A COLLECTION OF STORIES BY LUKE TAGG
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SMOKE: Emergency Calls

Originally published: 12 March 2003

I read an extraordinary story on IOL yesterday, taken from the Pretoria News on Wednesday, about a 37-year old man who was assaulted by his gardener and then was unable to make an emergency call for help because he didn't have any airtime on his Telkom prepaid.

It's a bizarre tale from a number of perspectives, not least of which is that the victim - Mark Shelton of Goodwood, Cape Town - is a "professional clown" (not every day you meet one of those).

The fact that he's a clown would explain why his prepaid had run out - anyone who's ever spent a little time in the entertainment industry will agree that your living is eked out in fits and starts, and that work is never regular enough to keep you above the breadline indefinitely.

But the story gets weirder - Shelton was reportedly attacked by his gardener at his Goodwood home (the article didn't say why Shelton was attacked, or whether he provoked the guy, or what), and while there's nothing unusual about being attacked in your home in South Africa, what's unusual in this case is the manner of attack.

The gardener must have been pretty upset about something, because he stabbed Shelton 11 times with a pitchfork before throwing battery acid all over him. Shelton got third degree burns and required skin grafts on his legs and face, and now his career as a clown is in jeopardy.

And that's no joke.

As if all that isn't enough, the worst was yet to come. Shelton - who uses Telkom prepaid - tried placing calls to emergency numbers 911 and 10111, but in both cases was informed by an recorded voice that he had insufficient funds to make the call and that he should purchase more airtime if he wanted to get through.

According to some Telkom Suit, calls to emergency numbers are free for both prepaid and postpaid customers, but that when someone has exhausted their airtime they are put in a "period of grace", during which they can receive calls - but not make any.

Shelton, naturally, was outraged, and to be honest - so am I. Well - mildly astonished, if you want the absolute truth, but let's stop clowning around here.

There are two sides to the argument, of course: the first is that if you want a telephone you must pay for one, and not come crying when you haven't paid your account. Perfectly reasonable, legal, factual argument.

But the second is that Telkom is one of the most massive corporations in this country, and indeed in Africa, yet they'll stick to their guns when it comes to squeezing a few extra bob from some poor clown who's being attacked in his own home by an enraged gardener with a pitchfork and a bucket of acid.

And if they ain't gonna do it for the clown, you can bet your last cigarette on the fact that they won't do it for you.

Surely calls to emergency numbers - in any country - should be free? Telkom is covering their asses by saying that the calls are for free, but only if your account is paid.


But what happens in a situation like the one described above? Maybe you couldn't give a continental about a clown, but let's say you're a low income worker struggling to survive and are waiting for your measly end of month cheque and some bloke breaks in and starts raping your child.

"No, lady - you must pay your account first. If you don't have any money to do so then we're not going to do a damn thing. Give him a condom."

There's something wrong here. In the United States calls to local numbers are free, and while there's no way in hell Telkom would ever consider something like that, the least they could do is give people access to emergency numbers.

It won't break them, it won't see them fall into financial ruin, it won't trigger a world economy collapse and years of blackouts, pillaging and looting.

But it may well save a life or two, or help out a clown who can't see the funny side of a pitchfork.

It's an immensely disempowering thing to not be in contact with the outside world - in days gone by you had your axe behind the door in your cottage out on the misty moors, and the license to use it on anyone who came around with malicious intent.

But these days you can't just hack up someone who looks at you funny, or challenge them to a duel - the law must take its course (although the first Pig to walk through my door uninvited gets a fork to the eye and a cosh to the temple, and if it gains me a date with Bubba for 10-15 then so be it).

For the law to take its course, of course, you need to be able to contact the law, and since the greedy, self-serving bastards who run telecommunications in this country simply don't give a stuff about anything other than bottom lines (despite trying to perpetually convince us otherwise through dramatic, epic adverts which feature rolling plains, setting suns and black people rising above their previously disadvantaged status to embrace the 21st century) - you can expect gardeners by the thousand to be making sustained attacks upon you and your families, without fear of recourse.

But only if you haven't paid.

Big corporations are very fond of their social awareness campaigns and are always the first to tell us precisely which community or cause they are currently uplifting, but I think Telkom can stop trying to convince us that their rural programmes are not to garner a whole new market but rather to uplift the said areas, and give those folks and all the rest of us free access to emergency numbers instead.

That would be uplifting the community. And they'll still be a very wealthy company. I promise.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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