The best 2020 South African podcasts
2020 has been a big year for podcasting with a proliferation of new shows internationally and at home. This week we focus on local must-listens that stood out this year.
Each year I ask myself if this will be the one to herald the South African podcast boom? The one it feels like we’re perpetually on the brink of; 2020 may just have been that year. Obscured and enabled by the Covid-19 pandemic, there seems to be a growing appetite for local on-demand audio content. New podcasts are proliferating from established newsrooms, independents, podcast companies and a growing number of universities, NGOs and businesses.
This might signal the beginning of things to come: the establishment of a vibrant, diverse, artful, rigorous podcast industry that tells local stories for local audiences.
For now, here are a few 2020 shows that caught our ear.
Facing a year of cancelled workshops and seminars, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) turned to podcasting. Hosted by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, who some might remember from The Eusebius McKaiser Show on Radio 702, the episodes include interviews, recorded lectures and audio essays.
The magic of this podcast is how it facilitates the sharing of academic knowledge beyond the boundaries of the ivory tower. Its format is simple with only one or two guests per episode keeping each short and focused. This allows for dense academic topics to remain digestible. With some of South Africa’s finest minds talking on topics ranging from hydrocolonialism to melancholy, you’re able to dip in and out of digital lecture halls at your own pace.
Without audiences to perform their political education-inspired theatre performances to, the Botsotso Arts Collective and the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) decided to turn to the airwaves to reach new listeners.
Blending a classic radio announcer’s style with stinging socio-economic critique, this fictionalised three-part radio play is like nothing you’ve heard before.
Set in a factory with shop stewards and managers as the main characters, No Money for Jam is a working-class critique of the Covid-19 pandemic’s exacerbation of existing economic disparities in South Africa. The series sounds cinematic, not so much because of the sound design, but rather because of the stage presence of the actors voicing the characters. Using music and repeated chants like “System failure! System fracture!”, No Money for Jam is overtly revolutionary. It’s also incredibly well researched, with an announcer interrupting at regular intervals to list facts and figures. This is a local must-listen that is part of reviving South Africa’s tradition of radio drama.
Hosted by Rebecca Davis, Don’t Shoot the Messenger is the latest of the Daily Maverick’s forays into podcasting. Starting in 2014 with the launch of The Daily Maverick Show, the publication has experimented with the form over the years and now has two consistent offerings, The Maverick Sports Podcast and Don’t Shoot the Messenger. The latter is a feature show, with episodes digging into current affairs and historical events “the stories behind the stories.”
Carried by Davis’s dry sense of humour and curiosity, the show intersperses host narration with interviews on topics from QAnon to a plan to blow up Koeberg nuclear power station in 1982.
Before this show, I would never have associated water tanks with podcasts. But JoJo Tanks has changed that. For Water For Life is equal parts a brilliant branding strategy and a sound rich exploration of local water stories. Hosted by Gugulethu Mhlungu and Sekoetlane Phamodi, the show that “tells extraordinary stories of ordinary people and water … in water scarce and unequal South Africa.”
Each episode centers on a South African working to preserve the country’s water supply whether through cleaning up rivers, performing healing rituals or inventing filtration systems. These profiles are complimented by lush ambient sound recordings that make For Water For Life more than just a simple narration and interview podcast. The series shines a spotlight on the creativity and caring of our fellow South Africans and providing a bright spot of hope in an otherwise dark year.
2020 saw South Africa’s podcast landscape increasingly populated by series created by a new kid on the block, Volume, a podcast production company that partners with NGOs and businesses to generate content and experiments with distribution via WhatsApp.
Co-founded by Paul McNally of Wits Journalism and the Citizen Justice Network, Volume has seized on and contributed to the local podcast industry’s growth. The Witness is hosted by Fatima Hassan and intersperses narration with interviews with whistleblowers and experts.
Topical and locally resonant, episode one profiles Andrew Feinstein’s journey from blowing the whistle on the 1999 Arms Deal to establishing Shadow World Investigations; while the second explores the personal costs of Bianca Goodson’s 2017 decision to testify to state capture at Eskom. Take a listen and learn more about what it takes to blow the whistle and why it’s so vital to do so.
The Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) is an interdisciplinary unit at the University of Cape Town. Their podcast is essentially a series of profiles of ICA artists and their work. With the task of translating the visual to the sonic, producer and host Catherine Boulle deploys ambient field recordings, detailed descriptions of the artwork, archival recordings of performances in addition to the standard mix of narration and interviews.
These different audio textures help the podcast to become more three-dimensional so that we can picture the artwork in our minds while we learn about the artist that created it, their process and inspirations. This isn’t just a show for those who already love art; the artworks offer a prism through which to interrogate social issues like the inherent violence of whiteness, the construction of masculinity and the politics of hair and beauty.
This is a pretty cut and dry politics chat show and a no brainer for an existing newsroom to produce. Introduced by a fun montage of the EFF protesting their microphones being turned off in a particularly rowdy session in parliament, the show’s tagline is “our microphones are never muted and we turn up the volume on all things political.”
The podcast is hosted by News24’s political editor, Qaanitah Hunter alongside two of her colleagues, Lizeka Tandwa and Pieter du Toit. The three talk about the news stories of the week, offering insight and analysis.
In addition to headlines, the trio also discuss systemic issues like weaknesses in the justice system and the role of the media in a democracy. If you’re looking for a regular news fix that digs into biggest local news stories of the moment, then Politics Unmuted is for you.
These bite-sized audio snapshots stand out due to their unparalleled access to a rich wealth of historical interviews. Drawing on the SABC’s vast archives, this podcast transports listeners back in time through the voices of Nadine Gordimer, Dolly Rathebe and Fatima Meer amongst others.
These mini episodes are mostly profiles of famous figures at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, while others cover events like the Soweto Uprising. The narration sounds like it comes from a time dominated by the rather stiff and formal radio voice, but it serves the purpose of sewing the episodes together and letting the real gems – the archival recordings – shine.
The greatest joy of this podcast is the access it grants us to the archives of the public broadcaster and to the voices it contains. This is a public treasure that should be available to all South Africans.
If you enjoyed this foray into South African history, you may also like the SABC’s TRC podcast, South Africa’s Human Spirit.
Format: Individual episodes, divided into three seasons
Length: 39 episodes so far, between 18 minutes – 1 hour 9 minutes
Listen on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app or streaming service
One of South Africa’s newest digital media outlets, New Frame, has been shaking things up since they appeared on the scene in late 2018. 2020 saw the launch of their weekly podcast, Radio New Frame.
Together with their regular mixtapes, audio is front and center for this not-for-profit social justice publication. Combining feature stories that dig into the roots of current issues and longer form interviews with academics, authors and activists, Radio New Frame is meatier than a typical news show.
What makes the show stand out is its commitment to experimenting with the form – they’ve covered obituaries, sports, reviewed books and have even dabbled in roundtable chat content. This is an important way to help figure out what local audiences respond to and what’s most feasible to produce for a weekly hour-long show. So take a listen and let them know what you think.
If you enjoy Radio New Frame, you may also enjoy their legendary mixtapes by Charles Leonard.
Format: Individual episodes
Length: 6 episodes so far, 31 – 52 minutes each
This brand-new podcast is a personal walk down memory lane. In each episode, host Andile Ndlovu’s revisits different cultural phenomena that shaped his youth. He travels back in time to examine what scandals and sensations said about the state of the nation at various points in early post-apartheid South Africa. From Penny Heyns winning gold at the 1996 Olympics to a controversial and wildly popular TV series Yizo Yizo that aired between 1999 and 2004. The format is simple, with some host narration and two-way interviews spliced with archival recordings. The show is a satisfying deep dive into South African popular culture sprinkled with nostalgia.
Happy listening! ML/DM