WJP partners with Thetha FM, a small station making a big impact


The generator which powers Orange Farm community radio station Thetha FM (Photo: Paul McNally)

The generator which powers Orange Farm community radio station Thetha FM (Photo: Paul McNally)

Thetha FM serves a massive 360 000 listeners a week – from inside a high school with no electricity, writes Paul McNally of the Wits Justice Project. The WJP is partnering with the station on a new half-hour show to educate listeners about their rights.

Thetha FM's logo (Photo: thethafm.co.za )

Thetha FM’s logo (Photo: thethafm.co.za )

A brutal sound rattles across the school yard. I’m told there’s no electricity at Isikhumbuzo Secondary School – these kids are given lessons by sunlight – and so Thetha FM, the radio station based on the school grounds in Orange Farm, is powered by a one-metre-square petrol generator. It’s parked right under the cluster of satellite dishes that give the station its huge reach – from Orange Farm in Gauteng all the way to the Free State – and makes it the 4th largest community radio station in the country.

In Programming Manager Mochacho’s office – too small to be a converted classroom – there’s a crude graph drawn on a piece of paper with a permanent marker that shows the listener figures of the station, escalating to the current 360 000 a week. That’s more than half of the people that tune in to 702.

Thetha FM has grown in popularity. (Photo: Paul McNally)

Thetha FM has grown in popularity. (Photo: Paul McNally)

When I hear about the shows Thetha FM airs I feel cheated that I’ve been stuck listening to suburban 702. At 1pm on a Saturday for three straight hours they run a prison “current affairs” show. They phone prisoners inside, get the latest gossip, talk about life with the warders and give practical rehabilitation advice.

As proof of the prisoners’ loyalty to Thetha, in January this year when a riot broke out at Groenpunt Prison in Deneysville in the northern Free State, prisoners called out to a radio station to give their demands. After cells were burnt and barricades erected they wanted a friendly, understanding voice to hear their complaints of poor service delivery. There was only one choice – they called Thetha FM on cellphones, allegedly smuggled in by guards.

Thetha FM's programming manager (Photo: Paul McNally)

A member of the Thetha FM team (Photo: Paul McNally)

When the story broke Mochacho cancelled all their planned programming and kept the riot story going live until 2am. As a result of the story a representative from the Department of Correctional Services now visits the station once a week. Thetha’s relationship with prisoners is so strong that the quickest way for the authorities to communicate with the prisoners is to go through the station.

The exhaustive phone-ins have given the station a solid grip on what their listeners need, better than any Twitter feed or focus group. However, Thetha only has one phone line and you have to call them, because they have no money to pay the phone bill.

The satellite dishes which enable the station to reach hundreds of thousands of listeners (Photo: Paul McNally)

The satellite dishes which enable the station to reach hundreds of thousands of listeners (Photo: Paul McNally)

This idea of a prison show was actually written on my notepad as something for the Wits Justice Project to initiate, but it sounds like they’ve got it covered. This is when my humbling starts. I have come from The City, I’m sure you’ve heard of it: Johannesburg. It’s a modern African city, don’t you know? This was my attitude walking in; I couldn’t help it. But after Mochacho starts listing – over the heavy sound of the generator – his other programming and the capacity this tiny studio has for translation and production I know we’ll be equal partners. This isn’t a rescue mission but a collaboration.

That is not to say there is no space for new programming. The Wits Justice Project is starting a 30 minute show with Thetha FM called “Question Your Rights” which will use legal experts to answer some of the very important, justice-based questions for the people of this community. We’ll spend one show on how bail works, for example. We’ll cover it in detail and in an African language.

Mochacho tells me the community has a problem with “mob justice” and this largely comes from people misunderstanding bail. They see a guy arrested and then released the next day and believe a deal has been struck with the cops – some kind of bribery has transpired – and so they try to administer a punishment themselves. A violent one, says Mochacho. By providing a show on the nuts and bolts of bail we could contribute to reducing vigilantism.

I drive around Orange Farm afterwards – thinking I’m a kasi local now, having been out here twice. I promptly get lost in the hilly network of dusty back roads and am quite panicked (though I don’t tell anyone this). I finally call Bricks Mokolo, at the community paralegal advice office, to come and find me. Bricks points at his truck and tells me this is what you need if you’re going to drive off the tar roads. I nod. “Lawyers have low, fancy cars. They are no good for around here,” he says.

The first edition of The Wits Justice Radio Show will be broadcast on Tuesday the 30th of April at 13:30 till 14:00 on Thetha FM (frequency 100.6).


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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