South African teens fight gun crime with radio broadcast

"Every night, from Friday to Sunday, or even sometimes on weekdays, we always hear gunshots -- it is like an always thing," says 16-year-old radio host Jennifer Ngobeni (AFP Photo)

Johannesburg, South Africa — Every week a group of bubbly South African teens crowd into a studio to play hip-hop music and trade views on the scourge of neighbourhood gun crime for their community radio show.

For them, these are not remote topics. The stories they discuss are devastatingly close to home for the young broadcasters — one reporter’s father was shot dead on her birthday, while another is the daughter of a reformed gun-wielding criminal.

The 20-odd teenagers who host Alex FM’s weekly “Bigger Than Life” radio show are determined to help stem the violence that touches so many lives 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 gunshots — it is like an always thing,” 16-year-old radio host Jennifer Ngobeni told AFP.

Nicknamed “Gomorrah” after the sinful biblical city, Alexandra was home to Nelson Mandela in the early 1940s as he started off on his anti-apartheid campaign.

Today, it is a poverty-stricken area of about 300,000 people beset by gang violence, joblessness and a lack of basic health and education services, with open sewers and waste dumps defiling its streets.

Every Saturday morning, the Bigger than Life crew discuss gun laws, flesh out their personal views and play interviews and music before opening the phone lines for callers from among the station’s 150,000 listeners.

One co-host, 11th-grader Michelle Selemela, says her father, who has turned away from crime and violence since getting out of jail, encouraged her to get involved in radio.

“The only thing I could see when I was young was policemen looking for him,” the 17-year-old told AFP as she bobbed and weaved through the local market gathering interviews.

“He’s a better person now — he helps me structure interviews and ask hard-hitting questions.”