Friday, 25 April 2008

Haunted by white ghosts! The curse of Dipokong

I love the Daily Sun, that scurrilous South African tabloid that plumbs the depths of human gullibility. Despite its unashamedly tabloid credentials and dubious news claims, it is a highly professional newspaper that has refined the formula for mass-market sensationalism down to the finest element of punctuation. Just in case you don't realise how sensational each story is, almost all headlines end with an exclamation mark.

As in any good sensationalist publication, this one is littered with the dark deeds of aliens - but as in illegal immigrants, rather than Elvis abductors. However, it is only a small step across the border into the land of urban legends, ghosts and other nomads of the paranormal. But don't they just know how to milk the legends that cross their desks!

The Daily Sun will become a regular visitor to this blog. But meanwhile, my all-time favourite from its pages combines racial fears with supernatural fears, and of course adds plenty exclamation marks and capital letters. It was the front page headline story on 19 March 2008, and is the story of the houses that were:


Our houses built on mlungu graves!

By Isaac Khumalo

HOUSES are cracking and small sinkholes are appearing.
Maybe it's just the rain and soft earth ...
Their township is built on ground that was once farmland in the apartheid years.
It's the curse of Dipokong - "ghost town" in seSotho and seTswana.
People say that when their township was built in 1969... the houses were built on top of mlungu graves!
At the time, say older residents, the children of the dead came carrying candles to take away the bones of their forefathers.
But they didn't take ALL the bones!
And now the remaining bones have been dug up by road workers!
For residents this was a relief.
They hope their troubles are now over.

The story then continues on page two, under the heading, "People fear cursed town!" It has a photo of a resident, with the caption reading: "Maki Lekgola says six people are buried in her yard", and a photo of the road contractor who found the bones, standing alongside a road excavation. And then it delves into a classic tale of a haunting:

They have grown used to the sound of their wardrobes moving at night... and the sounds of water from the sink when no water is running!
Some people who visit the area at night are found the next morning ... many kilometres away!

For evidence, the aforementioned Maki Lekgola (51), showed the newspaper a crack in her dining-room. And, she told them, outside her home she had built a stoep (veranda), "which soon sank into the ground!"
Even more alarming, and clear evidence of massive supernatural intervention, was the experience of Martha Tatai (49):

"Last year my aunt visited us for an ancestral ceremony. At night she went to an outside toilet and she got lost.
"She was found in Vanderbijlpark, about 35km away!"
Martha said her aunt had told them that "a white woman gave her a lift in a car".
"My aunt does not want to hear anything about visiting us after that!"

No mention of whether the white woman was a supernatural entity. That would have been a neat twist on the lady in white from our Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legends! (oops, got to watch those exclamation marks...) Read more about those here.

The story is remarkable for several reasons. One is its naked racism in using the derogatory term mlungu to refer to white people (yes,its sometimes used as a term of endearment, and has positive meanings, but let's not get disingenuous here).

More significantly, the story draws on a well-established Western tradition of tracing hauntings of homes to the location having been an ancient burial ground or the scene of mass murder. Either way, the souls of the dead can't find rest, and disturb the living who find their homes in the same locations.

This is a great basis for ghost and horror stories and movies, rather than for historical fact. Usually, as in the case of The Amityville Horror, there is a factual basis to the story (here we find the gruesome mass murder of the DeFeo family by the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo, who later claimed he had heard voices that told him what to do, and strange happenings reported by the newcomers, the Lutz family). But then the creative spirit takes over, and the result is priests fleeing in terror, and a family's race against time to get out of the house before the ghosts get them.

Most significantly, the original source of the Amityville haunting and the voice that instructed Ronald DeFeo was said to be the fact that the house was built on a site where the Shinnecock Indians had once abandoned the dying, and that it was also the site of an old cemetery. However, these claim are thoroughly debunked at the Amityville Murders web site.

While such terrors are not quite the Curse of Dipokong, that very phrase suggests vengeful spirits waiting in the wings. And what more appropriate source of that fear than the spirits of the white people who had been the perpetrators of black people's misery for so many years before?

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Thursday, 24 April 2008

The 2010 sex trade scare

Please be warned that a group of men are busy kidnapping girls from schools. They are specifically targeting schools with young girls ranging in age from nine and older.

This group of men kidnaps these girls with the intention of assisting prostitution for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Thus starts a warning doing the rounds of South African schools; a warning designed to connect the country’s greatest achievement (so far) of the 21st century with the vilest evil imaginable.

It first emerged in South Africa at the beginning of 2007 and exposed as a hoax by police. And then, in April last year, it was reported in the Press for the first time, where it was immediately debunked. The Herald newspaper carried the story on 23 April 2007, headlined:

Kidnap warnings to parents a hoax, police insist

Derrick Spies, Safety and Security Reporter, wrote:

TWO schools in Nelson Mandela Bay have warned parents that their children are at risk of being kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, after receiving warnings that syndicates were targeting children ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup.

But security experts have played down the risk, and the police have described as a hoax a fax that was sent to schools under a police letterhead warning of possible kidnappings.

Letters addressed to parents have urged them to make their children aware of the dangers and be more vigilant, after the schools received an official police communication, warning of kidnapping syndicates targeting girls as young as nine to be enslaved and used to cater to the high demand for prostitution in 2010.

The warnings have their roots in the run up to the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, when the rumour surfaced that 400 000 women and children were set to be trafficked into Germany as forced sex workers.

According to Bruno Waterfield, writing in spike (a blog-like publication that campaigns against narrow-mindedness) once the World Cup had got under way in June 2006: “The horror-story claims about trafficking into Europe were first made in the European Parliament, by a German Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer, who also sits on the parliament’s women’s committee. Her Austrian socialist colleague Christa Prets then took up the issue in an announcement made on 14 December 2005, where she linked, for the first time it seems, an influx of prostitutes from Eastern European countries with Germany’s hosting of the World Cup.”

The rumour began to take flight on 22 February 2006, when an anti-prostitution campaign called "Red Card for Forced Prostitution" was launched in Germany. Deutsche Welle reported the launch on 23 February, under the headline:

Soccer World Cup Anti-Prostitution Campaign Kicks Off

... Publicity in all countries and announcements in the German media will seek to make the public aware of prostitution "as a form of modern slavery," said Konrad Freiberg, president of the German police union (GdP), which has joined the campaign.

He said the demand for prostitutes would increase during the sporting event, which will attract millions of people to Germany.

Some 175,000 women are already involved in prostitution in the county, according to the German Protestant Church, which is also part of the awareness campaign.

Another 40,000 prostitutes, mainly from eastern Europe, could come to Germany during the soccer World Cup, several associations fighting prostitution estimate.

The tournament is to be held in Germany from June 9 to July 9, and the anti-prostitution campaign's name refers to the red card given to soccer players for penalties forcing them to leave the pitch.

From the estimate of 40,000 prostitutes visiting Germany to ply their trade, the urban legend quickly transformed the prostitutes to 40,000 women being “trafficked” – essentially forced into sex work in another country by traffickers, but still keeping within the bounds of their profession.

The earliest authoritative use of the rumour was a Congressional hearing in the United States, held under the title of "Germany's World Cup Brothels". The event was reported on 5 May 2006 by Deutsche Welle, under the headline, US, Rights Groups Blast Germany Over "World Cup Brothels".

It was a United States Congressman, no less, who got the ball rolling:

A US lawmaker and rights groups have accused Germany of doing little to prevent the exploitation of women during the World Cup, with one expert calling Berlin an official "pimp" for the event.

"While the winner of the World Cup remains unknown, the clear losers will be the thousands of women and children trafficked and sold in Germanys legal sex industry to accommodate the huge influx of demand experts anticipate will be generated by male fans attending the games," said Christopher Smith, the Republican chairman of a human rights panel in the US House of Representatives.

Germany legalized prostitution in 2002 and some 400,000 work in the sex trade, according to various estimates.

Traffickers plan to bring in some 40,000 additional "sex workers" to "service" fans during the month-long soccer event that begins June 9, according to Smith and rights advocates who testified Thursday at a congressional hearing entitled "Germany's World Cup Brothels."

Some of the 12 cities that will host the soccer championship are also reportedly planning mobile brothels and condom distribution to meet the demand for sex during the month-long event.

In the next step up the urban legend chain, the trafficked sex workers were then transformed by the BBC into women forced into sex work and smuggled into Germany.

BBC News carried the rumour on 15 May 2006 between the lines of a broader story on legalised prostitution in Germany, entitled German brothel welcomes World Cup. It said there were “fears that with millions of football fans expected in Germany during the World Cup, there will be a greater demand for prostitutes”.

The story quoted Henny Engels from the German Women's Council as saying: "We're worried that more women will be smuggled into Germany from Eastern Europe and they may be forced into working in the sex industry."

The report then added: “According to some estimates, up to 40,000 women could be forced into prostitution during the tournament, but there are no official figures.”

The reason there were no official figures is that the threat was still a mere rumour. However, according to Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian on 30 May 2006, the number came from the international feminist organisation Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). It had launched a worldwide campaign to protest against Germany's promotion and public display of prostitution during the World Cup. Bindel reported that entrepreneurs were investing heavily in brothels, with one site in Berlin geared towards entertaining 650 men at the same time.

“The organisation is worried that an estimated 40,000 women will be ‘imported’ into Germany from Africa, Asia and central and eastern Europe,” wrote Bindel. She then added, in parentheses: “(This figure is based on the number of women needed to fill the additional brothels being set up.)”

A week later, on 6 June, The Times ran a story entitled Germany warned over World Cup sex trade. The New York Times carried a similar story the previous day, but delving deeper into the nuances of the report. The Times had no such qualms. It included the following gems:

The United States has warned Germany that it must do more to stop an expected tide of sex trafficking for sexual exploitation during the football World Cup.

Thousands of foreign women, many from Eastern Europe, will engage in sex work in Germany during the four-week tournament that begins on Friday, according to some estimates.

The US called Germany a "source, transit and destination country" for sex workers and other exploited people.

The 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the US State Department did note German efforts to combat exploitation during the World Cup.

The 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report is available online. It does include Germany, but among a long list of country reports. As far as the World Cup was concerned, it carried only the following paragraph in a 295-page report:

The upcoming World Cup Soccer championship has generated widespread concern among some NGOs and governments over the potential for increased human trafficking in Germany surrounding the games. German federal and state governments report that they have taken steps to prevent trafficking during the championship by improving victim-screening mechanisms and police safeguards, sponsoring seminars, expanding print and video outreach, and strengthening inter-agency coordination. The federal government has partnered with NGOs and the German Soccer Association to launch a number of trafficking awareness campaigns. Other NGOs, several with government funding, are also conducting prevention and demand-reduction programs. Nevertheless, due to the sheer size of the event, the potential for increased human trafficking surrounding the games remains a concern.

A big difference between a warning by one Government to another, and an issue being “a concern”!

The big question is: what happened next? Were women and children forced across the border to do the bidding of loutish soccer fans?

A near-complete version of the truth finally emerged on 27 February 2007, when Bruno Waterfield published the results of his investigation in spike. His report was titled Exposed: the myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’. Waterfield’s lengthy report ran, in part:

It was widely claimed that 40,000 women would be trafficked into Germany as prostitutes during the 2006 World Cup. New EU reports seen by spiked suggest that nothing of the sort happened.

Last summer, lurid headlines claimed that 40,000 women would be smuggled by sex slavers into Germany to be prostituted to World Cup football fans. The truth is very different indeed. Newly unrestricted European Union documents reveal that the German police uncovered just five cases of ‘human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation’ related to the international football tournament.

Despite a huge ‘awareness-raising’ campaign, the setting up of telephone hotlines run by non-governmental organisations, and extra police checks on Germany’s borders, the prostitution scare stories, boosted by an unholy alliance of European left-wingers, feminists, police officers, Christians, the American right and US President George W Bush, have turned out to be pure fiction.

... The reports - Council of the European Union documents 5006/1/07 and 5008/7 - are now available and they reveal a huge magnitude of error in the claims made by campaigners that were splashed across media headlines around the world. The five cases are 8,000 times less than the 40,000 predicted.

‘The increase in forced prostitution and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation during the 2006 World Cup in Germany which was feared by some did not materialise’, concludes one report. ‘There was no sign whatsoever of the alleged 40,000 prostitutes/forced prostitutes - a figure repeatedly reported, also in international media - who were to be brought to Germany for the 2006 World Cup.’

German police officers and border guards stepped up operations in the run-up to and during the World Cup, but the huge effort failed to find the pimps, or their victims, said to be swarming across Europe’s frontiers.

‘Of the 33 investigation cases reported to the Federal Criminal Police Office on the grounds of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and/or the promotion of human trafficking, and which took place at the time of the 2006 World Cup, only five cases were assumed to have a direct link to the 2006 World Cup’, concludes the report.

... Government-funded telephone hotlines seeking to support ‘victims who are looking for help but shy away from contacting the police’ might here have shown the extent of forced prostitution in Germany’s mega-brothels. However, the helplines, which were widely promoted by fliers, posters and media coverage, with the strident support of the National Council of German Women’s Organisations, failed to uncover a problem commensurate with the levels of hysteria and outrage – and no cases of alleged forced prostitution linked to the World Cup were reported to these hotlines.

The complete EU documents subsequently became available online in PDF format. They were released internally on 3 January 2007 and 19 January 2007.

It was amazing, then, that just two months later, The Herald newspaper report of on 23 April 2007, debunking the South African urban legend, repeated the German one:

Concerns over human trafficking, specifically for prostitution, before the 2010 World Cup have surfaced before, with Doctors for Life (DFL) International recently expressing their concerns over trafficking in response to (currently suspended) police commissioner Jackie Selebi‘s proposal to legalise prostitution during 2010.

“About 400 000 women and children were trafficked into Germany to accommodate the demand for sex during the world cup games. The same can be expected for South Africa,” the group said.

However, they did put this in context:

Other bodies, such as the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), have said concerns of human trafficking were being exaggerated, detracting from the bigger problem of social issues that led to people becoming involved in prostitution.

ISS senior researcher Dr Chandré Gould, who is conducting a survey of sex workers with the assistance of Sweat, said research suggested that the majority of sex workers were in the business of their own free will.

“Our research suggests that there are cases of exploitation, such as debt bondage, within the industry, but there is nothing to indicate that children are being kidnapped and then forced to sell sex,” she said.

... Gould said that although trafficking should be a concern, it was an extreme example and the focus should rather be on the larger problem of social issues, such as poverty and unemployment, which led to people turning to prostitution.

The schools reported to have circulated the warning, however, behaved in the time-honoured style of typical public responses to such warnings. Sonop Primary School principal Theo Strydom said he had sent letters out to the parents as a precaution. Susannah Fourie Primary School principal Blits Fourie said he was relieved to hear that the letter was a hoax, but that it was better to err on the side of caution.

And so say all of our cautionary tale victims.

National police spokesman Senior Superintendent Vishnu Naidoo also informed the Herald that the letter was a hoax, and that it had started in the Northern Cape as early as January 2007. But he revealed one significant detail:

“The hoax letter was initially received by a police captain in Olifantshoek, who sent out a notification without verifying the information. He has since sent out a retraction, but the letter keeps on resurfacing. Not a single report of any such incident has taken place since this started circulating.”

Thus the urban legend is thoroughly debunked, but Naidoo’s admission contains the basis for the further spread of the urban legend: at one point, the warning was sent out officially by a senior police officer.

Two weeks later, on 8 May 2007, Associated Press finally reported the same facts that had formed the basis of the spike report in February, although it apparently came from a different source. As reported by the International Herald Tribune, it was headlined:

Study: Dire predictions of sex trafficking due to World Cup were wrong

GENEVA: Only five people were confirmed as having been trafficked into Germany for forced prostitution during the soccer World Cup, a global migration group said Tuesday, adding that dire predictions of tens of thousands of victims were "unfounded and unrealistic."

A report by the International Organization for Migration praised Germany for working with campaign groups well in advance of the June-July 2006 event to put in place the necessary measures against trafficking.

Before the World Cup, some trafficking experts warned that up to 40,000 foreign women, many from Eastern Europe, would be forced into sex work during the four-week tournament.

The European Union, the United States and the Vatican put pressure on Germany for supposedly not doing enough to stop an expected tide of sex workers arriving for the event.

"The estimate of 40,000 women expected to be trafficked was unfounded and unrealistic," the 48-page report said.

IOM said Germany's raids on brothels, information campaigns and coordination with non-governmental groups should serve as a model for hosts of future major sporting events, such as next year's Olympics in Beijing or European soccer championships in Austria and Switzerland.

The migration body said, however, that more accountability was needed among rights groups and media when citing figures, so that no one could be accused of organizing a scare campaign while highlighting the serious dangers in human trafficking.

That last line could be a mantra for the battle against urban legends reported as fact. Waterfield puts it a little differently:

Here we have a tournament which millions of people around the world are enjoying, and all that various politicians, police authorities, religious groups and feminist campaigners can see, often on the basis of unsubstantiated or inflated figures, is an opportunity for degradation and abuse on a massive scale. We should show these scaremongers the red card.

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Monday, 14 April 2008

The ghost of the mine shafts

This tale of South Africa's haunted mines comes from the pages of Homeless Talk, a newspaper written mostly by homeless people and sold by street vendors who themselves are homeless.

Luke Jentile, a former miner, contributes a column about his experiences under the heading Deep Levels. His April 2008 column is entitled Eerie tale from the shafts. He describes how miners get used to working in darkness, with the headlamps on their helmets often the only source of light. But sometimes, he says, it can become quite dreadful, especially when the veteran miners start telling their stories.

"The truth about these stories is uncertain, or it’s just a myth," writes Jentile. In some cases, clearly, they serve the traditional urban legend role of cautionary tale, with miners told not to go deep in unused sites. And falling rocks are not the only danger:

Jalimbo told us about a mineworker who got lost underground for about five days. He said the man was kidnapped by an underground ghost of someone who died there earlier.

The story went: "There are ghosts here, especially in the 'madala site'. I remember this guy who decided to take a short-cut through the unused site to the station. He got into trouble when his headlamp fuel expired and the light went off. He couldn’t move to nowhere as it was darker than the darkness of the surface. The he tried to move slowly on his knees with difficulty.

"Then something grabbed him by the arm. He tried to pull away but the thing held him tight and took him to a certain place where it gave him a shovel and said to him, Hey madoda, you work here, push down the stof rocks and make clean this madala site. But as he started working the ghost gave him a drilling machine to drill the hols on the rock wall. Next it told him to put the explosives in the holes. Afterwards the ghost told him to get off and rest.

"That went on for five days until this man was found by others who happened to go the same way. But he couldn’t speak, and tried to hide behind the timber packs. The men then rushed to alert the mine authorities, who then sent a rescue team to hunt for him.

"They found him and brought him to the surface. What shocked everybody was the writing all over his body. These were money figures in thousands, a message that the mine should pay him, or else trouble will befall the mine. So he was paid and given a permanent discharge."

It is a wonderful tale, worthy of the best of supernatural fiction; little wonder it gripped the imagination of miners. That it is an urban legend is beyond doubt: such an incident, especially involving numerous witnesses and the mine agreeing to pay out a “pension” as a result of it, would not easily be kept quiet.

The archetypal element of the ghost leaving a warning is a plot twist reminiscent of great horror stories and haunting. But to have the warning written into the victim’s skin is priceless; as a cautionary tale, it ensures that it will not be forgotten by impressionable young miners tempted to take short cuts.

  • The publication from which this story is quoted, Homeless Talk, is facing serious financial difficulties. It supports more than 400 homeless vendors who survive from selling the newspaper, and is appealing for public assistance in finance and computer equipment in order to continue helping the less fortunate. If you can assist, phone +27 11 838 6651 or e-mail

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