Sunday, 05 August 2007

The Age of Half-belief

After the country's first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa began to resemble most other countries in the world of urban legends. In other words, people stopped believing everything they heard.

Of course, that meant they could still believe half of everything they heard. And believe it they did.

Oh, none of that end-of-the-world nonsense that required a shopping list of baked beans and candles and a laager in the veld. People do prefer reality, and many of the bizarre urban legends that emerged from the 1994 elections had more to do with the unreality of those days than with sheer gullibility.

If there is anything that takes reality to extremes, it is crime. And it is reflected as dramatically in the official statistics as in the hidden psyche of the nation's urban legends.

The most dramatic manifestation of this psyche was not even a Made in South Africa urban legend, but it captured so many nuances of our peculiar society, it is difficult to imagine it could have applied to any other country.

The flashing headlight gang

It is an urban legend that also took advantage of technology that was only just beginning to rear its head back in 1994: e-mail. Most people learning the legend in the late 1990s did so either by e-mail, or via that other time-honoured method of rumour transmission, the dinner party. But most of the passing on took place via e-mail, and usually to a mailing list comprising the culprit's entire electronic address book. The result was that the tale spread like a virus, and was equally infectious.

It was usually headlined:


It continues no less luridly, loaded with the combination of anonymity and authoritativeness that is so common to scare legends:

"A police officer working with the DARE program has issued this warning: If you are driving after dark and see an on-coming car with no headlights on, DO NOT FLASH YOUR LIGHTS AT THEM! This is a common gang member "initiation game".

"The new gang member under initiation drives along with no headlights, and the first car to flash their headlights at him is now his "target." He is now required to turn around and chase that car, and shoot at or into the car in order to complete his initiation requirements.

"Make sure you share this information with all the drivers in your family!

"Please share this with whomever you want."

The result, on the Internet, was the near-jamming of company e-mail systems as everyone with access or even a hint of access tried to follow that last instruction. In that sense it was no different from a stream of warnings about viruses that were unleashed when you opened an e-mail message with a certain subject matter. The warnings always came with a lofty-sounding organisation as origin, and a plea to pass it on to whomever you knew as the punchline.

Real-world urban legends are more subtle in their punchlines, spread more slowly, and thus last far longer. The Legend of the Deadly Headlights used to fit into this category. It first began circulating in the United States early this decade, in response to the growth of gang activity in inner cities, and a rash of drive-by shootings in east Los Angeles. Its arrival in South Africa coincided with a rebirth of the legend in the USA, where e-mail was ensuring its renewed popularity. This time round, South Africa was plugged into the global village, and local conditions mean that the legend fitted precisely into our jagged psyche.

Its rapid spread here also meant a rapid response by the media and their investigative reporters. The reporters, in turn, were met by a police response that, for the first time in recorded reportage, incorporated an understanding of urban legends. Several police spokesmen did, in fact, describe the rumours as precisely that: "urban legends".

At the same time, the police assisted in a better understanding of urban legends, by giving the reporters a context in which to understand the absurdity of the story. Superintendent Wickus Holtzhausen, for instance, told the Cape Talk radio station that a powerful rumour had been doing the rounds that 12 innocent people had already been shot as a result of the above rite. Clearly, no one could hush up a dozen killings of that nature.

Many of the legends that have grown in the fertile fields of a crime epidemic are not of the kind that reporters query with police, and tend not to require dire warnings that erupt into electronic chain letters. As a result, they enjoy a quieter but longer life, and serve several useful social purposes.

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