Freedom, please call me

2014-02-09 14:01

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The line was long and it moved with a ­ponderous shuffle, like a shongololo on shifting ground.  A buzz ran through the throng, a murmur of anticipation, a ­quiver in the air that felt like the future was calling.

We were bound in our waiting by a shared sense of destiny, by a feeling that the yokes that had tethered us were about to be lifted and cast to the wind.

I made it to the front of the queue, my hand hovered over the paper, and finally, with a flourish, I made my mark. I turned around and strode into the new world, clutching in my fist the hard-won symbol of my liberation. A brand-new Nokia wireless cellular telephone.

I was tied to a two-year contract and yet I felt free, disentangled, like a marionette with no strings attached. At home I lifted the handset from its cradle and planted the little card in its cage. I touched the buttons and made my first call. “Hello,” I said, “hello? Can you hear me?”

It was March 1994, Year One of the Reinvention of South Africa, and the sounds of a revolution were ringing in the streets. There were 13 notes, plucked from the heart of a beautiful classical guitar-suite, sped-up, synthesised and filtered in a recurring curlicue in the voice box of the phone.

That refrain – the original Nokia ringtone – was a signature of its time, as much as the grafting of the crescendo of Die Stem on to the trunk of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, in the quest to nurture a national spirit of harmony. Twenty years later, some of us still don’t know all the words to the anthem. But the instruments of democracy play on.

Technology seduces us with the promise of freedom, the tantalising glimpse of a better tomorrow, safe in the embrace of machines that forever change our lives.

The printing press opened the gateway to enlightenment, putting knowledge and ideas in the hands of anyone who could crack the code.

The motorcar conquered time and distance, accelerating the rise of cities and suburbs in the slipstream of the ­freeways.

And in 1994, only a few years after the Wall fell to the syncopation of sledgehammers in Berlin, there came a new tool, a tool to bridge the divide, to connect people and ­communities, to give voice to the voiceless.

For some, it was all talk, as empty as the airwaves through which the cellular signals sang. “Cellular phones are just very, very expensive toys,” harrumphed one newspaper ­columnist. “For most buyers, they’re about as necessary as the Hula Hoop, the yo-yo and battery-operated luminous socks.”

If the rich wanted to waste their money on flashy novelties, they were welcome, he suggested, and then he signed off with the age-old rallying cry of the professional curmudgeon: “Surely we have far more important matters to attend to right now.” He was right, of course.

There was housing and sanitation, healthcare and ­education, jobs, roads, power lines, policing – the building blocks of a society that could promise, as the posters on the lampposts put it, A Better Life for All.

But the cellular phone, a toy for the rich, interrupting business meetings with its shrill little ditties, drawing ­attention to itself in the most public and private of places, was a party to that promise too.

The launch of the cellular networks, Vodacom and MTN, was scheduled for June 1 1994. But the telecommunications regulator allowed a pilot phase to kick off in March, and among the earliest of adapters were election monitors and observers working out in the field. Cellphones were not just born into democracy in South Africa; cellphones helped ­democracy to be born.

I remember standing in the Big Queue on that bright day in April, with the fringes of the leaves on fire in the crisp autumn air, holding on to my infant daughter with one hand and my Nokia 1011 with the other.

It was a brick of a phone, with a slit for a screen, and an antenna that jutted above your head like the stem of an umbrella. It couldn’t SMS. It couldn’t take a picture. It couldn’t google. But there was a miracle embedded in its microcircuits: the miracle of ubiquitous mobility. Reach the person, said the adverts. Not the place.

In 1994, there were 4?million land line telephones in South Africa. Only 1% of black South Africans had access to a phone in their homes. The private phone was a privilege of the connected classes.

Today, there are more cellphones in South Africa than there are people in South Africa. The prepaid SIM card, the Please Call Me service and the trickle-down effect of the two-year ­upgrade cycle, have turned the cellphone into a tool that connects us all.

The real gift of 1994, sealed with an X, was the promise of a Better Life through technology. This was a promise that was kept. Kids in schools use their cellphones to do their maths homework with Dr Math on Mxit. Outpatients at HIV clinics get reminders to take their antiretrovirals through TxtAlert from the Praekelt Foundation. Microentrepreneurs market their services on trees that serve as billboards, with help just a cellphone call away.

The Bill of Rights grants us freedom of movement; the cellphone grants us freedom to be mobile. But there was a Third Revolution in 1994, an accident of history that took us even further, that crumbled the great divide into dust.

One day in the thick of that year, with its helicopter gunships and its six-coloured flags and its praise singers and its ballots, a friend came to visit, bearing a small machine whose purpose was to introduce my computer to my phone.

He hooked it up and he hammered at the keys. There was the sound of push-button dialling, seven quick-fire digits that unlocked a portal somewhere on the other side of the city.

Then there was a squealing, a trill and a rushing of waves, like the fissures of the earth opening and lava hissing on to the shore. Silence. And I was connected, for the first time, by dial-up modem, to the infinite, ever-expanding universe of the World Wide Web.

The internet had already been around for decades, a ­secluded province of academia and the military, facilitating the transport of knowledge, and building silos of communication that could withstand the onslaught of a nuclear war.

But the web gave the internet a human face, made it look pretty and easy to read, and to gaze into it was to see the future staring back. Surfing, we called it. Surfing through cyberspace.

At first it was a game, an epic quest that led you on a trail of hyperlinks, randomly, indiscriminately, erasing time and distance, leading you deeper and deeper into the void.

Then the void turned to light, and the web became a ­vehicle for learning and sharing and spreading the news. It ­became a tool for a revolution.

South Africa in the mid-1980s, the Years of Emergency, was a state that held dearly on to its most precious ­commodity – information.

The apparatus of the state would seize information, crush it, strangle it, strip it and dispatch the shell into the public domain for easy consumption. Nobody knew anything.

Then came 1994, the Constitution and technology. The lesson we have learnt is that information is not a side effect of freedom, a nice-to-have. Information is freedom.

Those who now seek to hide or protect it must learn the lesson for themselves: you can’t unfree the internet. You can’t rein it in because it has no in. You can’t seal its borders because there are no borders to seal. You can’t shut it down because it rises up again, as pervasive and as porous as the airwaves themselves.

We look back at the genesis of our democracy through rainbow-tinted glasses, but 1994 was a year of tumult and lightning, and those bolts that hit us from out of the blue transformed our society forever. There can be no going back.

It is human nature to get used to things. We have come to take cellphones and the internet for granted, using our own hands to point and touch and explore on our tablets and our phones.

Soon we will be waiting in that long, slow line again. This time we will be tweeting and messaging and instagramming through the ether, drawing connections with other people standing in other lines. Because it makes the queue go faster, and because it ­reminds us of those Three Revolutions, of the new world that was born at the intersection of democracy and ­technology, in the year when freedom came calling.

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