Monday, June 24, 2024

In rights-obsessed era, social media pranking comes to Botswana

In an era when telephone handsets were uniformly basic, the only mischief that could be effected through a telephone was to anonymously prank-calling a number.  In a world when technology has improved a million times over from what was the case when Alexander Graham Bell (or Antonio Meucci) invented this revolutionary gadget, today’s multi-function telephone enables greater mischief. There is another element: a generation that was raised on a steady diet of rights and wasn’t told enough about rights is the source of this heightened mischief. Via an iPhone, which comes standard with a powerful video camera, a mindset that has calcified around individualism, brazenness has replaced anonymity in a barely legal form of pranking that is platformed on a Chinese app called TikTok. To be clear, Facebook allowed individual subscribers to shoot and post videos but TikTok, which is now the world’s most popular app, upped the ante.

To be clearer still, some of the videos (especially those featuring children) are clean and innocent and really fun to watch. One is of two young, white American girls. In one, a girl who looks about five or six years old, introduces herself as “a strong black woman”, putting energetic emphasis on that descriptor. She adds that on account of being so, nobody can “fluence” her because she is her “own personality.” In the other, a girl of almost similar age is being interviewed by her mother as she arrives home from school. To the question of what she learnt in school that day, she responds by saying that she learnt about “Martha Luca King Junior”, that being corruption of Martin Luther King Junior. “What did he do?” the mother asks.

“He died for our sins,” the little responds, causing the mother to attempt correcting her but failing to do so. “No, that was –” the mother begins to say but bursts out laughing as the video ends. Perhaps two levels above such innocent clean fun is the TikTok video of the children who prank their parents. This type of video is really tough to watch if you grew up in an era (20th century) when relations between children and parents were defined by lines that could never be crossed, when a child could never be “best friends” with its mother.

One of the most popular pranks among pairs of mother-daughter best friends takes the form of the latter shooting a prank video in which she claims to be applying for a scholarship or some prize-money contest. The lie fed to the mothers is that the more heart-rending the sob story, the better the chances of winning the money. Mother and daughter sit down for the camera and the latter begins to tell tales of fictitious hardship.

In one too many videos, the daughter tells a lie about the mother having “prostituted” herself in order that she could provide for her family. This may be funny to some but blurring the role and responsibilities between mother and daughter represents egregious parenting failure. The worst sort of prank though involves accosting total strangers in the street or calling them on the phone for the amusement of other strangers. The feelings and time of the targets (who are actually victims) don’t matter; what matters is that the pranksters shoot videos with a good enough chance of racking up enough views to make a channel popular. Away from sadistic amusement, there is a commercial aspect because there is a threshold past which subscribers get paid.

While it has yet to spread far and wide, the pranking disease has come to Botswana and the country’s cultural servitude to South Africa (and the west) strongly suggests that this disease could soon become an epidemic. Sunday Standard reviewed three TikTok videos made locally. The first one is of a guy at some shopping mall who pretends to be about to throw up and rushes strangers passing by with blown-up cheeks of someone feeling nauseous. The second is of a girl in Gaborone, who is in the company of three co-conspirators. She calls up her boyfriend in Palapye on the phone to say that their relationship is not working and basically suggests a ménage à quatre on either end.

The third is of a stick-wielding man who shows up at the stall of a female street-hawker who sells a meat dish called mokwetjepe, which is comprised of pieces of meat and visceraSeemingly strength-testing the stick by beating it against the palm of his hand, he asks her menacingly: “Is it you?” Evidently traumatised, the woman seeks to delay what she believes is impending physical assault by pleading with the man.

“Wait first!” she says in English that mistranslates “Ema pele”, her voice and demeanour conveying the terror she feels. “Is she the one who prepares delicious mokwetjepe,” asks the man, his voice taking on new geniality much to the delight of the woman who reveals that she had earlier clashed with a male customer. The latter is significant in one vital respect: pranks that tether on the edge of physical violence are very popular. The latter means that for purposes of driving up viewership, more and more Batswana pranksters will be trying these sort of pranks.

A contributing factor will be Botswana’s cultural servitude to black South Africa. The species of the prank in question is gaining a lot of traction in South Africa and, as has been happening over the years, it is just a matter of time before the same thing happens in Botswana. This prank is also meant to do something else (provoke physical reaction) and here the issue transitions from fun to legal seriousness. In terms of Roman-Dutch law, provocation does not constitute a general defence in criminal cases but can play a mitigating factor to reduce the severity of a crime. What that means is that if someone responds by dislocating the jaw stranger of someone pretending to be vomiting on him with a good upper cut, there is no guarantee that he will get off scot-free because he was provoked.

Pleading provocation could actually prove intent and thus establish a motive to commit a crime. However, there are also cases in which courts have found that provocation justified physical violence. In summary, the case can go either way at a magistrate court but the less permissive indigenous kgotla (customary court) will look at the matter in a completely different way. The Setswana word for provocation is “borumulano.” Time will tell but there is no way in the world that a prankster can make a strong legal case at the kgotla on the basis of “borumulano.”

More than 98 percent of assault cases go to the kgotla and it is almost guaranteed that Botswana’s first physical assault occasioned by pranking will end up at the kgotla.

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