Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Urban Legends of the 1995 World Cup

We all expected South Africa to beat England in this year's Rugby World Cup final. In 1995 it was very different. The seemingly impossible victory over the All Blacks united one nation, but it had another one reaching for the book of excuses ...and urban legends.

One of the most bizarre legends to emerge from the 1995 World Cup Final was ...

The tale of the toxic skydivers

Before the climactic match between South Africa and New Zealand kicked off, the crowd was treated to a display of helicopters, skydivers and aircraft flying over Ellis Park.

The most dramatic of these was the Boeing 747 that passed over the stadium just 300 metres from the ground, with the words "Good Luck Bokke" painted under its wings.

But that awe-inspiring sight was taken almost for granted by the urban legend mill. It chose instead the subsequent display by skydivers who, in the oldest tradition of parachuting exhibitions, trailed coloured plumes of smoke from their boots as they came in to land on the Ellis Park turf.

But you see, this was no ordinary smoke: it was a toxic substance designed to be breathed in by the rugby players as they took the field, and which would remain in their systems throughout the game.

What about the Boks' performance, you say? Well, of course, it was a South African plot, so our boys were given the antidote before they left the change rooms.

Lomu and Delilah

Many New Zealanders could not accept the fact that their secret weapon, Jonah Lomu, who had simply walked over the England team in the semi-finals, did not make an impact in the final.

They ignored the fact that the Springboks had chosen, firstly, to tackle him from the outside, where he carried the ball and could not use his powerful arm to shove them away; and, secondly, to refuse to respect his size and tackle him head on instead of waiting for him to run past.

No, that was no explanation: the man's strength was supernatural, and only something unnatural could have stopped him.

The blame fell squarely on a young woman from Bloemfontein, who had met Lomu at a post-match social function during the first round and had become a regular companion. She was no mere passing fancy of Lomu's, went the story issued from the urban legend mill. She was an agent of the South African management, assigned to seduce Lomu. And, like Delilah cutting Samson's hair in the biblical legend of old, she used a woman's ways to sap Lomu of his power on the eve of his greatest battle.

Let's blame the food

In a mark of desperation, the New Zealanders even claimed their food had been poisoned two days before the final. Coach Laurie Mains told Radio New Zealand that two thirds of his squad, including 10 of the 15 players in the starting line-up, began getting sick after lunch at their hotel on the Thursday afternoon.

To quote him:

"It was just an amazing sequence of events and coincidence that, of our 35-man party that ate at that particular lunch venue in the hotel here, about 27 of them went down in the space of 12 hours. You can read what you like into that, but I don't think it was coincidence. We certainly have our suspicions... I don't have any doubt that it left many of them pretty flat and I think that was a significant factor in us just not quite having the urgency and speed in our game."

The chief operations executive of the group that owned the hotel, Helder Pereira, put the story into slightly different perspective:

"We warned against New Zealand players eating outside the hotel and made it known to them that we could not be held accountable. I was very surprised to see the All Blacks and their management going out to eat on what was effectively the eve of the World Cup Final."

The team's media liaison officer later admitted there was no evidence that the players had been deliberately poisoned. But, in New Zealand, the urban legend has lived on for more than a decade.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Urban legend word games

Everyone knows that, in the Eskimo language, there are 200 words for "snow" but not one for "donkey"; that well-known brands of cars and cool drinks translate into embarrassing insults in foreign languages, and that, in some hotel lobby in Paris, a sign reads: "Please leave your values at the front desk."

Everyone might know these "facts", but most of these stories, and numerous of their relatives, are pure urban legends. They are inspired by suspicion about foreigners and prejudice against foreign languages. And they are so widely told in situations where no one can prove or disprove the claims, they take root and eventually become an automatic part of people's beliefs.

Snow truth in this

The Eskimo tale is a perfect example. A well-known international magazine reported a typical version of the urban legend: when it came to translating the bible into their Inuit language, the translators were stumped: "They have 30 words for 'snow' but no word for sheep or donkey. 'Lamb of god' is translated as 'God's fluffy thing that looks a little like a caribou calf'," the magazine reported.

Sheer myth.

Besides the fact that the term Eskimo is regarded as an insult by the Inuit people, the language is not very different from anyone else's in the naming game. It was first put down in written form in 1742, and has had extensive contact with Western languages. The fact that there are different words for ice, snow, powder snow, deep snow and watery snow should come as no surprise: the same applies in English. Instead of adding words like "powder" and "deep", they are combined into the original word, forming what can be called a new word. Not unlike many Afrikaans words...

John F Doughnut

The most famous urban legend involving a supposed mistranslation is the belief that John F Kennedy, on his visit to Berlin after the Berlin Wall had been erected, had the locals in stitches with his famous quote: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

As far as the Germans were concerned, goes the legend, he was saying "I am a jelly doughnut".

The fact is, the term can be translated that way, since there is a style of doughnut called a Berliner. But the Germans understood exactly what Kennedy was telling them: "I am a native of Berlin". Because both translations are accurate, the myth has survived.

Automatic confusion

Any phrase translated and re-translated often enough in untrained hands will come out
sounding bizarre. Computer translation programs can give users hours of fun by translating a phrase from one language to the next and finally back into English, for instance turning a cliché like "even a child can do it" into "a neat baby can act her".

So it is not surprising that alarming claims are made about training manuals translated from foreign languages back into English. Supposedly, a Russian/Chinese mechanical translator translates "out of sight, out of mind" into "blind and insane", and "Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" into "the drink is good but the meat is rotten". Both are famous urban legends, with no basis in fact.

Branded legends

While such myths and mistranslations seldom cause international incidents, others surely would - if they were true. A famous soft drink that made a trade breakthrough after Richard Nixon visited China in the early '70s, eventually flopped. The reason? Their slogan, "Come alive with Pepsi" translated in China as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead".

It might translate that way, but no such translation was ever used. And an American car introduced into Spanish countries, the Chevy Nova, was supposedly a failure because it translated into "No go". It does - but only by tortuous twisting of the Spanish language.

Such myths help give a sense of perspective to frightening tales of corporate blundering on foreign turf. Like the manufacturer in Singapore who received an order in French for 100 000 trombones for the US armed forces in Vietnam - or so he thought. In fact, trombone is the French word for paper clip.

Or the American food company that introduced the Jolly Green Giant brand into Saudi Arabia, only to see it translated as "Intimidating Green Ogre". Or the fried chicken franchise that used its slogan "It's finger-lickin' good!" in Iran only to find it had translated as "It's so good, you will eat your fingers."

Lost in the translation

The best of the mistranslation legends are the tall tales about signs in hotels or at tourist attractions. They are especially popular because no one can disprove any such claim, and they easily fit the traditional source of urban legends: they were all spotted by a friend of a friend of someone, somewhere.

How do we know they're urban legends, then? Simple: no one has yet shown firm evidence, in the form of an authentic sign or convincing photo, proving one of the following really exists (although there is enough photographic evidence of bizarre signs to suggest these are also real):

In a hotel in Athens: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 am daily.
In a hotel in former Yugoslavia: The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.
In a Japanese hotel: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.
In a Vienna hotel: In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.
On the door of a Moscow hotel room: If this is your first visit to Russia, you are welcome to it.
In an Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.
In a Copenhagen airline ticket office: We take your bags and send them in all directions.
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.
In a Rhodes tailor shop: Order your summers suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.

And finally, two signs from a Majorcan shop entrance to explain how people manage to twist the English language into such a bizarre shape:

* English well talking

* Here speeching American...

Monday, 29 October 2007

Hot air urban legends

One of the most fertile breeding grounds for urban legends is often not to be found on the ground itself, but up in the air. We're talking about the wonderful and terrifying world of air travel. Terrifying, that is, if you're travelling in the world of urban legends.

And especially terrifying if you were a passenger on the flight of...

The flying axeman

A Mozambique Airlines 727 was on a routine trip into Maputo with three flight crew: an English captain and flight engineer, and a Mozambican first officer. During the flight, the pilot's sidekicks got into a discussion about how the first officer could get a job overseas, which airlines were the best, and so on. Because things were a bit quiet on the flight deck, they decided to repair to the first class seats to continue their discussion.

At this point the captain felt a bit left out, so he put the plane on auto-pilot and joined his crew. After all, why shouldn't he?

About 20 minutes later they decided it was time to return to the cockpit to land the plane; they would continue the engrossing conversation in the flight lounge at the airport. Unfortunately, on their return to the cockpit, they discovered that the anti-hijack door had swung shut and they were locked out of the cockpit.

After a furious debate, they realised there was only one solution. They grabbed a fire axe out of an emergency locker and, to the consternation of the first class passengers witnessing the entire episode, began breaking down the cockpit door.

As in all good urban legends, this one is filled with details that seem to confirm its verifiable origins, right down to the size of the airplane and the nationalities of the crew members. The person who passed it on even claimed that he had heard it in a TV interview with a man who investigates all flying incidents by listening to flight recorders. And this story, supposedly, the man had heard on a flight recorder.

The bad news for gullible TV viewers is, firstly, that most of the incident occurred outside the cockpit and would not have been picked up by the flight recorder.And, secondly, it is a classic flying legend, told around the world. Among the best-known American versions are similar tales told about a United Airlines DC-9 and a Boeing operated by a Far East airline.

The nervous attendant

In a variation on the theme, the crew of a commercial airliner decides to have fun with a new flight attendant. They call her to the cockpit, and then all three quickly disappear down a maintenance hatch. The attendant enters the cockpit, sees that no one is flying the plane, and faints. She then falls forward, blocking the hatch.

The crew can`t get out that way, so they use a hatch further back in the plane - in the passenger area. The passengers are, of course, blissfully unaware of what's happened. All they see is the pilot, co-pilot and engineer come out of a hatch in the floor and slink sheepishly back to the cockpit.

A small problem

nd then there was the pilot of a Jumbo Jet, circling to land at a city airport, when the control tower called him and asked, "Captain, did you seen any light planes during your flight?"

"No?" replied the captain quizically.

"Well, you should have. There's one dangling from your undercarriage."

Fiery dive

That's not very different from the urban legend that was first told among helicopter pilots, but is now reported almost monthly in newspapers around the world:

During mopping up operations after one of the great forest fires that hit Sydney/California/the Cape Peninsula/the Greek islands, workers were horrified and baffled to find a scuba diver, in full diving gear, impaled on top of one of the smouldering trees.

On investigating, they concluded that one of the helicopters using a giant scoop to lift water from the sea and pour it over the flames had inadvertently scooped up a scuba diver!

Dangerous practise

And now for the passengers. After all, there must be pilots who are actually responsible people and who leave the legends to their passengers.

On a flight from America's hijack mecca, Miami (due to its closeness to Cuba), a passenger was getting increasingly nervous about the man sitting next to him, who was mumbling non-stop. He heard his neighbour saying bizarre things about "all men (mumble) equal (mumble) breaking the chains (mumble) life, liberty (mumble) pursuit of happiness (mumble mumble) take up arms..."

Eventually he could take this no longer, jumped up and went to notify a flight attendant that there was some weirdo on board talking about using weapons. So the pilot radiod ahead to the nearest airport, made an unscheduled stop, and the plane was raided by a special squad of policemen who dragged off the prospective hijacker.

It turned out, however, that the "hijacker" was an actor - and he was trying to learn the American Declaration of Independence for a role.

The wife on the flight

The next story was reported by a columnist in the Toronto Star, John Robert Colombo, after he had heard numerous versions which were clearly urban legends. He did not hide that fact, yet his own column was then used by other newspapers as the basis for factual news reports on the supposed event:

An airline company's promotion department suggested in its advertising that executives should take their wives on business trips, and it kept records of which ones did. Subsequently the department asked the market-research department to carry out a survey with three hundred of their wives to get their impressions of this scheme.

In due course the research department sent a letter to those wives asking how they enjoyed the trip.

No less than ninety percent of them sent back a baffled reply: "What airplane trip?"

Friday, 26 October 2007

Legends of the links

Urban legends are often little more than tall tales that eventually pick up so much incidental detail, it seems they have to be true. So people start believing them, retelling them and convincing other people to believe in them, until the tales become true legends, believed around the world, and usually having definitely, absolutely happened to a friend of a friend of the person telling the story. And when you're dealing with tall tales, can anything be taller than tales told of the game of golf?

The hole-in-one that got away is a legend in its own right. However, it's been heard far too often to have any impact amid the barstools of the 19th hole, and the time has come to reveal some slightly more believable legends of the links.

In the rough

You may have heard of the boss who used to take on his employees at golf once a week, betting them substantial portions of their pay packets they couldn't beat him. He could afford the bet: he was virtually a scratch player, and as consistent in his scores on the course as he was in keeping track of his underlings' clocking in and out of the office.

One morning, he'd had a fight with his wife - of the you-love-your-clubs-more-than-me variety - and arrived at the course in a foul mood. As always, he was first to tee off. And, much to the combined shock and delight of his opponents, he fluffed the drive completely, slicing it into the nearby bushes. He recovered a little, and came in just two over par, but he'd set the pattern for the day. He fluffed the next three tee-shots in a row, and the other players began to see light at the end of their tunnel.

The boss paused after the ninth hole, and took a little walk away from the group, muttering to himself, clearly psyching himself up for the next nine holes. His underlings were just a few shots ahead of him, and if he could recover now, he thought to himself, he'd massacre them. The boys watched in dread as he stepped up to the tee for the tenth hole. He poised himself, lifted the club, swung... and sliced! The ball landed right next to a nearby lake.

By now the entire clubhouse had emptied as word spread of a potential Waterloo. The bossman was utterly rattled. He barely managed to hit the ball, and it dropped into the water hazard with a gentle plop.

He was outraged. He put his iron away, lifted the golfbag above his head, and hurled it into the lake. Then he stormed past the clubhouse, throwing his gloves into a tree as he disappeared into the car park.

A moment later he reappeared.

"I'm having a very bad day," he shouted at the sky, at the clubhouse and at whoever might have been around to hear him, headed for the lake and carried on walking until the water was up to his thighs.

His audience, that had viewed the foregoing events in horror, fascination and glee, now became concerned. Golf was so important to him, it seemed he was going to do himself some serious harm.

But then he stopped, thrust his hands under the surface, and hauled out the golf bag. He zipped open a pocket and pulled out ... his dripping car keys.

There is something about golf that brings out the worst in urban legends. The typical legend of the links involves the most appalling punishment of people who waste profitable time chasing a small ridged ball about a landscaped park. Take the story of ...

The Fatal Tee

An overworked executive decided the one thing that would save him from a stress-related heart attack would be a week-long vacation where he would do nothing but play golf all day long. So off he went to one of those golf resorts where everything is designed for the comfort and luxury of the paying guest, from the last blade of grass to the weather itself.

The executive got into the habit of putting the tee into his mouth after he teed off, and leaving it there as he played along. After the second day of solid golf, he began to feel sick. On the third day, he felt so weak he had to give up halfway. And on the fourth day he dropped dead.

The course had been so heavily sprayed in insecticides, sucking the tee had given the executive a fatal dose of poison.

The amazing aspect of this legend, which is told of golf courses around the world, is that it is based on a real event.

In 1982, a golfer died in hospital after playing at an American country club. His death was traced to a pesticide compound called Daconil. There was no mention of sucking tees: that was a gruesome little detail the legend picked up as it began its tour around the world.

Having a ball

One category of golfing legends has little to do with the game, but everything to do with the curiosity of kids. Many adult males remember either experimenting with golf balls or dire warnings from other kids of what could happen to you if you tried the experiments.

One such story had it that every golf ball contains an explosive ingredient so that, if you hammered a nail into one, it would blow up. Another had it that the rubber ball in the centre was filled with a deadly poison. Eager to be exposed to these dangers, how many kids didn't sneak off with one of dad's treasured pimpled balls and spend hours tearing the thing apart?

There was indeed a liquid-filled ball to be found at the centre, but as for its explosive or poisonous properties? Pure legend. The fluids inside golf balls are usually some kind of mild oil, saline solution or glycerine.

Wait a minute; isn't that an ingredient of nitro-glycerine...?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Cellular shock urban legends

Do you remember the early days of cellular phones? That was only a decade ago, but it was back in the days before pre-paid accounts, and seems to belong to a bygone era. Then, cell phones inspired such passions among people who loved them or hated them, between people who flashed them about ostentatiously and those who were embarrassed to be caught with one, they were a natural magnet for urban legends.

There are two very distinct categories of cellular phone legends: good phones, and bad phones. The good ones are heavily outnumbered by the bad ones. That was especially the case during the mid-1990s, since there were so many more people who couldn't stand the phones than those who swore by them. But in the latter category is a tale that has numerous true and legendary variations. It is the story of...

The stupid car thieves

A man came out of his house to discover his car had been stolen. He rushed inside, phoned the police, asked them to listen in to his line, and then phoned the number of his cellular phone. He heard his phone being picked up, and a voice saying "Hello?" The moment he introduced himself as the owner of the car, the thief panicked and slammed down the phone. However, he didn't know how to replace the handset properly to disconnect the call.

The car owner - and the police - were able to listen to a detailed conversation between the thief and his accomplice about where they were taking the car, to whom they were selling it, and even about where they lived. By the time they got home, the police were waiting with the handcuffs.

In a variation on this legend, the thieves turn out be rather chatty, and joke and chat with the car owner for fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, by listening to the sounds of traffic - over bridges, past toll gates, through tunnels - and the screeching of tires as it went around bends, the police are able to figure out where they are headed, and set up a roadblock. The one thief is still chatting when the police pull them over...

The astonishing aspect of that legend is how often one hears "true" variations on the theme. The above version was reported almost verbatim as the true experience of one Richard Lassen of Sydney, Australia. The thieves did not realise that it was the owner phoning, and kept chatting for a while before the penny dropped and they hung up, but not before revealing their names. It was claimed that these thieves, too, did not know how to hang up properly.
And then the following report went out on the wire services:

VANCOUVER - A woman whose cellular phone was stolen from her chair in a Vancouver, Canada, restaurant located it by dialling her number from the bar counter, police said. A 36-year-old man was arrested.

No names are revealed, which means that we can put a huge question mark over the veracity of that one. But it does indicate that there are probably enough true-life versions to justify people's belief in the urban legends.

And then there is the flip side of these cellular phone legends. Rather than using them to catch the bad guys, the users themselves were turned into bad guys by the mere possession of what was once a yuppie toy.

The best-known version of this story was the tale of ...

The Fake Tycoon

Passengers in a train traveling from Brighton to London were becoming increasingly agitated at the behaviour of one young man, dressed in the finest Carnaby Street suit, sprouting the latest Sloane Square hairstyle, and jabbering away into a stylish cellular phone. It wasn't so much that he was using the phone as the way he was using it.

Like some stereotype from the movies, he was shouting things like: "Gold is moving up! Buy! Buy! Buy!" and "Sell those worthless platinum shares NOW!" and "Is my new Ferrari ready yet? I'm paying good money for it!"

Suddenly, another passenger in the compartment doubled over. Other passengers rushed to his aid, and discovered he had had a heart attack. Desperate, they asked the yuppie to hang up so that they could use his phone to call for an ambulance at the next station. The yuppie was bewildered. He tried to protest, but the fellow passengers insisted. Finally one of them grabbed the phone out of his hands, tried to dial, and discovered it was dead. On looking more closely, he discovered it was a fake plastic toy phone, bought from a novelty shop...
The South African version of that legend was only slightly kinder to the obnoxious yuppie. We'll call this story...

Call holding

He was another one of those obnoxious young men who insisted on flaunting every status symbol he could afford. And so it was with his cellular phone.. He couldn't bear NOT to be showing it off to every stranger in sight.

So there he was, in the Sandton City restaurant, having a looong conversation, yapping away, talking at the top of his voice about how he expected certain things to be done by the time he got back to the office, and how big a deal he had just swung, and how he was going to nail the idiots who had tried to get in his way. When suddenly ... his phone rang!

Everyone in the restaurant, who had unsuccessfully been trying to shut out his conversation from their ears, looked round. And burst out laughing. With their guffaws still ringing in his ears, he answered the call, put the phone back in his pocket, and slinked out of the restaurant, never to be seen there again.

The real-life cellular phone fad of the moment is to phone the front-desk of a restaurant from your table, ask for a waiter and demand faster service. That one's so overused by now, one restaurant manager throws out anyone who tries it, and several restaurants tried banning cellular phones. But don't expect the phone users to take it lying down. Before long, they'll be getting their revenge in the land of urban legends.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Legends of Mandela #3: Living legend

On June 12 1964, the day that the Pretoria Supreme Court jailed for life Nelson Mandela - described in one news report the next day merely as "a Johannesburg attorney" - and seven other accused in the Rivonia Trial, a pop group called the Beatles were greeted in Australia by a screaming mob of 25 000 fans.

It would be 26 years before even larger crowds would greet Mandela, but the beginnings of the legend were already clear outside the courthouse. Singing crowds - numbering 1 000 black and white supporters - carried banners which read, "We stand by our leaders" (Read his statement from the dock here). Years later, pop stars would honour his name in song, and his birthday would be celebrated throughout the world.

He is one of those rare human beings who has achieved mythological status in his own lifetime, yet has never sought to exploit that status for personal gain.

According to those who knew him in the years after his release, he remained a humble man, if sometimes impatient with those who didn't see the world in his terms. His strenuous efforts to put past indignities behind him underlined his character as a person who has put the needs of a people ahead of his own ego. Little wonder, then, that urban legends should have swirled about him.

Tim Cohen of Business Day neatly captured the mythology that had already solidified behind Mandela in a feature entitled:

"Mandela's saintly reign a case of hit or myth"

Long before Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, the story goes, he was accosted by a white woman who mistook him for a shop assistant and ordered him to load shopping into her car. Mandela politely explained he did not work in the shop and went on his way.

After he left, someone in the shop took the woman aside and asked her if she knew who she had been speaking to. She replied that she did not. That, she was told in reverent tones, is the leader of South Africa's black people.

Another version of the story is that he helped the woman change a flat tyre, and that he refused money afterwards, but the woman was told the same thing after receiving his assistance.

"The strange thing is that no one seems to be sure whether the stories are true," wrote Cohen on May 11, the day after Mandela's inauguration as president. "Such is the mythology that surrounds Mandela, people tend to tell stories about him which are somehow embellished until they become legend-like. Like so many other larger-than-life figures, his persona is so overpowering that tales of his good deeds and talents tend to overtake him."

There are other legends, less heroic, less dramatic.

One of these is bizarre not in the content of the legend, but that it should be believed at all. It is a claim of a quote included in the May 10th inauguration speech. According to Wikipedia, a famous text by Marianne Williamson is often claimed to have been spoken by Mandela at his inauguration as President of South Africa.

"This is an urban myth; there is no record of Mandela ever having spoken these words in public," states the Wikipedia entry. Williamson's quote, from her poem, Our Deepest Fear, has been used in several inspirational movies:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Stirring words, but Mandela never spoke them. There isn't even a debate: the text of his inauguration speech is readily available online, and can be read here.

And then there is this tale told during the 1994 election campaign by the Weekly Mail & Guardian's Krisjan Lemmer:

... when Nelson Mandela had completed his election roadshow into the Eastern Cape, he was due to fly to his next destination from Queenstown. When his cavalcade arrived at the airstrip, it stopped near a small group of white people on the apron and Mandela got out and thanked them profusely for coming to see him off, saying that he had not expected a farewell committee. He then jumped into his waiting aircraft and took off, leaving the "farewell committee" standing agape. When asked what the problem was, they said they had just arrived from Kokstad to attend their children's sports day.

Read Nelson Mandela's blog here

Adapted and updated from "Ink in the Porridge: Urban Legends of the South African elections" (Penguin, 1994)

Monday, 22 October 2007

Legends of Mandela #2: Rugby legend revived

In honour of South Africa's victory in the rugby World Cup Final, let's look at an urban legend that was associated with a previous Springbok team abroad, and later became a Nelson Mandela legend.

It is one of those truly South African urban legends with a long pedigree and variations that take in Springbok rugby in the 1960s, Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, and even Paul Kruger, president of the old Transvaal Republic, a century before.

Its most common variation is told as an anecdote from one of the Springbok tours of the United Kingdom, during the period after the advent of apartheid but before John Vorster further damned South African sport by banning mixed teams from touring here.

The Springboks had been invited to a lavish banquet at the castle of one of those aristocratic knights of the realm who regarded himself as a patron of rugby. The Boks were all rough-hewn men from rough-hewn backgrounds, and none had ever been inside a real, working castle before. Far less had they eaten with golden cutlery.

They were overwhelmed by the glittering sight of the table settings. Before the first course had even arrived, most of the golden knives, forks and spoons had disappeared off the table. The team manager saw with consternation what was happening. He realised that his team's table manners could cause a huge diplomatic scandal, and possibly even endanger the return tour by the British Lions a few years later.

When the first course arrived, soup in china plates, on silver platters and covered with silver tureens, he quickly turned to his host and said, "It's traditional that I always say grace before we eat on tour. Do you mind?"

"Of course not, my dear fellow," the grand old man waved his hand in what he imagined was a gesture of generosity.

The manager stood up and asked the assembled guests, in English, to bow their heads and close their eyes. In Afrikaans, he intoned in a lofty voice: "Oh Lord, if you stupid buggers haven't put back the knives and forks by the time I've finished saying grace, there's going to be trouble like you've never seen before in your short, miserable lives."

To the sound of a surreptitious clatter of cutlery, he then proceeded with the normal prayer of thanks.

Table settings have always posed a problem for prominent South Africans. This has, from time to time, caused the most terrible embarrassment, and worked its way into urban legend.

One of the most famous British urban legends about the ways of royalty tells of Paul Kruger's first visit to England in 1877, after Britain had annexed the ZAR, to plead for Boer independence.

Legend has it that "Oom Paul" was a crusty old man who had evolved from cowherd to cattle farmer to president without losing the rough manners of his farming life. So, when he was invited to a banquet in his honour at Buckingham Palace, no one dared lecture him in advance about the etiquette of eating with royalty.

He sat down at Queen Victoria's banquet, waited for grace to be said, and then, as daintily as he could, pulled his soup bowl nearer and commenced with the first course.

The other guests were aghast. For the bearded old man was not eating soup, but drinking the scented hot water in his finger bowl. As they stared in horror, Queen Victoria revealed her presence of mind. She quickly pulled her own finger bowl closer, and also began spooning up the scented water.

She stared fiercely at anyone who still sat frozen, and within moments the entire table was enjoying the delights of their finger bowls.

Nowadays the legend is told around the world about the behaviour of a Japanese or Chinese head of state, with Queen Elizabeth II playing the gracious host.

It is perhaps fitting that a legend starring President Kruger as a dour, ill-mannered dinner-guest should have evolved into a legend featuring a sharp, witty and mischievous soon-to-be-president Mandela:

Nelson, Pik and the magic cutlery

The ANC has been leaking a lovely story about Nelson Mandela. Behind the serious politician lurks a mischievous old devil. Shortly after his release from the Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990, he was invited to attend a magnificent banquet set with gleaming golden cutlery, at Groote Schuur, President de Klerk's official residence.

Mandela was sitting next to the foreign minister Pik Botha and as a joke he said, "I would love to take one of these gold knives and forks home with me."

"I know what you mean," Pik replied. "I've already got a set in my pocket."

Later Mandela was called upon to make a speech, which he did with habitual skill and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

"I am going to show you some magic," he told his admiring listeners. "I will put this knife in my pocket and when I say abracadabra, it will be in Pik Botha's pocket."

The ANC won't tell how Pik Botha played it from there.
- New African, June 1994

Urban legends sniff out greatness. It is in their nature that they congregate around rich, powerful or famous people, prominent and influential companies, and historic events. It is therefore not surprising that so many urban legends emerged from South Africa's transition to democracy, and especially around the central figures in that transition.

None has been more central - and therefore more of a magnet for urban legends - than Nelson Mandela.

That story from the New African started life as a joke, evolved into a piece of supposed gossip, and finally was given the full flesh of urban legend when it reached the influential British-based magazine as "a leak from the ANC". In fact, it had long before appeared almost verbatim in the Mail & Guardian's Krisjan Lemmer column, as "a story told at the launch of ANC's media centre".

Adapted from "Ink in the Porridge: Urban Legends of the South African elections" (Penguin, 1994)

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Arms, disarmament and urban legends

In almost every country on the African continent, political systems have been in transition for decades, and the transitions don't come easy. Violence, corruption and instability are often hallmarks of the political process.

These factors, however, also inspire urban legends of the strangest variety - particularly in the strange country called South Africa.

The first tale here is a classic from South Africa's pre-democracy and pre-reform days, when the right-wing ran the government and every black person was seen by whites as a potential "terrorist". The late Arnold Benjamin, who used it in his "So It Goes" column in the Star at the beginning of the 1980s, assured me at the time it was current in Johannesburg northern suburbs book club circles.

The mechanically-inclined gardener

... it concerned a lady who hired a casual gardener. She explained that she was waiting for the lawnmower to be repaired, but the new man said: "Let me try to fix it."

A while later, she found he had taken the machine skilfully apart. Not only that, he had laid out the bits and pieces in precise fashion on sheets of newspaper and was busy cleaning and oiling each one. Soon the lawnmower was its old efficient self.

The lady was impressed ... then alarmed. How would an ordinary migrant worker from Botswana acquire that sort of expertise? Wasn't that the way soldiers are trained to lay out the parts of a gun?

She became even more alarmed when she had a look into the gardener's room and discovered - so the story goes - a small stash of weaponry.

The housewife is said to have got to the nearest police station in about 30 seconds flat, but there the story fades out. Not to mention the gardener.

The good news, anyway, was that she did get her lawnmower fixed free.

This legend can also be seen in the light of numerous burglaries and attacks on suburban homes, either involving recently employed gardeners, or where such labour is suspected of performing an inside job.

In the broader society, meanwhile, black youths became more and more unwilling to fit in with the existing political structures. The Tricameral Parliament introduced after the 1983 referendum, which gave coloureds and Indians a form of parliamentary representation, was in fact the spark for the worst violence in this country's history. From 1984 to 1989, the townships became virtually ungovernable. It was this process, as much as growing enlightenment, that persuaded former president FW de Klerk that the old road was a cul de sac.

The disarmed enemy

The "Class of 1984", as the young "comrades" of this era were known (as opposed to the "Class of '76", who had participated in the June 16 Soweto uprising), became increasingly militant, and it became an everyday occurrence for black school children to skip the country for military training. Others stayed behind, to be trained on the battleground of the township streets. One of these, by now an ex-comrade, described the consequences of an ANC slogan of the time, "Disarm the enemy, and arm the people:

By the beginning of 1990, you no longer saw 10111 cars (small Flying Squad patrol cars) in the townships themselves, only on the main roads past the townships. This was because so many of them had been hijacked, and roadblocks had been disarmed.

I know of only one specific case, which happened in 1989. There was a police roadblock on the Soweto freeway next to a filling station in Diepkloof. It was badly situated, and the police could not see what was happening around them - only the road in front of them.

One night, the police suddenly went mad, running around, sirens howling, house-to-house searches. Word went round that the roadblock had been disarmed. A number of armed youths had taken the police by surprise and removed their weapons.

I didn't see the disarmament myself, but I remember the police cars moving about with their sirens going. A few days later the roadblock was moved up the road to a spot from where they could see everything around them.

My informant was unable to place the exact date, and he had not heard of any other specific cases. He was certain it was true, but did not personally know of anyone who had been involved. The incident had been hushed up by the police, who did not want anyone to know how they'd been caught with their pants down.

An urban legend? If it is, it ties in perfectly with the tale of The Killer Potato (from "The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree"), which has township kids in 1976 disarming an armoured car on patrol through the townships by lobbing a green-painted potato through the turret.

In the 1989 version, there are no clever tricks involved, but yet again it plays on the stupidity of the security forces, again it is a disarmament, and again it is hushed up by the authorities.

* This excerpt was originally published in my second book, "The Leopard in the Luggage: Urban Legends of Southern Africa" (Penguin, 1993).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The Short Filing Clerk

* This urban legend was originally published in my first book, "The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree: Modern Myths & Urban Legends of South Africa" (Penguin, 1990).

Sunday, 14 October 2007

E-mail scares #3: The Crime Warnings guide

Warnings of unusual new methods employed by criminals have a powerful resonance with South Africans. It is not that these warnings are unique to South Africa, or even that they originate here. But because of the reality of pervasive crime and the perception of official complicity in crime, South Africans appear more ready to believe and pass on these warnings than any other society.

In some cases, such as the colour-coded crimes, they are even able to develop elaborate justifications for belief in these urban legends.

This is a selection of the major e-mailed hoax warnings and urban legends that have appeared in recent years. Some have a long pedigree and, where relevant, links are provided to discussion of these warnings in other urban legend sites.

The Post-it Note Hijackers

This one appeared on the well-known telecommunications campaign site,, on two separate occasions, in both December 2005 and January 2007, word for word the same, and apparently posted by the same person:

New Hi Jacking Strategy As Distributed By The Aa !!!

Be aware of the new hi-jacking scheme. Here's how it works:

You walk across the parking lot, unlock your car and get inside.

Then you lock all your doors, start the engine and shift into REVERSE and you look into the rearview mirror to back out of your parking space when you notice a piece of paper stuck to the middle of the rear window.

So, you switch off the car or shift the gears into PARK, unlock your doors and jump out of your car to remove that paper (or whatever itis) that is obstructing your view...

When you reach the back of the car that is when the hi-jackers appear out of no where, jump into your car and take off!

The door was unlocked, your keys were in the ignition, maybe the engine was running, (ladies would have probably left their handbag, with their purse, cellphone etc; in the car) and they practically mow you down as they speed off in your car.


Should this happen to you, just drive away and remove the piece of paper that is stuck to your window later....and be thankful that you read this email.

I hope you forward this to allyour friends and family...especially women! A purse contains all identification, and you certainly do NOT want anyone getting your home address. They already have your keys!

Tom Odaniell, AA

Except for the last paragraph and the obligatory authority figure signing it at the end, this is almost identical to an e-mail scare doing the rounds in the USA in 2004. Snopes debunked it thoroughly at the time. To the credit of MyBroadband users, most smelled the rat, and some even posted the Snopes link.

But this did not stop various people saying things like, "Heard this before, probably is true too considering we live in SA", and "Is this starting to pick up again? never the less, its good to make it available to as many as possible." The cherry on the cake was the comment: "Any crime warning of any nature is a GOOD warning."

Again, most participants in the discussion ridiculed the idea that it was a good idea to create awareness of crime - in a society where most people already feel under siege!

The converted ATMS

The following warning is notable in that the standard mail is "top-and-tailed" in this mass-mailing by an evangelist who is equally famous for his ministry as he is infamous for his spamming methods. Thus are urban legends sent to test us:

Dear Friends

I have just received this email from a friend and believe that it was necessary to bring to your attention. It is necessary to be informed of these scams and to warn each other. Prevention is better than cure. I pray the Lord''s protection upon you, in Jesus name. Please give wide publicity !

Bank ATM''s Converted to Steal IDs of Bank Customers

A team of organized criminals are installing equipment on legitimate bank ATM''s in at least 2 regions to steal both the ATM card number and the PIN. The team sits nearby in a car receiving the information transmitted wirelessly over weekends and evenings from equipment they install on the front of the ATM (see photos). If you see an attachment like this, do not use the ATM and report it immediately to the bank using the phone on the front of the ATM. The equipment used to capture your ATM card number and PIN are cleverly disguised to look like normal ATM equipment. A skimmer is mounted to the front of the normal ATM card slot that reads the ATM card number and transmits it to the criminals sitting in a nearby car. At the same time, a wireless camera is disguised to look like a leaflet holder and is mounted in a position to view ATM PIN entries. The thieves copy the cards and use the PIN numbers to withdraw thousands from many accounts in a very short time directly from the bank ATM.

Evangelist Jarrod Davidoff

(CEO- Founder & President) Save The World Foundation

As always in urban legends, there is truth to this warning. Except that it is an American truth. published the same detailed warning, with photos, to show how ATMs are converted for the purpose described above. They have verified it as an authentic warning. However, there are no reports of such equipment being used in South Africa.

The flashing headlight gang

The following warning was discussed in detail on this blog in August 2007 as The Age of Half-belief:


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 legend of the Flashing Headlight Gang (or The Legend of the Deadly Headlights) first began circulating in newspapers in the United States in the early 1990s, in response to the growth of gang activity in inner cities, and a rash of drive-by shootings in east Los Angeles. According to Snopes, its origins go back to the early 1980s, and began as a Hell's Angels initiation legend.

Its arrival in South Africa in 1999 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 meant 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, he said, no one could hush up a dozen killings of that nature.

Beware of the Mall

The following are other examples of hoax warnings and urban legends that have originated elsewhere and taken root in South African shopping malls:

* Flyers are placed on windscreens in shopping mall parking lots, prompting motorists to get out of car to remove it after starting the car (a variation of the Post-it Note Hijackers, but this time on the front windscreen).

* Robbers wait in shopping mall parking lots with "sample" bottles of "perfume", offered to shoppers to try out. It turns out to be ether or another form of knock-out chemical. David Emery gave this one a thorough debunking at

* Knife-wielding robbers wait underneath cars in shopping mall parking lots, waiting to slash the ankles of motorists as they unlock their cars. David Emery provides the history at, and links it to the old legend of the killer in the backseat.

* The "Change room rape" urban legend discussed previously in this blog has a long history in the USA, as outlined by Snopes.

There have been many more and there will be many more. If you are not sure, the old rules apply:

What to do when you receive an e-mail warning

Make your life easier by following these three simple rules:

1. Rule number one of e-mail:

Never, ever, send on chain letters or mass-mailed warnings.

2. Rule number 2 of e-mail:

If you receive a chain letter or mass-mailed warning that you feel is really, really important and that everyone really, really should read, refer to rule number 1.

3. Rule number 3 of e-mail:

If you seriously don't mind embarrassing yourself, and you feel that this e-mail is not really a chain letter because its contents are so vital, and there is no way something as trivial as good manners can allow you to stop yourself from spamming your address book, refer to rule number 1.

Finally, read this blog entry on how to spot a hoax or urban legend in your inbox.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

E-mail scares #2: This week's crime waves

Along with medical warnings, crime scares are the most common e-mail hoaxes and urban legends distributed in South Africa.

Just this week, the very day after the storm warning had done the e-rounds, a new hoax and an old urban legend resurfaced, one via e-mail and one from good old-fashioned paranoia.

The latest e-mail hoax is the 'Change room rape' urban legend. According to an e-mail doing the rounds, nine women have been locked in shopping mall change rooms, robbed, raped and left naked. All the attacks supposedly took place in the Johannesburg area, with one at South Gate Mall, five at Sandton City and two each at Cresta and The Glenn. The hoax e-mail is puproprted to have been sent by an "Inspector Ian Roberts, SAPS Public Information Officer", and carries two typical pieces of urban legend advice:

* women must be vigilant over the festive season;

* they must "take a lady friend or a family member with" to change rooms.

The scare is reminiscent of the shopping mall abduction legends of the 1980s,which warned blonde women against going into change rooms in clothing stores at various malls.
As happened 20 years ago, the police dismissed the story as a hoax. According to a report by Media24 on 10 October 2007, headlined 'Changeroom rape' a hoax, Eugene Opperman of the Gauteng SAPS Communication Service confirmed in a statement that "no such incidents mentioned in the attached message have been reported to the SAPS". The report continued:

The e-mail alleges that women have been locked in change rooms, robbed of their possessions and their clothes and then raped.

"The thief tosses the clothing into a shopping bag, and slips back into the mall. It usually takes an hour or two for the woman to work up the nerve to leave the restroom in the nude, giving the criminal ample time to make his get away. The woman is eventually left naked and humiliated in a mall full of strangers," reads the e-mail.

Opperman said that "the author of the document bearing the fictitious name of 'Ian Roberts' is not a member of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and is indeed unknown to the SAPS."

Opperman also cautioned South Africans to be vigilant of hoax e-mails, adding, "there is no postal address or any contact numbers in the e-mail. That should already make any reader very suspicious. In fact, any e-mail doing the rounds about 'warnings' should be checked for contact details."

Opperman advises that people who receive such messages should visit "well-known websites that specialise in the identification and correction of hoax messages and urban legends" before passing them on.

Captain Opperman is an old friend of "Legends from a Small Country", and has helped debunk a string of crime urban legends over the years. It is unfortunate that his colleagues in Pretoria do not have the benefit of his wisdom

On the very same day, they confirmed that they were keeping a watch on eight houses that were supposedly "marked"by criminals.

Before going into detail, here is the background to the urban legend of the Colour-coded crimes, as described in a posting to a web site called SACanada Forums, which provides chat boards for expat South Africans. This version was allegedly published in a community newspaper, Hillcrest/Kloof Residents, in KZN province, but the correspondent started off apologising that "I don't have the actual copy with me, but will try to remember as best as I can":

Local Police issued a security warning to all Highway Residents recently to be on the look out for markings outside their homes by criminals as follows:

Criminals will mark your property by using the following colours:

RED: Your house is armed AND the home owners have firearms. Criminals will encounter big resistance if they break in, so they will use weapons to gain entry to your home.
GREEN: Your house has an alarm system, but it will be easier than gaining entry into a "Red"colour coded home.
WHITE: Easy picking. No alarm and no household weapons in the home and criminals can rob at random without resistance.

These people are marking your homes by placing plastic bags, sticks and any form of object with the respective colours listed above.

Police have urged residents to keep checking the outer section of their homes by the gates or verges to make sure there are no "coloured"objects outside.

What a sad state of affairs!

This version was lacking only the obligatory red Coke can, which is the symbol of fear in Johannesburg suburbs. However, a more seasoned observer of our psyche quickly responded to the claim with a sound dose of common sense:

That colour-coding story has been going round for ages and it is a complete urban myth designed to send people into hysterics at the sight of litter on the pavement. The real crooks simply watch your house, or have someone do it for them, to establish your routine. The more 'decent' crook will try to break in when no one is home. The average vicious monster doesn't mind when he breaks in to reclaim what is rightfully his because he enjoys sporting with the inhabitants.

On different days of the week I have on my pavement variously:
- A brown beer bottle;
- A white Checkers packet;
- Cold drink tins of various shades;
- A simba chip packet;
- A used condom;
- A mielie cob;
- Dog poop

What diabolic plot is some fiend hatching against my person and property?

Its highly unlikely criminals would resort to the colour coding in this day and age when everyone has cell phones (I saw a 10 year old street urchin answer his the other day), not to mention that a skabanga that has done his 'hard work' of watching your house would never convey the situation to his competitors. It just doesn't make sense. I hope the source of the article is not actually the police. That would lead me to believe they are fearmongering to distract the public from the Service's incompetence in dealing with crime, or they are completely ignorant and stupid. I hope that its just some irresponsible reporting.

Frankly, I think the tale was hatched to terrify us into picking up litter.

That last line is something of an urban legend in its own right. This is classic symptom of the suburban psyche in crisis, inventing explanations that help make sense of what is happening in an unstable environment. In this case, both the perceived lack of municipal services and of crime prevention are combined into an urban legend that then pushes the boundaries of our sense of vulnerability.

Of course, many will argue that this is no myth. Indeed, the first response to the above debunking on the SACanada Forum included descriptions of farm murders and cash-in-transit robberies, with detailed modus operandi, such as this snippet:

Carte Blanche did a programme on Cash in Transit robberies and an crime expert said:"'This is organised. This is well planned. This is well executed. They know exactly what they are going to do. They use signs along the road to mark distances, to mark time...'
Inverted cold drink bottles, white splashes of paint and clumps of grass tied together are some of the markings used.
Jean-Pierre: 'They know where cell-phones don't work, where they don't have a signal. That is the type of thing they know. That is the amount of planning that goes into a robbery.'"

All that proves is that cash-in transit robbers use elaborate systems to plan their attacks and getaways - and has no bearing whatsoever on the claim that suburban criminals are colour-coding homes to be helpful to other criminals. But there's more:

What happens is for example, the guy who works in the garden next door, is in debt, and he sees your big screen tv etc, your jewelery and your new 4x4. He also knows your habits so he informs the gang of your assets and "sells" it to them for a part of the value.

Because he knows the area and your movement, he maps out the easiest and safest route into your house, and uses sticks, stones, softdrink cans and pieces of plastic to lead them there. He uses different colours to show whether you're armed, a lady living alone etc. They even "write" the best time to attack in the signs

The hit squad comes later and use it as we'll use a map as they don't know the area and are there to do a job and get out fast

It's used a lot more outside town and mostly for social purposes, you'll see the white flag flying at an house will mean it's a shebeen, and look carefully at the plastic bags in trees with it's carry handles both neatly around a branch, there's no way the wind could have done it.

The last paragraph contains a mixture of urban legend and truth - when shebeens were illegal, they often used creative ways to mark their presence. However, the last statement is more closely related to the urban legends about drug dealers' homes or turf being marked by shoes dangling from telephone lines. Other participants in the debate came up with experiences that may have been true and even shocking, but whose relationship to the colour-coded crimes were simply spurious.

The spiritual home of thecolour-coded crime urban legend, literally and figuratively, is Lukas Swart's web site, called Afrika Tekens and attributed to AKSKA, or Afrika Kriminele Sosiale Kode Analiste (African Criminal Social Code Analysts). Swart tracks farm and other attacks, but also attributes underlying meanings to types of attacks and codes used prior to attacks. He describes these codes as a modern version of a secret language used throughout Africa over the centuries, using sticks, stones and branches.

When Pretoria News reported the latest version of this legend on 10 October 2007, the AKSKA web site reported it, along with the comment: Om hierdie sosiale tekens te verwyder kan uiters gevaarlik wees. Eers word dit kleiner en wanneer ons dit steeds verwyder kan dit veroorsaak dat die vrou van die huis verkrag word sodat die mense kan leer om die tekens uit te los. ("To remove these social signs can be extremely dangerous. First they are reduced in size (by the criminals) and, if they are still removed, it can result in the woman of the house being raped so that people can learn to leave the signs well alone.")

Talk about giving an urban legend wings! The obvious flaw in the argument is that it confuses the roles of those who plant the signs and those who perpetrate the crimes. Aside from which, it does not tally with the way armed robberies tend to occur in these suburbs, in that they tend to be either opportunistic, or they are preceded by homes being physically monitored by criminals. To do all the hard work, and then leave the instructions for other criminals to find and act upon, is simply not logical.

The final argument for the story is that, despite thousands of housebreakers having been arrested, questioned and convicted, the police do not have a single confirmed example of this modus operandi being used in the suburbs of South African cities.

On that note, the wonderful new version of the tale appeared on page 4 of the Pretoria News on 10 October 2007, under the headline, Crooks show their colours with coded clues. It included these gems:

Police will keep a beady eye on at least eight houses in Pretoria North after they were allegedly "marked" by criminals.

It is believed that house robbers use certain colours to mark targets to inform their accomplices that a house has been identified and what to expect when breaking into the house.

But many people still regard this as an urban legend.

Police spokesperson Inspector Paul Ramaloko on Tuesday said a resident in Jan van Riebeeck Avenue saw pieces of white polystyrene placed in front of his gate during the morning.

Upon closer inspection, he saw that seven other houses in the same street had similar objects placed outside their gates.

He contacted the Pretoria North police and informed his neighbours about these objects as he had heard that criminals marked targets this way.

"Police went to investigate. All the marked houses have big dogs and high fences, so we suspect the criminals intend coming back later and poison the dogs to gain easy access.

"However, now that we are aware of this, police will constantly patrol the area as a crime prevention measure," Ramaloko said.
Just in case the police had fallen for an urban legend, the Pretoria News went in search of another expert, and found Richard Brussow of the National Hijack Prevention Academy. Following the Lukas Swart model, he said the "marking" of properties began with farms. This way attackers would know what to expect when they attacked the premises. This "message system" was now finding its way into towns and cities.

He explained it in great detail, fleshing out the details of the classic urban legend that had been left out of the above versions:

"It has become more and more difficult for criminals to break into houses due to alarms, fences and security systems; therefore they are marking potential targets," he said.

Objects could include red rope, white stones, plastic bags tied to trees, grass knotted in a bundle, pieces of metal or plastic, flattened milk bottles or Creme Soda and Coke cans.

Brussow said each colour had a meaning. A red object, like a Coke can, indicated to robbers to "prepare to use armed force, they may encounter resistance from inside".

White said this meant it was an easy target, green signalled "go ahead, all clear, no one home". Blue indicated that somebody inside, such as a domestic worker who had been bribed or threatened, would assist the culprits. He urged people to remove rubbish and anything "suspicious" as soon as possible.
But wait, then you will be provoking the criminals, won't you? Or is Brussow part of that great conspiracy to clear our streets of litter?
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Wednesday, 10 October 2007

E-mail scares # 1: Medical

Hoax e-mails are a staple diet of those who tend to swallow urban legends whole. Numerous variations have done the rounds in South Africa in the past two decades. The major categories of these scares are AIDS and medical scares, drugs warnings, "unusual crime wave" warnings, technology scares like warnings about mobile phones, and political scares, such as the death of Mandela sparking a bloodbath.

These categories will be addressed here shortly, but to start with, here is a sample of AIDS and medical scares:

AIDS and medical scares

"Welcome to the world of AIDS": man wakes up in hotel room the morning after meeting a woman in a bar and finds the message scrawled on the bathroom mirror in lipstick.

The stolen kidney: Variation on "Welcome to the world of AIDS", starts with man meeting woman in bar, ends with message on hotel mirror saying, "Call 10111 or you will die". He has had his kidney removed during the night. The 2007 version was first sent out from a Netcare employee (as was the Storm warning e-mail).

Virgins cure AIDS: Young girls are being raped because of a belief that sleeping with a virgin can cure AIDS. Both the scare and the belief are urban legends.

The AIDS revenge: A group of angry women or a lunatic male is going around the city injecting passers-by with a needle carrying AIDS-infected blood. This one started in New York but adapted fast to Johannesburg.

AIDS at the movies: AIDS-infected needles are being left on cinema seats. This one emptied cinemas in Cape Town for a few weeks in 1999.

AIDS in the change: AIDS-infected needles are being left in the coin receptacles where people reach in to collect change after using a public telephone booth or a pay-on-foot parking kiosk.

Poisoned plastic: A warning headed "Do not reuse mineral water bottles" claims that the plastic in these bottles contains a carcinogen. They are safe for one-time use, but repeated use leads to death, according to the urban legend.

Poisoned plastic in your appliances: The warning first came, according to the urban legend, from Johns Hopkins Hospital in the USA, and warns against plastic containers in microwaves,water bottles in freezers and plastic wrap in microwaves, since they release dioxins, which cause cancer. It would have been more believable had it not concluded: "This is an article that should be sent to everyone important in your life."

Diet cancer: Aspertame, the artificial sweetener used in diet cooldrinks, is alleged to cause cancer and numerous other severe health problems. This urban legend is supposedly backed up by vast volumes of documentation, and you will find emotive arguments for it across the Web.

There are many others, which you are welcome to share with me when you find them, but:

What to do when you receive an e-mail warning

If you don't want to learn how to spot a scam and re-educate your friends who send them to you, make your life easier by following these three simple rules:

1. Rule number one of e-mail:

Never, ever, send on chain letters or mass-mailed warnings.

2. Rule number 2 of e-mail:

If you receive a chain letter or mass-mailed warning that you feel is really, really important and that everyone really, really should read, refer to rule number 1.

3. Rule number 3 of e-mail:

If you seriously don't mind embarrassing yourself, and you feel that this e-mail is not really a chain letter because its contents are so vital, and there is no way something as trivial as good manners can allow you to stop yourself from spamming your address book, refer to rule number 1.

Tuesday, 09 October 2007

Hoaxes and legends: the rules

How do you tell if a warning you receive by e-mail, fax, SMS, or text is an urban legend? How was South Africa’s great hurricane hoax easily identifiable as an urban legend?

Here are ten rules for spotting an urban legend in your inbox:

1. Public health and safety warnings are always issued directly by the relevant authorities, such as the police, emergency services, weather bureau, or traffic department. If you receive it second hand, immediately be suspicious.

2. Public health and safety warnings are not distributed by chain letter or by individuals e-mailing their entire address books. If you receive a mass-mailed warning, assume it is an urban legend.

3. Urban legend-based mass-mailed warnings are almost always accompanied by the name of the supposed authority that issued it, including the name, position and phone number of the individual responsible. This does not mean it is authentic.

4. In most cases, the authority figure or individual named as the source of the legend did not issue the warning. Where the individual cited in the “document” did issue the warning, but mass-mailed it by e-mail or fax rather than through formal channels, it was usually based on that person having received the warning second-hand, and not having the experience to identify it for what it is. The individual then used his or her position of authority to give weight to the warning, despite his or her organisation or department not being the appropriate one to issue the warning. It is difficult for members of the public to spot the difference in such cases, but journalists should know (and often don't).

5. If the e-mail urges you to forward the warning to all your friends, don't. The more exclamation marks used in this request, the more certain you can be that it is an urban legend or hoax.

6. If the senders tell you they don't usually forward such e-mails, obviously their common sense has finally given up the battle, and they have joined the ranks of the gullible.

7. If someone tells you it was received from a lawyer, doctor, historian (all real examples I've seen) or similar authority figure, and that this person is highly educated and/or very level-headed, you can be certain you are dealing with an urban legend. Firstly, educated people do not have a monopoly on common sense. Secondly, elite, wealthy and respected professionals are no more level-headed than ordinary users of municipal buses. Thirdly, the very need to justify the warning, by invoking the profession of another person who fell for it, indicates that even the sender realised the warning was suspect to start with.

8. Any mass-mailed warning that tells you "This is NOT an urban legend" is an urban legend.

9. Always check on the well-known urban legend reference sites, such as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, better known as Snopes, Urban Legends, and The AFU & Urban Legends Archive. Chances are, a variation on the same hoax is already dcoumented there.

10. Never, ever, forward mass-mailed e-mail warnings. Just don't do it.

Finally, there is one exception to Rule 10: you are welcome to forward such hoax or urban legend e-mails to me, so that I can track variations when they emerge.

Monday, 08 October 2007

Storm Warning urban legend

Call it exaggeration, call it hype... but know it is urban legend. The Storm Warning for Gauteng for later today (8 October 2007) has taken on all the dimensions of a classic urban legend.

It has it all: the hearsay warning from a reputable institution, the reproduced warning transmitted by fax and e-mail, the attempt by authorities to prevent panic utterly ignored, schools alerting parents to collect children early, offices closing early to allow staff to avoid being on the roads when the storm hits, rumours of the airport shutting down...

According to Nick van der Leek's blog,NVDL, the warning was first issued at 6am, and ran as follows:

National Warning - Issued on Monday, 8 October 2007 at 06.00

Very cold conditions are expected to persist over the highground areas of Western and Northern Cape, as well as over the northern mountains of Eastern Cape and south-western and western interior of KwaZulu-Natal.

Heavy falls of rain are expected over northern KwaZulu-Natal, north-eastern Free State as well as the eastern highveld of Mpumalanga and Gauteng. Severe thunderstorms, associated with strong, damaging surface winds are expected in late afternoon and evening over the eastern highveld, Gauteng, the southern highveld of Mpumalanga and extreme northern Free State.

The last sentence is what caused all the trouble. It apparently inspired hospital group Netcare to brief their staff on a storm that would hit Gauteng at 5pm.

Both the NVDL blog and radio station 702 quoted the warning as stating:

"Don't underestimate the strength of the wind on the road and avoid low water bridges when driving.

"Stay indoors and take all loose lying objects inside. Tie down anything that might be damaged by severe winds. If possible park cars indoors as well."

The e-mails and faxes doing the rounds, according to 702, also warned of a tornado striking Gauteng at 5pm. The time was later changed to "between 6pm and 8pm".

A spokesman for the weather bureau was quoted in the 1pm news bulletin saying that the warnings were exaggerated. The 702 web site reported his comments like this:

Gauteng tornado claims untrue

Emergency Services in both Johannesburg and Tshwane are on alert after storm warnings issued by the South African Weather Service.

But forecasters have strongly denied reports of a possible tornado, saying e-mails and smses to this effect that are currently doing the rounds are exaggerated and irresponsible.

The Weather Service’s Mark Todd says thundershowers will likely hit parts of the province later today.

Meanwhile, the Tshwane metro police department says heavy rains on Friday last week brought traffic in the Pretoria CBD to a standstill.

The metro police's William Baloyi says motorists are being urged to avoid low-lying areas and bridges during times of heavy rain.

Rumours the OR Tambo International Airport has been shut down because of the warning are also untrue.

Astonishingly, this news bulletin was followed by an afternoon of listeners calling in to explain just why the warnings were NOT exaggerated or irresponsible. It's obvious what will happen next: the impact of any extra gust of wind or drop of rain is going to be taken as evidence that it really is as bad as had been feared or hoped.

In the land of urban legends, people hear what they want to hear, and see what they want to see.

(It is, obviously, only coincidence that a movie called Storm Warning is about to open in South Africa. Ironically, it is made by Jamie Blanks, the director who made the movie Urban Legend.)

Saturday, 06 October 2007

The Craig Shergold FAQ

When the gullible of our planet united to help a "dying boy" long after he had been healed, this FAQ became the official reference guide for participants in a Usenet newsgroup called alt.folklore.urban during the 1990s. The FAQ disappeared from the Web after my original site disappeared along with one of Internet Solutions' original web servers.

The CRAIG SHERGOLD FAQ Version 0.1beta

Frequently Asked Questions about the Internet's most prevalent thought virus: the Craig Shergold appeal for get-well cards and/or business cards

Craig Shergold is seven years old and suffering from terminal cancer. It is his ambition to be included in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of business cards ever collected by one person.

Craig would be grateful if you could send one of your business cards to the address below and also send the enclosed pages, including one of your own, to another ten companies.

Obviously, speed is of the essence....

How old is Craig Shergold really? He's been seven for an awfully long time.

28. He was born on June 24 1979. Call it a healthy afterlife, or call it urban legend. I know what I'm betting on.

Did Craig really appeal for get well cards to break the record?

This one's going to confuse the "Is-it-a-legend-yes-or-no" lobby all right. No; he didn't. He only found out about the appeal when the tally reached about 3000. THEN he agreed to the appeal. Even then, however, the official appeal was launched by the Royal Marsden Hospital.

When did the appeal first go out?

It first went out privately to big companies in the UK at the beginning of 1989. And he was almost 10, not 7, okay? Urban legends do that.

When was Craig first diagnosed with cancer?

February 13 1989. Before that he was in hospital with a brain tumour that had not yet been identified as cancer.

How did the appeal start?

During January 1989, when Craig's doctor, Richard Hayward, saw how many get-well cards from his extended family, friends and family acquaintances were strung up above his hospital bed, he suggested he go for the Guiness Book of Records spot. His mother Marion was present with a family friend, Alison Ingram. She was PA to a director of Gilbey's, and had extensive business contacts.

Alison persuaded Marion to go for the record, and orchestrated the initial campaign. The nurses at the Great Ormond Street Hospital spread the word locally, while Alison contacted corporations around Britain. At that stage, Craig had received only 200 cards. The appeal was still unofficial, and Craig didn't know about it. Well, okay, he started getting a sneaking suspicion, seeing as how he didn't really know 3,000 people.

When did the appeal go public?

On September 25 1989 the story broke in the Daily Mirror, under the headline "You're a card, Craig". (Hey, look, I just report the FAQs as I see them, I don't write the headlines). On September 27 the Sun launched its own card appeal for Craig, including a cut-out coupon with space for a message and the home address in Carshalton, Surrey (Oh didn't I mention? He never did live in Atlanta. That was Craig Shefford. Or Sheffield. And he lived in Kentucky. Apparently.) And by this time he was 10 years old.

What was the target?

Mario Molby of Leicester held the record at 1,000,265.

On October 11 Donald McFarlane of the Guinness Book of Records announced that the attempt would not be recognised. He claimed it was now policy not to accept records that depended on media appeals, and Craig had not actually done anything himself. An interviewer asked him: "So if Craig were to sit on top of a pole in the local pub car-park for 24 hours, you'd give him a place in the GBoR, would you?" McF said they would consider that kind of record. The interviewer asked Marion S what she thought of the response. She claims she told him where McF could stick his pole.

When did they break the record?

No one knows. it is estimated that 200 000 cards arrived every week in October 1989, but even with hundreds of people helping the counting at the Sutton United Football Club, they could only count about 60 000 a week. The count itself reached one million and then the record on Thursday 16 November 1989. Numerous TV cameras and press photographers were on hand at the SUFC ballroom to prove to the next generation that their latest appeal (Craig Gorsky is a 7 year old boy who was diagnosed with cancer on February 14, 2025) was an urban legend, but also that it had been tracked ot its source back in '89. But you tell that to the newbies in alt.folklore.urban.warfare.

Charlie King, the delivery office manager at Wallington Post Office, who helped orchestrate deliveries and counting, made the announcement at 8.55pm on Novemver 16 that the record had been broken by a quarter million cards. The total was 1,250,265. The next day, the cards stopped arriving. Not.

But the GBoR still wanted him to sit on a pole in a carpark?

No, that night, as Autumn's chill fingertips touched the village air and chased the warmth of friendship from the fields, the Ghost of Get-well-appeals Past visited Mr GBoR himself, Norris McWhirter.
And the next day he announced that the record would be recognised.
On the Sunday, someone who may have been McWhirter...
delivered the official GBoR certificate to the wrong address - the neighbours' from a few houses down.
If it's not an urban legend, it should be...

* T, F, BT, BF are all enshrined in the alt.folklore.urban FAQ as indicating True, False, Believed True and Believed False.

When did Craig meet Princess Diana?

Oops. Not meant to be in the FAQ. He never met her, although he was invited to a theatre première in the West End in mid-1989 with two other sick little girls on the understanding that they would meet Di and that other royal type with the ears who used to hang out with her. The royals were ushered straight into the theatre and the kids in their wheelchairs saw nothing but the popping of camera flashes. Not even a glimpse of the "nobility". But hey, the news gets better, so let's get back to the FAQ...

When did Craig's appeal become an urban legend?

I'm still working on that, but perhaps the question can be rephrased as:
When did the appeal end and the legend begin in earnest?
Two answers:
One: when he broke the record and his campaigners stopped formally campaigning. See above.
Two: When he was cured.
On 23 March 1991 Craig Shergold faced the media with his mom and millionaire John Kluge, who had paid for the op that cured him. She said, among other things, "It's a miracle - but please, no more cards."
Newbie alert: There might be a third answer, so don't go harassing your deluded teachers and bosses yet.

How many cards did arrive?

More than a hundred million. Not counting the business cards. Which were actually a scam to compile a business contacts directory. Maybe.

And then?

Give me a break, okay? I've got to earn a living too. Unless everyone who reads this sends me $1. When I collect enough, or when I find the time, I'll carry on updating the FAQ, prettify it and maybe even fix the speling mistakes.

And please, no cards, to: Arthur Goldstuck, or visit me at: Legends from a small country.

PS: If I do get a hundred million $1 notes, I promise I'll also tell the world it's enough.

Contents © Arthur Goldstuck

A more formal version of the Craig Shergold story appears in my second urban legends collection, "The Leopard in the Luggage" (Penguin, 1993).

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