KEY to the apartheid grand architecture was the garbled design intended to provide the delusion of functional, quasi-states with own educational institutions, and broadcast media.
Aided by the geospatial spread of the TBVC homelands, Pretoria allowed them to self-provision broadcast media ecosystems (newspapers, radio, and to a lesser extent TV), whilst big brother tightfistedly locked away the means of production (radio frequencies).
Unless you harboured a death wish, content could not be at variance with the fundamental outcomes of homogenization, manipulation, and suppression of public opinion.
Parallel to the SABC African language stations, TBVC states could establish English medium platforms, the most emergent of which were Bophuthatswana Broadcasting, Radio Ciskei, Radio Thohoyandou, and homeland-based commercial stations like Radio 702 and Capital Radio 604; all of which shared the barely audible quality of Medium Wave (MW) frequencies.
The MW band stations grew phenomenally and made superstars, household names of those talented enough to get the nod.
Radio Bop led in popularity; its frequency spillages into the commercial hub of Johannesburg driving the station and its voices as the major alternative to SABC radio.
Fresh-faced and swashbuckling, Mabena’s massive popularity at Radio Bop would make the SABC swoop for his services for their flagship English station Radio Metro in the early 90s.
Not since the demise of the charming Boogie Harry Cohen had a voice burrowed in to find the bullseye of urban listeners, smack on the nose of drive-time.
His dark, youthful looks and hearty laughter made many a young heart flutter and concocted a marketer’s dream combo.
It’s disconcerting to write of Bob in the past, but Bob’s career was epoch defining, in so many ways that his mass appeal and affable personality became his most sough-after attribute.
He was unequalled as a radio brand at METRO FM, and was a prompt hit on TV, perhaps comparable only to the illustrious Lawrence Dube and his Toyota Top 20.
With the government of the day inheriting a moribund, almost dysfunctional SABC on the cusp of the new global digital economy, transformative legislation through the IBA Act sought to rapidly open the market for competition through a deliberate privatisation of SABC assets.
Kagiso Media (later to receive a greenfield licence to start Kaya FM) and PRIMEDIA Broadcasting (owners of Radio 702) lapped up the lucrative stations of the SABC for just under R500m.
Daring as always, Bob raised eyebrows by moving across to PRIMEDIA’s Highveld Stereo, predominantly focused on urban white audiences with little resonance to Black audiences.
But the transformative post 1994-era ushered shifting sands: Black audiences were most sought after by desperate white advertisers who sought to understand emerging African trends, even coining lose phrases like “Black diamond”.
I arrived at Kaya FM in the winter of 1998 when I was offered the graveyard show (02:00-06h00) and just a few months before the station launched a massive style drive campaign ahead of its first birthday.
Bob breezed into 38 Bolton Road, Rosebank studios a year later as both Programmes Manager and host of Bob’s Breakfast Beat, with Stan Katz in the C-Suite.
Along with Carlito Sheikh as a producer, BBB grew into an overnight success, and numbers at revenue and audience made a momentous incline.
When Walter Mokoena, the show’s Sports anchor left for the SABC, I took over sports on BBB, meaning I would stay at the station from 02h00 till 08h30.
Never to display his contempt for anyone, we had a fulfilling, cordial, and professional relationship, and some bawdy late evenings with Justice Ramohlola hosted by the popular French chef and restaurateur Michelle Morand at his Gatrilles Restaurant in Sandton.
Periodically, I was roped in to sit in for Bob on his BBB show when for any other reason he wasn’t available, and that was a terrific honour, confirming my emerging credence in the eyes of the bosses.
Ever restless, Bob left again to return to Highveld, causing a domino move: KG was bumped up into this show, and I took over the 09h00-13h00 midmorning show, which I presented till 2003 when I resigned to join DBSA. I continued being part of the family, with Charlene Deacon, the MD well-disposed to my suggestion for weekend breakfast radio shows which I hosted till 2006.
Bob’s dexterous experience turn out to be a demanded, useful strategic insight for management at the SABC, and even back again at Kaya. Perhaps he begrudged the pretentious excesses of the cushioned C-suite, and felt drawn to the microphone even more. His second return at Kaya and senior positions later at MSG’s Power FM tapped into his vast reservoir of radio experience at content strategy and mentoring other on-air personnel. He could have benefited the whole country had the government implemented policies to foster sound professional standards and promotion of best practices to the benefit of community radio stakeholders or PBS with the mechanics of their mandates.
But as we know, hindsight is perfect science .All that’s left is for us to show his distraught family how deeper the world treasured him. Such posthumous posturing won’t put food on the table nor make his Foundation liquid enough to achieve half his visions.
Mabena was smart; an astute student of, and for life, self-deprecatory about his lack of academic accolades but overcompensating with that with unrivalled colossal presence and deep research. That he died still anchoring a drive-time radio show attests to his adaptability to today’s digital radio formats.
I was equally guileless and barely out of my teens when I sat at Radio Thohoyandou’s studios back in 1988. I had not the slightest right to wish I’d make it that far amongst Bob and The Stars.
Bob K Mabena went as the crow flies; for it was through commitment to his passion that he finally found his Biblical sycamore tree.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR|
Lloyd Nedohe is a Digital Economies PhD candidate at Wits University, and runs his own ICT enterprise Mashudu Group.He was previously a news and current affairs anchor at SABC TV and Radio presenter at Radio Thohoyandou, Metro FM, Phalaphala FM and Kaya FM in a broadcasting career spanning 18 years.