Thursday, 30 October 2008

Burglars are a load of rubbish

We all know how creative burglars get in the land of urban legends. But when they begin masquerading as bags of rubbish, isn't it time they hired new strategy consultants?

An e-mail doing the rounds, starting with the time-honoured disclaimer of people who suspect they may be making idiots of themselves ("Don't know if this is true or not, but I received it from a good friend, so... you never know."), tells this (verbatim) tale of trash terror:

Just a small warning of the latest way criminals operate - very inventive!!
They dress in black & cover themselves in black refuse bags and wait on the pavement. When SAPS or the neighbourhood watch drive pass they crouch down on the ground to make it look like a full black rubbish bag. SAPS etc ignore the "black bags" & drive past. The criminals then either wait for the home owner to come home ---to hijack them or proceed to break into the house.
Please be aware & beware of "moving" black bags!!! --particularly on rubbish removal days.
PS: The neighbourhood watch member who noticed this wouldn't have known any different if one of the bags hadn't moved & if he wasn't vigilant .

If criminals applied half as much innovation to bank robberies as they apparently did to house robberies, they could quickly enhance their self-images to levels where they no longer regard themselves as trash. The truth is, the credit we give criminals for their genius goes way beyond the brute force methods and opportunistic approaches used in most suburban crime.

For one thing, on a practical level, hiding in a black bag without moving must be one of the poorest surveillance and ambush methodologies yet dreamed up for burglars

Secondly, from a crime wave perspective, if this were really happening, the police services would be formally warning the public. Claims of a police cover-up, which are often made to dismiss this argument, are weak and disingenuous, aside from making no sense and not being backed up by any facts.

In this case, in fact, the story was dismissed by one of the SA Police Services' most senior spokesmen, Superintendent Eugene Opperman. He told reporter Francois Oosthuizen of Beeld newspaper (E-pos oor boewe in swartsakke 'gemors') that "This e-mail has been doing the rounds for a while already, but no one has yet reported an incident of this kind".

He added that, whenever such e-mails did not include names or contact details at the end, people should suspect something was wrong.

Even if names or contact details are included, however, this in itself should not be taken as proof of validity. In most cases, names given in crime warnings are either false, or represent individuals who are not in an appropriate position to issue such warnings.

In this case, the disclaimer that introduces the letter is the first and obvious clue that it is an urban legend: a warning received from a random friend is about as reliable as gossip vaguely overheard on a bus. Secondly, any warnings that talk of "the latest way criminals operate" probably do not reflect the way criminals operate, but rather the way urban legends spread.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

E-mail scares #4: Beware of the keychain!

Please be advised that there are people handing out key rings at intersections and stop streets... These key rings have tracking devices in them.... Kindly refuse them as you would be able to be followed if you accept it.... Please pass this on....

So goes the latest e-mail hoax warning doing the rounds. Promotional keyrings have indeed been handed out, but the warning barely stands up to the most cursory scrutiny. Yet otherwise sane and intelligent people are passing it around as an emotional warning to friends and family.

Think about it: is a hijacker or burglar going to track (never mind how this will be achieved, given that we are not living in a Hollywood movie) a car based on an anonymous signal, or rather follow a likely looking car home? That's a no-brainer for the crooks, so why can't the potential victims figure it out?

We always assume the bad guys have the upper hand, and that they are continually coming up with ingenious new ways to part us from our possessions. The truth is that most criminal methods are brutally direct and brutally simple.

With the increase in armed security services in many Johannesburg suburbs - protecting entire areas instead of responding to individual alarms - those suburbs are seeing a dramatic fall in opportunistic crime or planned home invasions, and a rise in follow-home crimes, where an individual is targeted at a shopping mall or in the traffic, followed home, and robbed before there is any opportunity for security services to respond.

Previously the criminals may have targeted a specific home and waited for the home owner to return. With active, armed patrols in some areas, this is becoming rare in these areas - but replaced by the occasional follow-home robbery.

The new urban legend feeds into the fear of the follow-home. However, it simply does not make sense, as the victims would have to be home already - in a fixed location - for the criminals to pinpoint them and track them down (assuming they have the technology!). By that time the intended victims are securely indoors, and the crime would have to involve immediate forced entry - a direct approach that is being shunned by criminals in these areas. When the criminals don't even know what security set-up they will be facing once the victim is located, the logic of this method becomes even further strained.

To put it in context, as an urban legend, here is another version of the same scare, sent as an e-mail warning last week:



Same warning, different modus operandi. That would almost guarantee it is an urban legend. The clincher, however, as any reader of this blog will have spotted, is the call to "FORWARD THIS TO ALERT FRIENDS & FAMILY!!!!" Authentic warnings never rely on emotional blackmail.

The earliest report I've been able to track down of the urban legend surfacing in South Africa came on Friday, 23 August, when a listener called into the radio station RSG, as recounted on the blog:

There was a little frenzy on SABC radio station RSG’s daytime news program on Friday when a worried listener notified them of suspect key rings being handed out by petrol attendants at petrol stations. The listener reported that he found electronic gadgetry inside the hard plastic cover of the dodgy key ring upon closer inspection. Not only was there electronic gadgetry in there but the gadgetry was powered by a tiny little solar panel and was giving off a signal that could possibly be traceable.

I guess in today’s day and age one cannot be too careful with the ever advancing tech savvy criminal hordes pestering South African society. So interesting was this possible tracking device that the police got involved with a special unit focused on high tech crime. Their findings were that it could indeed be used as a tracking device but the method would be mad as the range of the signal was roughly one kilometer. A vehicle tracking company also tested the key ring and confirmed the signal, but said it would be quite useless for tracking vehicles with and doubted the efficacy of the idea if indeed it was meant as a tracking device.

It turns out the key ring is a promotional item released to the public to promote CALTEX’s Power Diesel brand. The key ring features a display similar to that of cheap mobile phones with the background flashing brighter and softer to attract attention to the CALTEX Power Diesel branding. The innards of this key ring are electronic in nature and feature a cool little solar panel at the back. The process of brightening up the display is probably the culprit generating the “signal” that got folks worried.

I was then informed by the Mail & Guardian that the first version they received originated from an employee at a security company. He had received the warning of the "new" criminal method from a friend who worked at Nedbank. It sounded serious enough for him to e-mail a couple of friends about it (using the wording at the top). Those friends then sent it to more friends, and soon it had reached thousands of Johannesburg residents.

By the time it reached the rest of the media, it had already been investigated by the police, who immediately announced that it was a hoax. The originator - who was merely distributing an urban legend that was already "in the wild" - confessed to the Mail & Guardian that he had been "stupid" not only to believe it, but also to pass it on. He is a rare breed of both honest and contrite urban legend scaremonger.

See the report by Imke van Hoorn and Riaan Wolmarans, entitled The great keyring paranoia prank, on the Mail & Guardian web site.

The original warning referred to here is reproduced as an image on Donovan Jackson's blog at the Shine 2010 web site. The interesting aspect of it is that the security company's name and address appear at the bottom of the e-mail, appearing to authenticate it, although no attempt is made by the sender to invoke the company's name as part of the warning.

The petrol station version of the legend this week usually claimed that it was happening at Caltex service stations. This, reported Talk Radio 702, was promptly denied by Caltex. However, the Caltex spokesperson did acknowledge to 702 Eyewitness News that promotional keyrings were being handed out at service stations. They reported on 28 August:

Fuel retailer Caltex has assured customers that key rings being handed out at petrol stations do not have tracking devices fitted into them.
A hoax email is currently doing the rounds warning people the key rings have a tracking device fitted to them which is used to follow people home, where they are then robbed.
Caltex's Geraldine McConnach says their promotional key rings only have flashing devices.
Gauteng police say there have been no reports of anyone being followed home after receiving a key ring and they also consider the email to be a hoax.

During an on-air interview with 702's David O'Sullivan that afternoon, he told me that listeners were still inundating the station with calls insisting the story was true, and some had even sent through photos of keyrings, as if that constituted proof!

If you really want to see it in action, a video of the device is also available on YouTube, posted there on 23 August by Antowan, who had also posted the MyBroadband report on the surfacing of the legend that same day.

While legendary urban legends debunker Snopes does not include it formally on his web site, it is discussed in the Snopes message board, where the following variation is on offer, going back all the way to February 2000, and originating from outside the United States:

WARNING: this happened to Andre yesterday.

He put petrol in his car and the petrol attendant gave him a key holder - Free!

Back at work he noticed something funny - a copper plate standing out.

It had a sticker on the key holder, he pulled it off. With the key ring being transparent, he noticed a type of SIM card inside.

He opened the key holder just to find a miniature transmitter which works with sun power.

He took it to the Police Station and the Police said that they were aware of it - it is used to follow you home and hijack your car/break into your home.

To the credit of his (American) readers, they immediately come up with the two key arguments against the veracity of the warning. The first is on grounds of logic:

I don't get what the utility of this scheme is supposed to be. How does knowing where random strangers live make it any easier to steal their cars or break into their homes? How is this any better or different than simply following/robbing victims wherever the crooks happen to encounter them or just randomly targeting houses?

The second is a technical argument:

RFID tags are so small because they have no internal power source - the power is induced by an EM field at the base station.

While GPS devices can be very small and operate on very low power, to transmit their location they need to send a signal a significant distance - i.e. to the nearest cellphone tower - and that means it needs to have a relatively bulky battery. The smallest GPS tracking devices today are the size of small cell phones (since that's exactly what they are) and at best can send a location fix every hour for the better part of a day.

Such a device would not be confused with a small non-electronic device.

Nevertheless, despite all the obvious clues, and an inevitable string of media warnings to ignore the warning, the novelty of the warning and its brevity make it a natural to transfer from e-mail to SMS.

Expect it on a cellphone near you soon.

Friday, 13 June 2008

E-mail scares: Eskom is coming!

You (yes, you!) have got until June 19 to stop Eskom from destroying the economy, repossessing your home and dropping a piano on your car.

Think that sounds ridiculous? Well, otherwise intelligent people are falling for equally ridiculous e-mail appeals doing the rounds. The latest one urges - no, begs - everyone to sign a petition calling for Eskom not to increase electricity prices by 53%.

It goes like this:

Hi Everyone


We have until the 19th to petition this and there has been a poor response


The latest is that Eskom is going to raise our electricity rates by 53%, but most of us think that it is outrageous and unfair! Why should we pay for their mistakes? .

Time is running out and we need to move fast!

Every 500th person should please CC to the CEO of Escom

It really does help to read newspapers. If the forwarders of this e-mail (including some friends of mine) did so, they would know that Eskom has long ago submitted its request for a price hike to the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA), and the decision is in the hands of the regulator. Thulani Gcabashe could care less if residents from Kokstad and Kempton Park are standing together. Even the copious use of capital letters is believed to be having little impact on the process.

But it is such a well-publicised process, and the criticism of Eskom's request to NERSA so noisy, it is amazing that people who regard themselves as public-spirited should not be aware of it.

Of course, I would prefer the forwarders of such mails to read both newspapers and my blog, because then they would know rule number one of e-mail chain letters and e-mail warnings: never forward to your mailing list any mass-mailed e-mails you've been sent. For ten more rules, look at Hoaxes and legends: the rules on this site.

If you still need convincing on this one, do yourself a favour and download the press release issued by NERSA on 2 April 2008 (yes, they cleverly avoided April Fool's Day). It spells out the timeline and the process for addressing Eskom's request for a price increase. Included in the timeline are the following key dates:

Deadline for submitting written public comments to NERSA: 29 April 2008
Public Hearing: 23 May 2008
Energy Regulator considers and decides on Eskom’s application for price increase for 2008/09: 06 June 2008

Noticed anything mentioning a Mr Gcabashe awaiting a petition from the public? Thought not.

The June 19 deadline? Pure urban legend.

Incidentally, 300 written submissions were received by NERSA by 29 April, and 40 oral submissions made at the public hearings.

As at 13 June, NERSA deliberations were still continuing, according to Business Day.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Haunted by white ghosts! The curse of Dipokong

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

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

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


Our houses built on mlungu graves!

By Isaac Khumalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, 14 April 2008

The ghost of the mine shafts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Please DON’T Call Me

If you reply to a “Please Call Me” SMS, you will be the victim of a scam to bill you R50.50 per second of air time. That’s R3300 for one minute! In dollars, that’s more than $400!

Okay, now you can relax: it’s only an urban legend. Starting life as an e-mail warning at the time the Call Me service was launched by Vodacom, it has yet again resurfaced on the grapevine, doing the rounds by word of mouth.

The Daily News first carried the story on 30 September 2004, under the heading Worry over e-mail. Bhavna Sookha summed up the hoax:

According to the e-mail, recipients of "please call me" messages received from unknown 072 numbers should be ignored.

The e-mail also says that after one makes a call to the "please call me" number, which is an unknown number, the person that answers the phone will try and keep you on the line for quite some time, asking stupid questions and running up your phone bill.

It was also alleged that these calls were being charged at R50.50 per second and that the receiver of the call was pocketing the money. If they managed to keep the victim on the phone for at least 10 seconds they would make at least R505.

The fraudulent e-mail then went on to say that service provider, Vodacom, was urging the community to be aware and not respond to SMSs (short message service) from strange or unknown numbers.

Sookha had Mthobi Tyamzashe, chief communications officer of the Vodacom group, debunk the e-mail as a hoax. According to Tyamzashe, he wrote, "please call me" is an authentic Vodacom service so popular it is used more than a billion times every month.

"It is a free, person-to-person service that automatically attaches the sender's cellphone number to the "please call me" message," said Tyamzashe." This means there is no third party involved and therefore it is impossible for any private individual to derive an income through the 'please call me' service."

Although the e-mail died, the urban legend lives on. What brought it back to life?

Ironically, the networks themselves added the necessary elements of myth to the Call Me service during 2007, during hearings by the telecommunications regulator Icasa into the high interconnection fees networks charge callers from other networks who phone numbers on their networks – an amount of R1.25 per call, which has never been justified from a cost perspective.

During the hearings, MTN argued that a quarter of its customers in SA never made a single call, but did receive incoming calls. MTN could afford to keep those customers connected, claimed Nkateko Nyoka, MTN’s head of regulatory affairs, only because of the profit it made from delivering each call.

He warned that any interference in the fees that telecoms operators charge each other to route calls between their networks could force up the cost of phone calls and prevent poor people from ever joining a cellular network.

In Business Day on 17 May 2007, under the beautifully ironic heading, Call-cost model aids poor, says MTN, Lesley Stones quoted Nyoka as saying that high termination fees intensified the competition to sign up the poorest users because the operators could make money from their incoming calls.

The disingenuousness of this statement is further compounded by his statement:

“Inbound revenue is the key to connecting people with no disposable income.”

If the connection fees were low, no operator would want to serve the poor and currently unconnected people, he added for good measure.

The next day, Vodacom piled on the irony. Again, as quoted by Lesley Stones, this time under the heading Poor will be silenced if cell fees are cut, they said that cashless customers who send 18-million text messages a day asking wealthier friends to call them back could be axed from Vodacom’s network if the interconnection fee for delivering the incoming calls are cut:

Vodacom’s government relations and regulatory executive Pakamile Pongwana said that radical cuts forced on its network in Tanzania had unintended consequences, as Vodacom had less income to spend on expanding its network.

There was a fine balance between the wholesale and retail prices, and SA’s current regime had lowered the cost of cellphone ownership so that even the poorest people could get connected, said Pongwana.

Vodacom could not justify keeping a significant proportion of its pre-paid users on its network if there was not enough profit in delivering incoming calls to them, added Karl Lawrenz, its executive of regulatory projects.

If cost-based termination rates were imposed, it would not be sustainable to retain those low-spending users, he said.

No mention of just how much money the networks made from the actual calls resulting from the call-me service! And no mention of the fact that they had been provided with near-monopoly licenses partly with a mandate to provide access to communications to all South Africans.

Business day reader Andrew Fraser summed up the public’s incredulity at these statements with a letter to the editor headed Ring of falsehood. It read, in part:

Your article had me vacillating between amusement and horror… According to the article, MTN argues that 25% of its customers never make a call, and that the profit from interconnection allows it to keep those customers connected.

… The reason that 25% of those customers never make a call is precisely because the price of making a call is so high, and that price is driven up by the astronomical interconnect fees... It is unethical and corrupt to claim that higher profits benefit the people paying for the services. Higher profits benefit shareholders — nobody else.

The interconnect hearings were probably a low point in the networks’ efforts to display their commitment to the development of the country, as opposed to commitment to their own profits. The manner in which the Call Me service was conscripted to their argument added dramatically to the obfuscation around how it really worked, and created an impression that it was a highly profitable service. How could it make such large profits? Surely by overcharging hideously on the resultant calls?

The urban legend was reborn in the wake of those hearings, and is now enjoying a healthy afterlife, long after the e-mail hoax was laid to rest.

(* On 11 October 2007, according to, Vodacom announced that text ads would be sold on Please Call Me, “its free call-back service claimed to generate up to 20 million messages a day and reaches both the lower and higher end of the market”. A useful revenue generator, but also one that makes the contents of those crammed Call Me messages even more confusing. Watch this lack of space… )

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Sunday, 09 March 2008

Right (no, left) of way:
The error at Hospital Bend

Did you know that Cape Town’s notorious traffic bottleneck known as hospital bend is the result of an absurd engineering blunder? At least, that’s the way it goes in the land of urban legends. There are two variations on the theme, and both are usually told as “everyone who lives in Cape Town knows about it”.

Here is a classic version of the first variation, as shared with me by correspondent Simon Fishley:

I spent 7 years in the Cape and working in various regions of Cape Town. One of my biggest grumbles was about 2 traffic interchanges, the one known as Hospital Bend, where the N2 passes Groote Schuur Hospital, and the other the M5/N1 interchange. Both of these intersections have most peculiar off and on ramps where you get on or off the highways in the fast (right hand) lane.

On the M5 heading towards Milnerton, if you plan to get onto the N1 north, you will suddenly have to slam on brakes as you round a corner and find the right hand lane completely stationary with traffic queuing to take the offramp.

On the N2 coming from Newlands, you leave the highway in the right lane to get to Observatory and Groote Schuur hospital. If you want to head towards Newlands from the hospital you have to accelerate onto the highway like an F1 car leaving the pits as you join traffic in the fast lane with people flying down the hill, past the hospital, around virtually a blind corner.

I heard from several sources while I lived in Cape Town that this absurdity is due to the design of these junctions being handled by an overseas engineering firm who operate from a country where they drive on the right hand side of the road and that no-one thought to mention to said company that we in SA drive on the left hand side of the road.

For a first-hand view of the “absurdity”, a Hospital Bend webcam has allegedly been set up for public viewing, but it appears to be frozen in time during November 2006 – perhaps because someone wanted to capture a moment during which it wasn’t completely backed up. However, customers of MTN Loaded can view it live at a cost of R1 a time.

The other variation on the theme is that the engineering firm responsible for this interchange as well as for the Koeberg Interchange – another absurdity of road engineering (see map above) – was trying to save time and sweat, so they cribbed the design from an American highway design. Forgetting that the American onramps and offramps were designed for traffic that kept right instead of left.

Simon’s version reached me, coincidentally, as the City of Cape Town launched four major upgrades to its highway system, including re-engineering of Hospital Bend and the Koeberg Interchange, ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Anel Powell reported in The Cape Times 28 January 2008:

The R235-million roadworks on Hospital Bend, set to begin on Monday, are expected to cause serious delays for motorists coming into Cape Town from the southern suburbs.

Elizabeth Thompson, mayoral committee member for transport, roads and stormwater, said at least two lanes in each direction would be kept open in an attempt to keep traffic flowing. This had been stipulated in the contract awarded to Haw and Inglis... The upgrade of the N2-Settlers Way Freeway is to take 25 months, with completion set for March 2010.

The project, considered one of the most important of the city's transport-related undertakings for 2010, is to be funded by the national department of transport, the provincial government and the City of Cape Town. The province has allocated R20m.

The in-bound upgrade is to cost R155m, and the out-bound revamp R63m. The rest of the R235m is to go to project consultants.

Eddie Chinnappen, the city's executive director of transport, roads and stormwater, said the upgrade would allow drivers to select lanes before they reached Hospital Bend.

For traffic heading towards the city from the N2, three lanes converge into two on Hospital Bend.

With the improvements, there will still be three lanes, but drivers will be able to choose their lanes earlier.

The lanes coming in to Hospital Bend from the M3 are to split sooner into two independent lanes, so drivers may choose their lane well before hitting Hospital Bend. The same principles are to apply for traffic out of the city.

There will also be new bridges, a widening of the existing bridge and improvements to drainage, lighting and directional signs.

During the afternoon peak hour, more than 6 200 vehicles enter the top of Hospital Bend.

According to the final environmental impact report compiled in June, the upgrade has been on the cards since 1998... Work is also to begin on Granger Bay Boulevard and the Koeberg interchange.

Talk about an expensive mistake. But adding to the ridicule heaped on these highways and the upgrades is the fact that it has taken ten years from beginning the process to starting to fix the mess. The parallel with Eskom’s ten-year warning of power shortages has inspired many a sharp response.

On the My Digital Life blog, cyberbond writes:

Apparently the plan has been drafted in 1998 already, so now that 2010 is in sight, someone probably dusted off the old plans – lying in a backroom somewhere in archives and decided, “Oh, this might be a good idea”.

I wonder just how many other “proposals” like the one that was given from Eskom to government 10 years ago etc is laying on a shelve somewhere ready to bite us in the backside.

A delightful send-up of the thinking that led to these engineering fiascos also appeared a few weeks ago on another blog, 6000 miles from civilisation, under the title Out of the Frying Pan.

According to this variation on the theme, Koeberg Interchange was designed by one Willie van der Plooy: “a nasty, bitter individual with a hell of a temper, a drink problem and complex psychological issues including a vendetta against all forms of road transport after he failed his driving test six times in a single month. Legend has it that he hid himself away and studied long and hard to become a civil engineer, then got his own back on an unsuspecting Cape Town driving public one evening by downing 6 bottles of Klippies, popping a couple of tabs of LSD and coming up with a new design for the crossroads of the N1 and the M5.”

That fanciful version is almost kinder than the urban legends!

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Wednesday, 27 February 2008

"South Africa Needs A Leader Like This!"

Just days after Australia elected its first leader in many years who was able to display racial sensitivity, an outrageously anti-Muslim statement from previous prime minister John Howard did the rounds in South Africa, suggesting we needed a leader of his temperament.

The e-mail, which circulated at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008, ran:

South Africa Needs A Leader Like This!

Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia , as the government targeted radicals in a bid to head off potential terror attacks.

Separately, Howard angered some Australian Muslims on Wednesday by saying he supported spy agencies monitoring the nation's mosques. Quote: 'IMMIGRANTS, NOT AUSTRALIANS, MUST ADAPT. Take It Or Leave It. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Bali , we have experienced a surge in pa triotism by the majority of Australians.'

'This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom'.

'We speak mainly ENGLISH; not Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society. Learn the language!'

'Most Australians believe in God. This is not some Christian, right wing, political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.'
'We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us.'

'This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our Christian beliefs, or Our Way of Life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other g reat Australian freedom,

'If you aren't happy here then LEAVE. We didn't force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country YOU accepted.'

Maybe if we circulate this amongst ourselves, South African citizens will find the backbone to start speaking and voicing the same truths.

If you agree please SEND THIS ON

It is no surprise that many South Africans, accustomed to knee-jerk reactions in both politics and e-mail, did indeed pass on the message, as inflammatory as it was.
It is obvious that, in a multicultural nation, it is absurd to suggest such a stance is indicative of “finding a backbone”. However, it is equally absurd to believe that a prime minister – even one as jingoistic and racially insensitive as John Howard was – would issue such a statement.

The obvious way of checking on the veracity of such a message is to type a key phrase from the statement – in this case the title - into Google. If most of the search results are news reports, carrying the comments as used in the e-mail, then the message is likely to be based on factual events, even if still fanciful beliefs. However, if the results are all from obscure blogs and – even better – urban legends sites, then you would know without even clicking through to the results that something is fishy. If one of those results is from or, then click through to find the full story behind the legend or hoax.

In this case, the background can be found on in an entry entitled Muslims out of Australia, dating back to 4 April 2006.

The bottom line is that the mail is an exaggerated version of several interviews with Australian government members, combined with older material. It started with a 2005 transcript of an interview with the Treasurer of the Australian government, Peter Costello. He was interviewed on a TV show called Lateline by Terry Jones on 23 August 2005 on the subjects of Australian values, Muslim clerics, anti-Americanism, and Telstra.

Selective comments were combined with quotes from an ABC News interview with Federal Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson entitled Minister tells Muslims: accept Aussie values or 'clear off'.

All of these comments were then attributed to John Howard, and combined with a 2001 editorial written by an American military veteran, to give the impression that it all came from a speech by John Howard. Ironically, the mail started circulating after Howard had held a two-hour summit with Muslim leaders in Canberra to work on a national strategy for addressing intolerance. While that may have been a case of a wolf being put in charge of the safety of the sheep, it was distinctly counter to the sentiments expressed in the supposed Howard speech.

Do we need “a leader like this” in South Africa? Sure, if we want to ensure that there is no hope of turning the corner from the fear and violence that the current crime wave has brought to our lives. Add political intolerance and fear, and the last vestiges of the rainbow nation that was born in 1994 will disappear.

However, the current atmosphere of dissatisfaction as a result of political corruption, uncontrolled crime and an energy crisis, is tailor-made for the emergence of new urban legends and the fuelling of old ones. The circulation of the John Howard legend in South Africa is one of the first examples of this emergence.

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Sunday, 03 February 2008

Legends of the Tokoloshe #1:
A monster ate my homework

People from the district of Ohrigstad say they chased a man from their village after finding evidence that he kept a Tokoloshe. The witch then approached a white farmer and suggested that he fire all the black labourers on the estate as he could do their work alone. This the farmer promptly did, but his curiosity was aroused. One night he visited the fields, and found a large number of small creatures tilling the land, with his new employee acting as the supervisor. - Weekly Mail & Guardian, 27 January 1995

This story is told by Lazarus Seitsho, a lecturer who collected the tale while researching witchcraft beliefs in Mpumalanga province.

If it is comical in its absurdity, it also represents a lighter side to the darkness of beliefs in the paranormal. More often, tales of the tokoloshe are replete with sexual violence and fear-filled nights.

“Social workers receive frequent complaints in this region from people who say they were raped by a tokoloshe,” says Seitsho. “When a woman wakes at night with wetness between her legs, she will probably believe that she has been sexually accosted by this supernatural being.”

The implication: it is more about belief in the creature than about its existence. Indeed, if the creature could be proven to exist, it would probably be far more benign than the hideous beliefs that surround it:

“A tokoloshe is believed to have an uncanny power called ‘moshoshopansi’: to make it go under. It can extend its penis to any length and send it underground into the genitals of a sleeping or unsuspecting woman… many of my informers tell me that divorce… is caused by tokoloshes raping wives of migrant labourers. When a woman loses interest in her husband, it is often interpreted as being the result of rape by the tokoloshe.”

In that brief observation lurks a world of meaning. It speaks of scapegoats, refusal to face reality, inability to accept responsibility when it all goes wrong.

Just two weeks ago the lurid tabloid newspaper, Daily Sun, carried yet another story that contained every one of these ingredients, under the headline:

There’s a tokoloshe in my tummy!

Angel Makhaba (30) of Solomondale in Limpopo, didn’t complete her BCom Accounting degree at the University of Limpopo because of a tokoloshe which constantly moves from her stomach to her throat.

“I feel like vomiting it but it will not come out. I feel tired, dizzy, and I am like a mad person. It doesn’t give me peace when I concentrate on my books, it takes my memory. I don’t know why I am living,” said Makgaba.

I went to different pastors for prayers, but nothing has changed.

“I am living in fear because a local prophet told me there is somebody who wants to change me into a zombie,” Makgaba said. - Daily Sun, 22 January 2008

Did someone say scapegoat?

* The first part of the above post first appeared in Arthur Goldstuck's current collection of urban legends, The Ghost that Closed Down the Town: The story of the haunting of South Africa (Penguin, 2006). Click here to read the title story.

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Laptop survives bombs but not post office

Which is more hazardous: a war zone or the Post Office? A wonderful urban legend that answers this question in no uncertain terms has finally made its way to South Africa.


A laptop computer was sent by courier to military headquarters in Pretoria for testing in battlefield conditions. The laptop survived shock waves from being in close proximity to shelling; it survived burial under a heap of rubble from an explosion; it survived being knocked off a table in a tent on the simulated battleground. In short, it passed the test with flying colours.

But then the machine had to be sent back. Due to cost-cutting measures (too much of the military budget had gone to foreign arms deals, you see), it was decided to use the South African Post Office instead of a courier.

But when it got to the other side, the laptop was smashed beyond repair.

Clearly, war can't compete with the SA Post Office in terms of hazardous duty.

Except that this story has been told about several post offices and postal services around the world.

Like this comment in an article* in the British newspaper, the Sunday Herald, dated 12 September 2004, about Parcel Force,one of the top express parcel carriers in the United Kingdom:

Tales of Parcel Force's incompetence are legion. It is probably apocryphal, but we like the one where a laptop computer was sent to the Army for destructive testing in a battleground environment. The computer managed to survive the Army but Parcel Force broke it while delivering it back to the manufacturer.

For good measure, the article included another gem:

After weeks of trying to trace a missing item, a Parcel Force woman phones the customer and says: "I've worked out what the problem is. The driver's a twat."

(* Thanks to Brian Chapman for the clipping)

Monday, 14 January 2008

Christmas not cancelled shock!

Another Christmas is safely behind us, finally putting to rest one of the great urban legends of South African government interference in ordinary people’s ordinary lives.

Back in August 2004, one Rufus Malatjie, chief director of legal services at the Department of Home Affairs, who headed a government task team evaluating the number of public holidays, was quoted by the Sunday Times, under the headline "Christmas may be cancelled", as saying that South Africa's 14 public holidays are up for review and "not one will be regarded as sacred".

According to the Sunday Times, Malatjie had warned the previous day, 31 July 2004, that Christmas Day, Easter and Youth Day, on which the June 16 1976 Soweto uprising is commemorated, were also not exempt.

“I cannot guarantee that we will still have the Christmas Day holiday,” he said. “At this stage anything is possible. There is no holiday that is regarded as being sacred. They are all being looked at.”

The story really began on 16 February that year, when the task team began conducting public hearings. The ambit of the hearings can still be found online at the Department of Home Affairs web site, although the orginal Sunday Times has disappeared from its former location.

Sheikh Achmat Sedick, secretary-general of the Muslim Judicial Council, was one of the participants in the hearings. He would later tell the Sunday Times that his organisation had made a submission and would expect to be involved in further consideration of holidays. He added that Christmas, Easter and other religious holidays were legacies of apartheid and mainly reflected the priorities of the Dutch Reformed Church, to which most white leaders had belonged.

The day after the Sunday Times article had appeared, on 2 August, the denials began to flow. ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama said there was no possibility whatsoever that Christmas would be cancelled as a holiday.

"The ANC takes serious exception,” he huffed. “Such a report is aimed at creating confusion and mistrust of the ANC as a ruling party."

Ngonyama said the report was unfinished: "It should be first be presented to the minister and the Cabinet."

He said the official who had leaked the story to the press should do his work, hand over the report, and not comment to the newspapers.

"This is supposed to be the jurisdiction of the minister, not of an official."

The new Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula also weighed in: "I would like to reassure all of you that there is no such report which has been tabled before me," she told a parliamentary committee on 2 August.

The full denials also appeared in the ANC’s news briefing for 3 August 2004.

Ngonyama’s conspiracy theory behind the urban legend was not entirely misplaced. The task team had been appointed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the former Minister of Home Affairs, whose relationship with the ANC had been anything but amicable during his Inkatha Freedom Party’s participation in Government.

He had appointed the task team in November 2003 after complaints from the public that the South African calendar discriminated against religious groups and certain sectors of the population.

Malatjie told the Sunday Times that individual submissions at hearings held between February and April 2004 had ranged from calls for the cancellation of Christmas to proposals for additional holidays.

Strangely, after Ngonyama’s outburst, Malatjie was never heard from again in this context. Of course, by the time the denials had been issued, the original story was making its way round the world, and thence back to South Africa via numerous articles, newsletters, and other sources.

As a result, the urban legend wouldn’t go away. Right up to December 24 last year, it remained a topic of conversation among conservative white people, with even some of the more enlightened white South Africans still suspicious that the ANC wanted to take away the whites’ Christmas.

Grateful acknowledgement to Brian Chapman for archival material.

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