during apartheid, Zulu radio dramas have been summarily dismissed. You place them at the core of Radio Soundings. Could you tell us about this choice and its relation to the argument of the book?
Liz Gunner: It’s not that they’ve been summarily dismissed, more they were never even considered as cultural artefacts. Rather they were simply seen as puppet-mouthings by compliant hangers-on of the apartheid design for radio. Why did I choose the dramas? And put them at the centre of the book? Well I began to realise the more I listened to them and the more I asked people about them, that they kept coming up whenever I asked about radio and radio listening habits. They seemed to be set deep in people’s memories and were a way they could tap into certain emotions about the fascination and strain and pleasure of events that circled usually around the family. They seemed to provide sites of recognition, self-knowledge, self-exploration, ways of accessing the self, often the deep self. They were also important as narratives, journeys. So I thought – Well, they’re important if you’re going to understand how people had vibrant and creative lives in spite of the pains of apartheid. This is a point Jacob Dlamini makes very well in his book Native Nostalgia.
Louisa Meintjes: Fascinating, idiosyncratic radio personalities people the book’s chapters. Exiles Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane are the most internationally renowned of them. Yet listeners are crucial to your take on the radio voice as well. Could you tell us about the thought process that led you to the balance you chose for the book among backstage personalities, broadcast voices, and avid listeners?
Liz Gunner: I felt that unless you got in to the text a sense of the listeners and how they lived their lives through the dramas you would simply be doing half the job. Certainly this was true for the dramas from within South Africa – such as the Radio Bantu, Radio Zulu, and the Ukhozi FM dramas which are in the latter part of the book. I felt that what was being produced was a sort of public, self-generated intimacy which was very sustaining. People modeled themselves on the radio personalities who had parts in the dramas, wrote the dramas and in some cases had their own programmes; they became culture icons. The broadcast voices maybe together produced a kind of meta counter-voice to the crushing views of the dominant group. I wanted to try and get a kind of balance so that what would come out was an understanding of the making of sonic worlds that were culturally dynamic and deeply sustaining. And the fact that all this was in Zulu – in the case of the people within South Africa this is very significant. So K E Masinga, Thokozani Nene, Alexius Buthelezi, all very different personalities, to name a few, could all have a place on the sonic stage of this radio world. And one must not forget amazing white sound technicians like ‘Unogwaja’. He is mentioned by Eric Ngcobo as pioneering in his playing with the psychic-sonic sound effects in the 1980s drama ‘Yiz’ Uvalo’ (In Spite of Fear.)
The exiles Nkosi and Modisane had different paths to travel – Modisane worked with the very best in BBC Radio at a time when radio drama was a queen of genres but he could never build up a faithful following in the way that the radio voices from within could – say Eric Ngcobo, or Winnie Mahlangu. This was because his plays were not serialised and also were part of a different landscape of sound. They mediated, with the powerful intimacy of radio, the tensions and excitement of a country and a situation which impinged on the British consciousness of outsider and insider, home and colony; and then increasingly, race and power and Britain’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle. His plays were more part of high culture perhaps, than the plays from within which were more within the space of popular culture. Nkosi was different again – his voice became for a while well known on the African stations which bought tapes from the transcription Centre. He became a kind of key mediator of a stream of black voices of the world, when ‘Africa was on the Rise’ as James Baldwin saw it in the 1960s. So Nkosi and Modisane were complex and important mediators but the intimacy worked very differently.
Louisa Meintjes: Through a fine series of analyses of radio dramas and their producers/authors, variously situated through the decades (1960s through the 1990s) and at different sites (from London to Durban), you write about mediated intimacy. Radio reached into domestic space and it generated global affiliations and diasporic networks, all while it served the interests of the apartheid state. You ascribe to intimacy an important role in cultivating oppositional politics by means of radio dramas. As a researcher, how did you get at intimacy? Could you share an example here of mediated intimacy? And am I being reductive in asserting that it was the possibility of oppositional politics that this mediated intimacy enabled?
Liz Gunner: I think I’ve partly answered this question, above, but let’s see. You’re absolutely right to say radio reached into domestic space and generated global affiliations and diasporic networks – you see that with the Nkosi programmes, but his had a kind of fragility; Modisane’s were firmer because he had a place within the BBC because his work as a radio dramatist was so respected, and at the time the genre was flourishing. Your question about mediated intimacy is difficult. I think for the dramas from within, voice carried and mediated intimacies through complicated personal encounters lodged in narratives of the domestic which drew in many other things. For Nkosi, let’s say the kind of intimacy he mediated was through throwing up moments of insight into the huge dramas of race and rights being played out in America and on the African continent. The most powerful example for me is when he played through interview the voice of the African American sociologist recalling how he’d spoken in Congress as part of the civil rights struggle. Maybe you’re partly right in your last point. But there is also the question of mediated intimacy as a counter presence – this is more than oppositional politics I think.
Louisa Meintjes: You have written about song, praise poetry, theater, and literature. This book draws on your work in all those performance arenas. Were there new challenges for you in writing about performance in the medium of radio?
Liz Gunner: Yes absolutely. There was the question of what radio ‘did’ to these other genres and kinds of cultural production. Praise poetry for instance. Did it distance them or diminish them/ ? Did it confine them? Or could you see it as an extraordinarily powerful extension of the kinds of linguistic skills and affect that these forms could draw on? How did radio make use of song and praise poetry? Especially a radio station that was not free of apartheid control. I think in the 1970s, say, there was a huge drive to record ‘live’ performances of royal praises, chiefly installations and so on. But often the effect was to present a kind of double voice – the dignity of the form surpassed its ideologically controlled usage. Performance in the medium of radio struck me as very different to theatre. New terrain – theatre of the mind – perhaps you could compare it to Grotowski’s poor theatre in some ways. But it drew on new kinds of listening resources and auditory strengths – new domains of the auditory rather than the ocular and visual. So, something very different and the whole world of listeners, producers, actors and so on had a part in this different configuring of reality.
Louisa Meintjes: Radio Studies seems to be flourishing in our current epoch of social media and AV streaming. (Thank you for your lively contribution to it!) What’s your take on the reasons for this flourish, and on its promise?
Liz Gunner: I think the physicality of sound and its ability to express the temporal and spatial in new ways is giving radio huge impetus. And it may be the way it mediates intimacy, its physicality that is giving it such pull in an era saturated with the visual. And it can do things with communities and publics in ways as yet still not properly understood.