The police's national spokesman, Colonel Vishnu Naidoo, has slammed "malicious" text messages that claim pamphlets calling for white people to be killed on Freedom Day are being circulated in Limpopo. The police have found no evidence that such pamphlets existed, he said. - The Times, 26 April 2010
Which is more outrageous: a call to kill white people, or a text message claiming that pamphlets to that effect are being circulated? In one absurdly short report, the nature of the scare dilemma is encapsulated. Should one pass on a scare story just in case it is true? Or is that as bad as the supposed scare itself?
Colonel Naidu is in no doubt here: those who sent the SMS text messages around were as malicious as those who may or may not have created the pamphlets.
It is to the Colonel's credit, though, that the scare is immediately dismissed as such. In the history of such scares, such sane heads have seldom prevailed. The truth is, Kill the Whites Day is an urban legend going back almost to the beginning of racial conflict in South Africa.
The following appeared in my third urban legends book, Ink in the Porridge: Urban legends of the South African elections (Penguin, 1994). An updated version will appear in my next urban legends book, on scares and panics, due out later in 2010:
1. Blame it on Dingane ...
Its origins lie in the murky past of white South African history. The date is precise, the details are subject to controversy.
On February 6 1838, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief visited the kraal of the Zulu chief, Dingane, at Mgundgundlovu. He is said to have ceded half of Natal to the trekkers in exchange for their "returning" cattle stolen by another chief. The trekkers promptly returned the cattle, were instructed to leave their guns outside the kraal and invited in to share a drink with Dingane.
According to historians, Dingane suddenly ordered his men to catch the "witchdoctors" and kill them. This order has been rendered by many as "Kill the wizards", with "wizards" intended to mean "whites".
That order has never been proven, since there were no white survivors and only one outside eyewitness: the missionary Francis Owen, who saw the massacre from a distance.
Another, more persuasive legend, emerged from the killings: that a trekker search party found the land deed, signed by Dingane, among the possessions of the dead men. Historians have found no evidence for it, and it does not exist today. Some of those who insist it did exist, claim that it disappeared during the South African War in 1900.
Meanwhile, the trekkers, along with the British, finally subjugated every black tribe in southern Africa, but that fatal phrase - "Kill the wizards" - could never be banished from the minds of the conquerors.
2. ... and on Luthuli
It re-emerged most dramatically on March 21 1960, when police killed 69 people and wounded 180 during a protest march at Sharpeville. The facts were simple: it was a peaceful protest, the protestors had a legitimate grievance - the pass-books they had to carry - and it was the police who had resorted to violence.
But as far as whites were concerned, it was the blacks who posed the greatest threat. They seemed less horrified by the viciousness of the SA Police than by the reaction they expected from the black masses.
A headline the next day in The Pretoria News summed up the reaction: RUSH TO BUY WEAPONS - TOWNS BECOME ARMED CAMPS.
The story opened: "Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark were towns of armed men and women last night."
White men and women, that is.
Shares on the stock exchange plummeted, fortunes were wiped out, and a wave of emigration began.
Much of this fear was based on the urban legend that emerged overnight, although it had been simmering in the pot for more than a century: blacks were planning to rise up on one particular day and kill every white person in South Africa.
Now there was even a designated date: March 28 1960, the day Chief Albert Luthuli, then president of the ANC, declared a day of mourning and a work stay away. Protests there were, but all were peaceful. The worst violence came from police who forced back thousands of marchers setting out on the road from Cato Manor to Durban on March 31, and from armed white civilian onlookers who fired into the crowds.
A week later, all resistance had been crushed and, on April 8, the ANC and PAC were banned.
Despite all government propaganda and white fears, the protests had all been non-violent. But the armed struggle was about to begin, and many an urban legend would become reality - precisely because the white population had insisted on believing in urban legends which, for 50 years, had been groundless.
Now they would have reason for their fears.
3. ... and on Mandela
There was one last gasp for the old version of the legend, and for black attempts at negotiation. A conference between the PAC and ANC was held in Pietermaritzburg in March 1961, when a National Action Council under Nelson Mandela was established. It called on the government to establish a national convention by May 31 - the day South Africa became a republic. Failing which, a strike would be called.
Suddenly, May 31 1961 became not only the birthday of a new sovereign state, but also the new "official" Kill the Whites Day. The government predictably refused to negotiate, and a three-day strike was called, starting on the first Republic Day. "A new wave of fear began to spread through white communities", according to the Illustrated History of South Africa: contingency arrangements were made for the manning of essential services and up to 10 000 people were detained.
Mandela called off the strike on the second day. The following month, he presented a memorandum to the ANC's national executive in which the armed struggle was described as the only option remaining.
The first attacks began on 15 and 16 December 1961, with bombings of installations in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, and another 200 attacks over the next 18 months. Yet, the Kill the Whites Day legend did not re-emerge for decades.
4. ... and on the tricamerals
The next cycle of panic began on September 3 1984, the day South Africa's tricameral constitution came into force. Rent boycotts led to riots throughout South Africa. The unrest kept building until, on 23 October, with 7 000 troops moving into Sebokeng and marking the beginning of the era of troops in the townships. Minister of Law and Order Louis le Grange summed up the government attitude: "It's war, plain and simple."
The tricameral elections also heralded a schools boycott by black and coloured pupils and massive protests against the disparities between white and black education: at the time, R1 385 was spent annually on educating a white pupil, R593 for coloureds and R192 for blacks.
Schools, especially in the Pretoria area, became the focus of all white fears. Parents refused to let their children walk home or even catch a bus, and the traffic jams intensified in front of the school gates at home time.
The government revealed its paranoia once again in its decision to ban the Pink Floyd album, Another Brick in the Wall. Why? Because they had heard that, during protest marches, coloured pupils were singing the chorus of the title song, which ran, "We don't need no education/ we don't need no thought control/ Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone/ All in all you're just another brick in the wall".
It was an attractive fantasy to those opposing the government: after all, the original song is arranged to sound like a chorus of protesting schoolkids. But there is no evidence that the song was used to rally protesting schoolchildren in South Africa. The government may well have fallen for another urban legend, and in the process given enormous political respectability to a pop song.
5. ... and on technology
In 1990, immediately after the unbanning of the ANC and the SA Communist Party and the release of Nelson Mandela, the legend came to life again, fed by the technology of the fax machine. Fake pamphlets which purported to call on blacks to rise up and wipe out all whites on April 10 1990 began circulating in offices in every city and town in South Africa.
They were so crude in their wording, and so blatantly rooted in white racism, that the fear they spread among whites was an indictment of whites' own stereotyped views of the supposed ignorance and savagery of the black population. The SA Police were forced to call press conferences to dismiss the pamphlets as hoaxes, and April 10 passed virtually without incident.
6. And now, on 2010
The fax machine has become the SMS. Cellphones barely existed in South Africa in 1994, the year the first network was launched here, and the year of the last major "Kill the Whites" scare. Today, they are pervasive.
What better means to spread an urban legend? And what better time?
In 2010, racial tensions are back on the agenda as a threat facing South Africa. With the murder of right-wing leader Eugene Terre'Blanche, many South Africans believe they are once again being targeted, en masse, by black people. White farmers not only believe it, but they will point to extensive evidence to support the claim.
In such an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, the seeds for urban legends of this kind are once again finding fertile soil.