In just four years Nelson Mandela would be free. On the streets of South Africa’s black townships that might as well have been four hundred years. The last years of apartheid turned out to be among the most repressive.

ZA86 is a journey back to that turbulent era, using cassettes heard for the first time since they were recorded in 1986.

The sounds of ZA86, a cassette release from The Tapeworm available here, are the sounds of a desperate regime, as heard through the headphones of a 25-year-old radio reporter.

Every side of every tape used in the making of ZA86 is illustrated below, nine cassettes taken from the previously unheard archive of Turnstyle News, unlocked from a Cape Town cellar.

As a further complement to ZA86, extracts from reporter Nigel Wrench’s previously unpublished private diary are reproduced.

Thursday 1 May 1986

Winnie Mandela arrived to adulation from the huge May Day crowd at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, who (hardly surprisingly) instantly recognized the sun-roofed, mag-wheeled, interior-sheepskinned Datsun Skyline belonging to Aubrey Mokoena that was her transport for the day. “Mama Winnie” as they called her was mobbed, but it was all a little too superstar: she was late as always, whisked in and then swiftly out after her speech. Crowd sang enormously marvellous new Cosatu song. Police kept their dripping water cannon on duty all day but aside from pointing it at sundry journalists, failed to find an opportunity to actually use it. To their disappointment. Violent Femmes in the car after I leave the soldiers and the police and the water cannon to their own devices: “We don’t want no killing Lord/I don’t wanna see my brother die.” I didn’t today and I really don’t. In the past weeks I have felt the waves of a new commitment: the country’s in flames and you have to choose a side unless you want to get burnt in the middle, or chilly from being too far away (or simply hardly notice the fire because you’re hovering above).

Thursday 22 May 1986

The flags wave at the AWB meeting in Pietersberg, these are the Afrikaner comrades but more sinister because they really are mindlessly violent. The swastika flags wave as they take over Pik Botha’s meeting. More violent, more threatening than any township protest: depressing and intimidating. On the way here the cotton fields are white in the sun, and there’s the smell of tobacco from a tractor-trailer loaded with sacks. Oh, Africa.

Monday 16 June 1986

Went out to Soweto, stopped at roadblock and ordered out [of Soweto] because of new media laws. Back in the centre of town, stopped by unspeakable Lt Bezuidenhout who picks out my car. To John Vorster Square and to 10th floor where they listen through to all my tapes before confiscating them, while I look at the UDF T-shirts and the Freedom Charter and the [otherwise banned] pictures of Nelson Mandela that they have on display.

Wednesday 18 June 1986,
from The Washington Post

“[Government spokesman Leon] Mellet told a journalist that ‘you can report what you said’ about an incident in which she alleged that Nigel Wrench, a radio journalist, had been picked up in Johannesburg and threatened with violence. Because of the emergency regulations I cannnot identify in this article who it was who allegedly picked up and threatened Wrench.”

Wednesday 27 August 1986

Around 20 people were killed in Soweto last night. Today I steered my little Renault haphazardly around the the boulder barricades and between the remains of burning tyres. It must have been carnage/hell here last night. When I spoke to kids/parents on the pavement in Jabavu they scattered like startled sparrows when an army truck drove by. They were terrified the soldiers would shoot. They were truly in fear of their lives. A Ratel waited at the end of the road. Soldiers patrolled. A kid showed me welts from shotgun wounds. I came away mentally wounded myself. Cry for the country! I throw an ANC thumbs-up salute through the sunroof. It is less a gesture than a commitment, quite frankly. This after once pleading non-involvement. Enough, no longer. A regime like this one sears to the heart. (They still want to bring out a pop song? Fiddling while Rome burns? This is a new slant on that.)

Saturday 30 August 1986

Gatsha Buthelezi was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open between being defensive. The peacocks preened outside the hall in Ulundi [his manufactured “capital city” in an apartheid homeland]. Later he went back to greet the Inkatha Youth Brigade throngs to drink in their praise. Earlier he gave a two hour, or something, speech in Zulu, parts in English helpfully highlighted by his [white] PR for us lot.

Friday 4 September 1986,
from the Weekly Mail

“The Bureau for Information’s Operation Optimism has taken the spirit of Live Aid and inverted it, reports Nigel Wrench:

Together We Will Build a Brighter Future it’s called. […] The 46 musicians involved in this song include many artists who have always maintained that old mythical South African artistic stance: that politics and pop music do not mix. Their participation in Operation Optimism has them siding openly with the government in the South African conflict.”

Thursday 9 October 1986

So the UDF is now an “affected organisation” and can no longer take foreign funding. At a news conference Azhar Cachalia, with red-rimmed eyes and precise humour, is the only remaining representative of the depleted UDF executive [the rest were in jail, or underground]. The security police are upstairs in the UDF offices.

Friday 26 December 1986

Yesterday a successful Christmas [at a private party] where Helen Joseph in [banned] ANC green, black and gold proposes a toast to exiles and detainees in a strong, though sometimes tremulous, voice. The policeman’s wife next door looks over at the gathering while it observes a two-minute silence. Azhar Cachalia looks a little tired as he talks of his possible detention, his bubbling, gorgeous child on his hip.

Credits: Diary extracts © Nigel Wrench. Collage (after a photograph by Diane McCarthy) by Martin Crawley. Built by Rebels in Control.

If you haven't already, you can buy ZA86, a strictly limited cassette release from The Tapeworm, at