South African youths fight weapons crime with radio broadcast

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Every week a group of bubbling South African teenagers crowd into a studio to play hip hop music and get trade opinions about the scourge of neighborhood gun crime for their community radio show.

For them, these are not remote issues. The stories they discuss are devastatingly close to home for the young broadcasters – one father of the reporter was shot on her birthday, while another is the daughter of a Reformed gunwright.

The 20 or so teenagers hosting Alex FM’s weekly radio show “Bigger Than Life” are determined to curb the violence that so many lives face in their densely populated and crime-ridden Johannesburg township of Alexandra.

“I can assure you that every single child of Alexandra can be a living testament… every night, from Friday to Sunday, or even sometimes on weekdays, we always hear shots – it’s always one thing,” said 16-year-old AFP radio host Jennifer Ngobeni.

Alexandra, named “Gomorrah” after the sinful biblical city, was Nelson Mandela’s home in the early 1940s when he began his anti-apartheid campaign.

Today, it is a poverty-stricken area plagued by gang violence, unemployment and a lack of basic health and education facilities, with some 300,000 people, where open sewers and landfills pollute the streets.

Every Saturday morning, the Bigger than Life Crew discusses shooting laws, concretizes their personal views and plays interviews and music before opening phone lines for callers from the station’s 150,000 listeners.

A co-host, 11th grade class Michelle Selemela, says her father, who has turned away from crime and violence since his release from prison, has encouraged her to participate in the radio.

“All I could see as a young man were policemen looking for him,” said 17-year-old AFP as she wobbled through interviews with local market participants.

“He’s a better person now – he helps me structure interviews and ask powerful questions.”

– “It gets emotional” –

The community radio station Alex FM of the community was founded in 1994 – the year in which the apartheid rule of the white minority ended.

“Every time we talk about gun violence, it gets emotional in the studio,” said technical trainer Sammy Ramodike of the Children’s Radio Foundation (CRF).

“We have a young reporter named Monica, her father was shot at gunpoint and unfortunately it was her birthday when her father was shot.

Alexandra is only five kilometers from Sandton, the city’s affluent business district with skyscrapers and luxury houses – but poverty and danger are always there.

The settlement stretches over seven square kilometres, with many of the shell houses and corrugated iron huts lacking running water and electricity.

“We live in perfect conditions to commit and hide crimes,” said an angry resident, pointing to the dark alleys between the apartments.

Nationwide crime statistics show that the murders increase since 2012, with a daily figure of nearly 57 last year.

Approximately one third of those murdered are killed by weapons, according to GunFree SA, which supports the Alex FM radio program together with the CRF.

South Africa has at least two million illegal firearms and an estimated three million legally registered firearms, according to a 2017 survey.

– To pronounce –

“Many people in South Africa say they want weapons for their own protection,” said GunFree SA broadcast trainer Mary-Ann Nobele.

But she warned that data showed that gun owners were four times more likely to be injured by their own gun than to actually use it for self-protection.

The 20-year-old, herself a resident of Alexandra, helps the teenagers with radio content.

“The teenagers are affected by gun violence in one way or another,” she said.

“When young people adopt this medium, our themes and stories become audible. It lets other young people know that they are not the only ones who are going through it.

The youth radio volunteers talk about a culture of fear that permeates the township, silencing the residents and fueling violence, as the victims are reluctant to go to the police.

Radio presenter Ngobeni said criminals made money and then became “heroes in the community”.

She said that the feeling of insecurity seeps into every house.

“You can never enjoy the pleasures of being alone at home,” she said.

“You really have to lock your doors because someone is running into your house.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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