Answering 'bricks' while Madiba spoke

2014-02-09 06:00

The first democratic elections were only weeks away when the Tribute Forum announced a special guest: Nelson Mandela.

Tribute magazine had created the forums for its readers.

In the early 1990s, they were middle management and middle class.

The forums were well attended because they presented a good opportunity to network, and the speakers were always good value: politicians, businesspeople and what are now (but weren’t then) called “thought leaders”.

It was hard to score admission to the Madiba forum. Many people had seen him on TV but never in the flesh.

There was a real buzz at the entrance to the ballroom at the Braamfontein Hotel – now the Parktonian – where the suits who had confirmed early enough could pick up their name tags.

But something besides politics was in the air.

Only days before, on March 1 1994, government had finally allowed cellphone companies to go live.

Each company was allowed to sell only a few thousand SIM cards, and although they were ostensibly given out on a first-come-first-serve basis, possession of a working portable phone the size of a brick was a huge status symbol.

The audience was quiet and attentive when Madiba appeared – a good thing, because he had been campaigning so strenuously his voice was hoarse and not easy to hear. And then, some time into his speech, it happened: a cellphone rang. Then another. And then another.

Maybe the owners didn’t know how to put their phones on silent.

Maybe they didn’t know how to turn them off.

In any case, when cellphones rang, they were answered.

And unbelievably, the owners proceeded to converse.

It was perhaps a sign of things to come: whatever the competition, technology would triumph.

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