Mega events like the Global Citizen Festival have mega consequences that are positive and negative

Beyoncés performance at the Global Citizen Festival was one of the years highlights.

I was ambushed into attending the #GlobalCitizenFestival. After mutterings I agree and sneakily packed my book “Hello World” by Hanna Fry figuring it was going to be a long day. This book is a UK non-fiction nominee for 2018.  I dashed over to Parktown’s Campus Square to purchase four ponchos not trusting the Highveld weather. The kids laugh at me. The wife compromised by packing just two ponchos.

We arrived at the FNB stadium via Uber at a cost R120 – happy with the pricing and service from driver, Gift. We were his 9813’th customer. We banter on his 4.8 out of 5, joking about where he lost the 0.2 points. We gratefully tip him and enter an isolated Uber drop-off and pickup zone. The zone is royally decked with the Uber brand replete with free cold sparkling water, a charging station and as I would later discover a free WiFi hot spot! The zone had signs imploring us to use this zone only for our homeward trip. A marketing coup, I muse.

Uber and Global Citizens faithfully promised dynamic pricing and no price surging. This was indeed true for the journey to see Beyoncé as the price for our specific journey varied all morning between R120 and R180. I watched out of academic interest while finishing breakfast.

After leaving the drop off zone, we walk and walk to get into the Calabash. Memories of the four of us going to the 2010 World Cup flood in. Shakira! Waka, Waka! The water provided to us by Uber proved a welcome companion. The Uber brand grew in my head.

We get to our kids entrance gate not through unhelpful signposts, but a mutually supportive crowd. The kids go to the standing arena wanting to dance right next to the stars. Thankfully the better half and I were relegated to the stands with seats. Missing our gate, the crowd helpfully allowed and supported us to walk along several knee-high obstacles between a trench and a tall fence to get to our gate.

Hannah Fry, the wife and I were going to be just fine. The concert began and we had fun while slow roasting in the Highveld sun. I had to leave my artificial intelligence book under the seat behind and tried to move my two left feet. Kids around me joyfully tried to find the rhythm in me especially when Casper Nyovest erupted. The screen buzzed intermittently reminding us to be careful of our belongings and to take care. How thoughtful!

We tried to manage our four devices carefully through the long day with only one half charged power bank however the overwhelming concert compelled us to record! I switched my phone off at 40% power thinking it would be fine.  A 30-second flash storm with huge raindrops erupted and I smugly put on the poncho, hoping my kids would remember to do the same.

The concert over, we joyously walk back to the Uber zone at 1130 pm chatting eagerly about our favourite performances. The eerie sight of very few cars and many people wondering aimlessly around the tent greeted us. So began the nightmare. All the positive adjectives went negative.

The zone became a laager. The tent covering was too small for the desperate, stuck revellers in the Highveld cold. The six chargers at the charging station ultimately proved inefficient and were without access to most. We, all four of us, tried to launch the Uber App but nothing seemed to stick. We were unable to get in contact with any drivers, our requests for transport would seemingly cancel themselves. Then the Uber App crashed. We were then told by a security guard about the Uber WiFi, called UberRide – not Uber staff! We hopped onto the free WiFi and this too suffered from contention.  We did once get a driver to respond and my phone died – he called me eventually.  I have to say unequivocally that the security guards where the most helpful people in the tent. Always available and imploring us to be safe with our belongings.

Between the hours of 12pm and 3am the ponchos served another purposed as we huddled for warmth in the highveld cold because the laager could not cater for all of us.

When a problem arrives one feels mild irritation. When the problem persists frustration sets in. When the problem continues, anger manifests itself. When the problem escalates, futility arise. Then and only then does one put on their thinking cap.  So I put away my frustration and tried to find information. A common problem amongst those deserted at the zone was our dead/dying phones. The 6 charging points simply were not enough – even my neighbourhood one-man store has more. Our four devices and one power bank was dead. Trying to charge them was fruitless – the look that people gave me when I asked for access terrified me! It’s scary being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way to call for help from family or friends.

To my fellow sufferers who indifferently hogged those charging stations that night – think dear country men think. Did your phones really need to be fully charged before you could surrender a charger? You stood at those stations for hours and surfed! What if the person desperately trying to find a way home with no powered phones to call for help was your family?

Serendipitously the fact that we had no powered mobile probably save us though a little more on that later!

Back to my thinking.  I ask around for Uber management. They suddenly did not exist. Uber staff preened and pouted in the morning. And ducked and dived at 1am. Lesson to Uber: Take responsibility. Show leadership.

As I tried explaining to a young lady in an Uber staff shirt: “It is as it is. We will not be able forgive but let’s try to solve the problem, we face.” I implored her to go to the charging station and politely ask people vacate the area once their batteries reach about 30%. We were unable to make alternative transport arrangements because of this issue. She was silent. No acknowledgement nor affirmation of my input. I don’t get it, a technology company, like Uber, employs people with no problem solving skills? Not even listening skills?

We then hear that Uber is picking up passengers from the Sasol garage down the road although we were cautioned not to walk there. There are mutters of muggings and violence. How does one e-hail without technology?  Its 2:45am, the concerts been over for hours and we are desperate. Cold, unsure and with no operational phone.  Then a wonderful young lady comes to our rescue. I will never forget her kindness. She has a working phone and is in contact with a driver and offers to share her ride with us. We did have to walk to the Sasol garage though.

After much debate, we decide to walk to the garage. A plaintive middle age women told us not to leave. She warned us over and over again about the danger but we had no choice. We could not spend the night there. We silently prayed and decide to do the Walk of Hell. We walk furtively and carefully, huddled with new friends when our kind saviour called her Uber driver once again at the intersection across from Sasol.

A few minutes later we were literally shooed by a lady police into a vehicle she claimed to be an Uber. We had no way of verifying this with no functional phone and a sense of hopelessness, we fearfully bailed in. The price R800? Cash. So much for dynamic pricing. Survival mode kicked in with the pragmatic wife agreeing to the price and informing we had the money at the hotel and will pay there, even though we had the amount between us.

We were lucky. We would later hear of the harrowing tales that happened at the very garage. My daughter’s friend’s young brother was waved over by a smiling young man. Sensing friendship, he innocently walked over outstretched to shake hands. He was attacked and his phone grabbed from him. Other family friend’s had their car ransacked. My niece witnessed several muggings herself.

Herewith is my narrative as a technologist and a parent on this:

When we, as a nation, ask to be the goldfish in the fish bowl, we must except and expect that the glaring eye of the world is also present in indifferent attendance. It will record and amplify every error. Our nation is part of a big ugly world. We cannot claim to be the best in the world and leader in the continent and when things go wrong, go wrong, go wrong hide behind development status.

My personal view is that the drivers simply made an economic and pragmatic logistical decision to do their own thing, to resist price dynamics, benefit from surge and use Sasol as their turning point. The transport logistics to and from the Uber zone, was simply not geared for the traffic volume.  My Uber driver explained they recanted, wanted none of this dynamic pricing and switched over to their own navigation systems. I think the drivers got us into Nasrec and then simply ignored the exit Uber rank, probably after experiencing the long entry delay. They patrolled outside at Sasol. So did the criminals when they found out. The criminals figured the easy picking. This was weary oblivious families with more beer then they should, walking with careless abandon. It’s like the tired salmon going upstream with the lazy bear ‘cherry’ picking his meal. Lesson: Economics, not goodwill, dictates actions.

Further, we do live in a violent society. That could not have changed in a day. Goodwill attracts a lot of well-wishers and supporters. Crowds attract criminals. This is called common sense. So we should have prepared and perhaps South Africa should have had more involvement in the preparation phase. Think 2010. It was peaceful and international events took place at the self-same stadium. Lesson: Remember what worked. Replicate and sensitively improve.

Somebody said that contention was a problem, when too many devices try to connect at the same time to the Uber App, was the problem at the tent? If this was the case at least some cars should have been visible! Uber drivers made an economic decision and penalized the short rides by selectively ignored local requests. It was not contention – it was a boycott. They unwittingly contributed to the drama. Uber you should have implemented a solid queueing system when you won the business. You won the tender, my family therefore was your opportunity and as it turned out, your problem. You failed us. Uber you need to have conversations with me and our universities. You have technology, we have context. Lesson: Take precautions. Take responsibility. Understand context.

Here is my challenge to the Telcos and Minister Cele – find the devices that have been stolen. Determine the IMEI number of the devices and go after the folk who have the devices and charge them with crimes against the state.

Start with the end in mind. What was the goal of the concert? It ultimately was for raising money to solve the worlds problem. How? Using Madiba’s magic. Uber bought into the narrative no doubt, in part, to rebut the negative criticism of them stealing taxi business. Madiba did not collect money he built schools. Lesson: Don’t give money, Uber, build bridges. We do know there is a low-scale war between the e-hailers and the established legal taxis systems particularly in Gauteng. Uberising the concert simply increased the divide and potentially exacerbates the problem. If you used this as a publicity stance for both sets of drivers. You marketing could have doubled! To demonstrate I am thinking holistically I admit the so-called illegal taxis is yet another problem. Start with the end in mind.

The allegation of police indifference is perhaps a bit unfair. Remember, we were largely left with traffic police by 1am. The number of traumatised people who spoke to me and others, after they ran back to the Uber tent, is persuasive evidence to warrant an investigation. Traffic cops are not riot squad.  They were unhelpful, agreed. Let’s however talk about the event police apolitically.  If the traffic police on the road to Nasrec had body and dash cameras, the allegations could be neutrally tested. Lesson: Deploy recording technology for mega events.

Sasol got hash tagged and regrettably dragged into this mess. To be fair, Sasol is a petrol vendor, not a security agency. They had to protect the courtyard – imagine if such a keypoint was abandoned? The video camera recording that Sasol provided will be helpful. This is a form of digilantism. Be careful though that the recording quality will be poor. Watching Beyoncé was once indeed a once in the lifetime experience? It was also when I rediscovered the value of family life. God bless Azania. We need to win the country, win over our criminals for the benefit of all our people. The solution is jobs and education.

Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology. His areas of research include e-democracy, Social media, and unstructured big data.