Let Freedom Ring: The Brick That Changed My World, in the Year That South Africa Changed.


I remember 1994 well, for a number of reasons. I remember it for the Long Wait in the Big Queue, and the subsequent sight of the SAAF Pumas, so prominent in the Border War against Swapo and the Cubans, now flying their Rainbow Flags low over the Union Buildings.

I remember it because it was the year I bought an ill-fated comic-book business, in partnership with a fellow journalist and a trio of cartoonists, whose names I will not mention to spare them embarrassment and me a lawsuit.

(Moral of story: don’t buy a comic-book business when everyone around you is buying baked beans and candles.)

And I remember it because it was the year I walked into Game Cresta – charged into Game Cresta – to become one of the first people in South Africa to buy a cellular telephone handset.

There was only really one model on the shelves back then, about a month or so before the elections: the Nokia 1011, which would later be known as the Nokia Brick, for reasons that became obvious as soon you held it in your hand.

It weighed about half-a-kilogram, and it was more or less the size of a brick, only longer when you extended the antenna, which you pretty much had to do to make or receive a call.

It had a tiny monochrome screen, and big raised buttons and an odd chin with a little voice-hole at the bottom.

In fact, when I look at it now, it looks like a cellular phone would look if you took the head of Bender from Futurama and used it as a cellular phone.

But still, the Nokia 1011 was the coolest device I had seen in my whole life, and I instantly bought it on the Perpetual Upgrade Plan from Vodacom.

Just think: a wireless mobile telephone that you could carry around with you to call people and tell them you were using a wireless mobile telephone!

“Hi, I’m calling from my cellular telephone,” I would say, the idea being to let them know that the quality of the call might be erratic, and also that I was the owner of a cellular telephone.

They really were a big deal back in 1994, and the Nokia 1011 was the biggest of them all.

When I answered or made a call while walking down the street – the 1011 didn’t yet have the famous Nokia ringtone, it just rang like a normal phone – people would stop, turn around, and stare as I blithely ignored them and yelled into the voice-hole.

When the phone rang during a meeting, the whole meeting would come to a halt, not because anyone was annoyed, but because everyone wanted to touch my phone and stab the buttons for themselves.

This phone of mine had the power to drop jaws, but more than that, it had the power to save the day.

Once, I was in a car with a couple of guys from a production house, and we were on our way to Pretoria for a briefing, when the one guy slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road.

He’d left an important number with the receptionist, back at the office. He was about to swing the wheel into a u-turn, when I calmly pulled out my device, and said, “Why don’t I just call the office and get the number for you?”

I was a hero that day. I was Superman with a cellphone.

But then, of course, everyone started getting the stupid things, and today they are no longer devices, they’re appendages, ubiquitous and cacophonous, and not only does every single person in the country carry one, but some people, irritatingly, carry two, one in each pocket, people like me.

But every two years, around Freedom Day, I start thinking of my cellphones all over again, because that’s when it’s time to get an upgrade, and I think how, for better or worse, for democracy and cellular telephony, we’ve sure come a long, long way.




2 comments on “Let Freedom Ring: The Brick That Changed My World, in the Year That South Africa Changed.

  1. Lovely article Gus,I remember my first mobile in South Africa well too. Not too many years after yours in fact.My first call was made to my mother from Durban beach and I think my first words were “I’m on the beach Ma. And I’m on the phone and my feet are in the sand and there’s the sea and everything!”It was great.Ta also for reminding me of the long queue.R!

  2. Thank you for your comment! Amazing how quickly we get to take advanced technology for granted, but I still remember the thrill of making and taking those first few calls.

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