Bob Mabena, a pioneer of black urban radio broadcasting
By Sandile Memela
When black city radio was first launched to play a central role in promoting English as a medium of communication, Bob Mabena was at the heart of it.
He was the youngest person to hold a powerful and influential role as a broadcaster. He came from the DJing school of clubs in entertainment hotspots such as Motswako in Pretoria and the surrounding townships.
After more than 30 years of focus and dedication to DJing life, it’s no surprise that Mabena has become a national icon and legend. He was an institution.
When Mabena debuted in 1989, Black Urban Radio was a novelty calibrated to attract talent and promote English public speaking and the Americanization of township culture through music.
Someone of Mabena’s caliber was an automatic hit with his flair for the tongue. He played a huge role in nurturing the souls of English black radio audiences.
For three decades, Mabena has left imprints on almost every major black radio station that has defined the history and legacy of black urban culture. He was a pioneer of black urban radio broadcasting.
Many relatively young radio figures who met him have testified that “The Jammer,” as he was affectionately called, was an inspiring role model and mentor.
Above all, they give him credit for opening doors of opportunity and guiding them.
Just as the nightclub DJ gave him his first glimpse of the fast-paced life, it was his stint at Radio Bop in 1989 that opened his eyes to the heights he could reach.
His friend and colleague, the late Aldrin “The Jammer Master” Mogotsi, urged him to explore radio.
Soon he was in the ranks of legends at Radio Bop. The medium saw him bask in the limelight and made him love the hearts and souls of his audience.
Wherever he went, The Jammer inevitably became the life of the party, including nightly concerts on college campuses, corporate events, and private homes.
It should be noted that Radio Bop found itself in a repressive Bantustan where apartheid authorities tightly controlled what a broadcaster like Mabena had to say on air.
The good thing was that the musical artists of the 1980s had a lot to say through their lyrics. This would include Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and Michael Jackson, among others.
There were also native legends like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Harare, Stimela, Ray Phiri, Chicco Twala and Brenda Fassie who politicized the airwaves.
But as a broadcaster, Mabena was essentially a sought-after record player. He was in American House music to promote cross-cultural pollination with his peers.
The late 1980s were a politically turbulent period characterized by brutal political repression and frustration.
Mabena’s house music and song selections provided an outlet for black rage through easy dancing and hard life.
After only three years at Radio Bop, he was drawn to Radio Metro which was started as part of apartheid social engineering. The latter was founded and launched to undermine Radio Bop.
Mabena could not resist the temptation to exercise her profession as a breakfast host in Jozi’s heart. He had the opportunity to become a social influencer who set the daily tone for the station and shaped the consciousness of the growing black middle class.
It was at Metro FM, in collaboration with Shado Twala, Lawrence Dube, Tim Modise, Wilson B Nkosi, Ernest Pillay and others, that Mabena’s iconic and legendary status was confirmed.
There are very few radio DJs who haven’t been touched by his life. His power of vision was, once again, recognized when he was recruited to found and launch another black city radio station, Kaya FM in 1997.
It was intended that his presence would weave a magic wand at the station and turn into a high-quality center of excellence.
Mabena was embraced and invited to join the team to launch Power FM. Much like Metro FM and Kaya FM, Power FM quickly became a voice of black urban culture.
He was a pioneer of black urban radio culture. His role as the founding father of the genre may have been overtaken by his status as a DJ.
But he had, from the start, helped set the standard for what constitutes black radio.
His life was a long shadow in the history of contemporary black radio.
In fact, the growth and development of black urban radio is a testament to the focus, discipline, passion and commitment of people like Mabena and her contemporaries.
His legacy lives on in the countless young men and women he gave to the opportunities to use the radio to nurture the soul of the nation.
Black urban radio stations would not be what they are without her focus, passion and commitment.
Memela is a writer, cultural critic and civil servant.