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BEHIND THE SCENES with Adele Mostert, communications officer for ABC Ulwazi


Can you explain in more detail what ABC Ulwazi does

ABC Ulwazi is a radio training and production house with full NGO (non-governmental organisation) status. We contribute to and support the community radio sector of South Africa but we do not actually broadcast and we do not fund anyone. I guess we see ourselves as a caring- and supportive-service provider. Community radio stations in South Africa are quite diverse: religious stations / geographic communities / campus stations / communities of interest etc. We offer training to contribute to the professionalisation of these volunteer-based stations as well as productions to diversify their programming schedule.

What does community radio offer listeners in South Africa that isn't available on other stations

Loads! Community stations broadcast in the language of the region and in the vernacular of the audience. It fulfills an educational and developmental mandate for its listeners and community. It is uniquely positioned to provide local content and coverage and community access to the airwaves. Community stations foster dialogue in a way public and commercial broadcasters cannot in the far flung corners of South Africa.

What challenges have you faced while working to create community radio there

The community radio sector in South Africa is full of challenges! The sustainability of stations is a big one. Finance and resource problems abound... sometimes it's almost impossible to contact a station. The stations battle with volunteerism and high staff turnover and the people trained by organisations such as ours often move out of the community radio into commercial outlets, thus community stations suffer from a constant "skills loss." It's an uphill battle but the success stories are the reward. Many stations are hugely successful and we feel proud when we've contributed to this.

Is the current South African administration supportive of your efforts

The government is very supportive of the work we (and others like us) do, but do not resource / fund us as such. We have been commissioned by government departments to produce professional programmes for them (e.g. we did some work on the new labour legislation to make it real and useful for South Africans in their own language etc.). So, yes, the value of the community radio sector and those who work in it is recognized.

What achievements have you been especially proud of

We're proud of where we are in terms of how we've worked out a marriage of production and training that ensures most programmes aren't just played and ignored but used meaningfully, often translated, and adapted to local circumstances by the broadcasters. Similarly we are proud of how many of our trainees have excelled in their fields and grown into professional broadcasters. For a small company (15 odd people) we've made a big impact: we've been funded consistently and produced a substantial amount of quality programming in the last few years

Our productions have received recognition and won awards (one of our Living History series, Sing Africa Sing , about the history of choral music, is a finalist in the New York Festivals competition 2003)

In addition, our multilingual radio drama series, Rebuilding Civil Society, is something we've been very proud of. The series, produced in four languages so far -- English, Sesotho, Zulu, and Xhosa -- has been teaching millions of South Africans about civil society, rights, and responsibilities through soap opera-style drama episodes. On the other side of the coin, our series Sizoyi Chuna, about community-based tourism, has taught a tremendous number of South Africans how to start up small businesses.

How does The Last Voice fit into your mission? Why was it important to tell the story of Elsie, the last speaker of the !Auni language

Gosh, so many reasons..

In a nutshell, ABC Ulwazi is dedicated to preserving the heritage of our diverse country. This has come to fruition through our Living History programmes (you can see all this on our website too) whereby we capture oral testimonials of South Africans about their lives and experiences, lest it be lost forever. Because of the ravages of apartheid, so many stories have already been lost. Stories like Elsie's need to be captured and eternalised, and we take this very seriously. Another example is our history of jazz series, Ubuyile. Since recording the series, five of the contributors, great jazz musicians in their own right, have died. Had we not been able to make that series, their stories would have died with them.

Is there a way that radio producers in the around the world can take part in your efforts

We've done a number of collaborations with BBC, Radio Netherlands, etc. in the past and we're always open to this kind of thing. Similarly, people who'd like to share their knowledge with us and with our network of radio stations are welcome to get involved in training initiatives. We're very keen to meet producers from all over the world and there's certainly scope for collaboration!