On 31 December 2009, Irish actress Victoria Smurfit came close to personal tragedy during a night out in Cape Town. The vehicle in which she and her family were travelling was driving along Strand Street in the city centre, when a bullet shattered the passenger window of the taxi, grazed her elbow, and lodged in the dashboard.
It was a nightmare experience in anyone's books but, one would have expected, it would have been forgotten once she had shared the experience with her fans through her newspaper column. Except that she made a startling claim in her column, right out of the land of urban legends. Let's follow her story as she tells what happened following a meal at a "fancy restaurant", en route to a club shortly before midnight, under the headline, 'It was kill a tourist day - and we were in the way':
Crack! Or pop? I can’t really work out exactly which sound is correct as it happened so fast. Maybe it was a crack and a pop as the bullet entered through (sister-in-law) Charlie's window. Crashing through the taxi, which had slowed down to turn right in to the street where the nightclub was.
Everything became very slow. No one looked at each other. It was not the sound of the copper bullet that told us we had been shot at, at point blank range, it was that we all felt it journey past us.
Either in front or behind our faces, it tangibly blew the air as it crossed our paths. The cab had taken a violent intake of breath. With the air in the vehicle sucked out, it left us in no doubt. That was not a stone that hit us.
Blood started seeping out of my collection of veins at the elbow joint. I could see Doug, next to me, was upright and shiny eyed. I reached an arm out to him. Thank God, he was fine.
The balloon we had nicked from the suburban restaurant bobbed behind his ears. He touched my solar plexus. Had I been hit? No, it was my heart trying to beat out.
Seconds ticked in silence. ‘Turn around and look, turn around and check your family are alive’ I told myself.
I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t bring myself to swivel to potential carnage.
The seats behind me held precious people. Mum, My brother Dermot and his wife Charlie. Still quiet.
‘Is everyone OK??!’ I shrieked. Well I think I shrieked, in my head I did.
‘Wow’ said Charlie.
‘Go driver, Go Go,’ Dermot instructed with the power of a man not used to being disobeyed.
The car started to slow down. ‘Llandudno. Now!’ Dermot had slid down his seat.
Trying to drag Charlie and Mum with him, out of range of this random attack.
My brother was the only one of us whose brain had taken in the outside. What and who was out there? The rest of us were in a clear fog of disbelief. No further shots rang out; no one had a chance to rob us.
At this stage we can all sympathise, and share in the family's gratitude that no one was seriously hurt. But then the South Africa syndrome entered her tale.
This is a term that describes the tendency among individuals and the media, both South African and foreign, to ascribe dramatically more negative connotations to events that, in other countries, might make news but would not be seen as symptoms of the collapse of civilisation. For example, a corrupt politician is exposed in the United Kingdom (and another, and another, and another). The public and the media have a field day, milking the story for all it’s worth. But never do they suggest that their country faces collapse as a result of the corruption. The same thing happens in South Africa. Immediately, a large body of opinion, among both local citizenry and foreign media, crow at the impending collapse of society and civilisation.
Ms Smurfit easily embraced the syndrome:
I feel a desperate need to know our taxi driver's name. Alvin he says. So unperturbed is our cabby I asked if this happens all the time in Cape Town. Well we have all read the stories.
‘Not to me.’ His voice was steady. Odd. Maybe he is thinking about the state of his car or policy.
‘I am bleeding!’ strangely thrilled that I have a war wound, I picked out a lump of Doug's window from my elbow. Schrapnel.
'Hospital?’ questioned flat Alvin.
It was a couple of minutes to midnight and we wanted to get to the bosom of our rental. It was only a surface bleed.
Alvin kindly slid open the door on Doug's side of the car and the window, which had taken the exit of our bullet, collapsed and smattered on the ground.
At the very moment we all gratefully stepped out of the taxi, a chorus of ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ could be heard around the Camps Bay coastline. Dermot raised an ironic eyebrow. Never had any of us had such a sober end to a year.
We called the police. We felt it was our civic duty to inform them that someone with a gun was roaming the main street.
‘Yes, thank you,’ and a hang up. Well, we were interrupting celebrations I suppose.
A few days later, Charlie's mother, was at a lunch locally and happened to be sitting next to a lady involved in the police.
The next day two cops were discharged to our rental to take statements. It turns out Alvin was on a scam and had logged the incident for his insurance.
He had quoted ’a shotgun came into the window. No passengers. Car was worth 40 grand'. Hmm, not the one we were in.
I can't blame Alvin. It’s a tough town. Apparently what happened to us was Gang Initiation.
A young man, wants to feel he belongs to something, tries to attach himself to a group but has to prove his mettle.
It was kill a tourist day. And we were in the way.
It is frustrating not knowing who the shooter was. Not as frustrating as it must be for him, unsure if he is now a murderer. Maybe he is only 12.
There is one crucial gap in this leap of logic: no evidence whatsoever that the shooter was a gang member, nor that it was part of any kind of initiation
Chances are that Smurfit was overlaying her experience of working in London, with its epidemic of gang violence and teenage killings, onto Cape Town. But equally likely, she was combining the image of South Africa in the UK media with the classic crime urban legend of the Biker Gang Initiations - which originated in the United States.
As it is, a report the following day in the Daily Mail, by Mail on Sunday correspondent James Tapper, kicked off with this strong innuendo: "Actress Victoria Smurfit has revealed she came within inches of death when a gunman opened fire on a taxi she was travelling in while holidaying in South Africa – the nation that will stage the World Cup in just six months."
Mr Tapper may like to know that a man was killed with a shotgun in what police believed to be a gang fight, in London just the previous week. As far as can be ascertained, not a single newspaper anywhere in the world linked this to the fact that London would be hosting the 2012 Olympic Games. Nor did they do so when a man was stabbed to death after chasing two muggers in London the same week. Nor did they do so when schoolboys were stabbed after a gang invaded a party in London that very weekend. Barely a day goes by without a violent incident in London involving killings and stabbings, but nary a connection to London being a host city in a mere two years' time.
Since there were a mere 844,245 victims of crime in London from April 2008 to March 2009, surely crime will have no impact on the Olympic Games? In fact, with those kind of statistics, the world should be terrified of sending its athletes to London.
But South Africa? That's different. There, all urban legends must be true.
Which brings us back to Ms Smurfit. Or rather, her colleague James Tapper, in his report the following day. He wrote: "Writing in today’s Irish Mail on Sunday, the 35-year-old actress says she was told by South African police the attack was likely to have been a gang initiation ceremony dubbed ‘Kill a Tourist Day’."
Yet, nowhere in her column did she attribute the claim to the police. Only in passing does she use the word "apparently" after describing a visit by police who took a statement.
The motives of Tapper and the Daily Mail become clearer further in his report: "The shooting happened in Strand Street, one of Cape Town’s main roads, which will be thick with football fans when the World Cup begins in June."
A photo of Strand Street carried the caption: "Horror: Victoria's Smurfit's taxi was shot at in Strand Street, Cape Town, by a gang. Police say the shooting was likely to have been part of an initiation ceremony". The caption alone encapsulated the urban legend, for which the actress, the showbiz correspondent, the sub-editors and the editor of the Daily Mail had fallen.
It's become clear over the years that the South African police and media alike are far more attuned to urban legends than are their counterparts in other supposedly more sophisticated countries.
Over to Cape Town police. The SA Press Association did the obvious, and contacted Cape Town central police station. The response was reported in The Times on 12 January under the headline UK actress 'not shot in gang ritual':
... Cape Town central police station Superintendent Randall Stoffels said yesterday: "The shot fired was not specifically for the occupants of that vehcile and it was definitely not gang-related."
When detective interviewed her (Smurfit) last Monday, there were no visible injuries, Stoffels added.
Smurfit opened a case of attempted murder, but this was later changed to the illegal discharge of a firearm in a municipal area.
"The occupants in the taxi just heard a loud bang and the left side window shattered. We believe someone [fired] into the air but the bullet went through the window and lodged into a panel of the van. No one was injured," said Stoffels.
He said the projectile and the panel were sent for ballistic testing and that no arrests has been made yet.