A new road from Cape to Cairo

Monday, 22 March 1999

Today's fantasies are tomorrow's realities.
Freedom is not a dream.

SHARPEVILLE, May 21, 1960. Pass laws, Pan Africanist Congress, burning of passes, shots, number of people dead, international outrage.

I wasn't born when the events took place that led to yesterday being recognised as Human Rights Day. The very real warm flesh-and-blood people whose death all those years ago paid toward the freedoms I enjoy today are strangers to me. I don't know what they looked like, what were their dreams, their aspirations. Did they too lie awake at night thinking of what the future would hold for their children? Did they worry about food, jobs, clothing, education? Did they think about partying on Saturday nights? Did they enjoy movies? Did they love soccer? Did they go to church? Did they worry about contraception?

Were they any different from the rest of us?

The events and people that are burned in my mind are those of my generation. Faces like those of Hector Pietersen and Steve Biko are real to me. And emblazoned across my adolescent memories in between those two faces are images of a different kind which - coincidentally - return this month with the 37th anniversary of Sharpeville.

But let's put that thought process on hold for a moment. This month sees our intrepid Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Jay Naidoo, zipping up to the northern tip of this continent where he will begin a journey that has captured the imagination of king and beggar alike.

Naidoo's team will travel down through Africa from Tunisia to the southern tip of the continent at Cape Aghullas. In so doing, he will be blazing a trail along what he hopes will be the forerunner of a new African Superhighway. We're not talking about a highway of tar upon macadamised stone, but rather a satellite-enhanced communication infobahn to pull the Dark Continent kicking and screaming into the technological spotlight of the new millennium. Coincidentally, there's a couple of other exciting things that have happened this month. Saudi Arabia and Iran have finally plugged into the Internet. And the trailer for the next Star Wars movie has been released.

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And all of these things in a strange and wonderful way are actually interlinked.

Star Wars was released somewhere in between Hector Pietersen and Steve Biko into my mental space. And the images of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are as much a part of my formative years as apartheid. And that's what made me think about the people who died at Sharpeville as people - I have my images of despair and I have my images of hope and fantasy, and that balance is necessary if we are not to go insane. I wonder what they had?

Adolescents and teenagers in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran haven't had much in the way of fantasy to cling to. For example, take your typical marginalised schoolboy from ... let's say ... Bonteheuwel, Cape Town. Said kid has access to negative fantasies (like gangsters and druglords) or positive fantasies (like Benni McCarthy or Paul Adams). Plus, there's a host of other negatives and positives served up by the - (insert tongue firmly in cheek) - Public Broadcaster. The point is that he does have access to fantasies.

Kids in Saudi Arabia don't have that sort of thing, and with good reason. If they did, they might start to dream. And if they start to dream, they might realise that there is more to life than living in a monarchy that thrives upon exploitation of those not of the royal family's ranks.

The new trailer for Star Wars episode 1, The Phantom Menace, was released on the Internet last week as a 25 megabyte download. Some 30 million people have since sucked over the two-and-a half-minute video clip from www.starwars.com. There's a new generation of dreamers out there constructing mental lightsabers and fighting to free the universe from evil empires and dictators.

And it all needs bandwidth. You've got a handheld satellite connection to the universe, and no tinpot dictator is able to cut your link to freedom of thought. Sweet dreams...