Excerpt from “Riding with the Dream Patrol” by Lauren Beukes
13 Sep 2016
This is an excerpt from PEN SA member Lauren Beukes’s story “Riding with the Dream Patrol”, from the anthology How Free is FREE? Reflections on Freedom of Creative Expression in Africa, Arterial Network’s free ebook compilation of poems, articles and works of fiction on the subject of freedom of creative expression in Africa. Read more about the eBook here and download it from Arterial Network’s website.[CAPE TOWN] THE VIEW from the Mongooses’ offices at an undisclosed location on the Foreshore overlooks white-sailed yachts on a choppy grey sea and the distant industry of shipping containers shuffled around by cranes and trucks in the harbour. On the other side, the bustle of the City Bowl is reduced to the blank facades of buildings, the faint hum of traffic. It’s an enviable view for a government department. It’s a pity no-one’s taking it in.
That’s because the Mongoose team, some 48 of them (on this floor at least), are glued to their screens. A mix of programmers and “intelligence collectors”, the elite surveillance unit is watching the greatest show on earth. You.
“It’s actually very tedious,” says Lerato Makhetha, while looking over my shoulder at the information scrolling across the screen. The Mongooses’ director of operations is sharply pretty, 36 and barely five foot two; a petite Big Brother in heels and a Maya Prass dress. It would be easy to underestimate her.
The info stream is harvested from cellular phone calls, social media, CCTV, cookies, browser histories and even embedded fashion cams, hot off the catwalk and feeding information straight into the Mongooses’ servers.
“We’ve got algorithms in place to do the heavy lifting; detecting blatant abuse, unauthorised disclosures on flagged materials, problem phrases, and links to and from blacklisted sites, criminal activities, scams, illegal pornography. But at the end of the day, you still need a human being to sort through it all. Is this a real terrorist threat to national security or just someone blowing off steam on a blog?”
The work may all about the subtleties, but Makhetha is not. Formed from the remains of the Hawks after they were disbanded, the Mongooses follow a simple mandate.
“To bite the heads off snakes in the grass and chew up the dirty 159 little beetles trying to turn up shit and undermine our democracy.”
“Relax,” she says, brushing off my obvious discomfort with a laugh, “It’s all constitutional. It’s not like we’re the Gestapo here.”
(Image courtesy of Arterial Network)