Monday, 25 October 2010

In the spirit of media myths

Spirits blamed as girls faint in Cambodia
Teachers of 10 teenage girls who collapsed one after another at their rural Cambodian school blamed the mysterious ailment on angry spirits on Saturday. - Sydney Morning Herald, October 24, 2010
News services around the world, who received this report from Agence France Presse (AFP), handled it in an entirely predictable manner: they focused solely on the superstitious naivety of the rural Third World supposed primitives.

Yet, the phenomenon is no different from the mass hysteria that has assailed schools around the word - almost invariably among girls, and invariably at exam time or time of other tension.

The report continued:
The girls, aged between 14 and 18, were treated in hospital after fainting but doctors could not ascertain why the youngsters were struck down, said Ruos Lim Chhee, head of the high school in Pnov, northern Cambodia.
He said that all of the girls were found to be healthy, with no signs of food poisoning, although two were a little low on glucose.
"We are afraid we are under a spell because we didn't offer any traditional dancing and music to the spirits on the opening day this year," he said.
"But we have just offered fruits, boiled chickens and wine to the spirits today, and we hope the students will get better and the spirits will take care of us."
Bizarrely, the reporter failed to obtain any medical or psychological opinion, focusing only on the medically ignorant comments of school teachers. Real explanations, of course, would make the story far more mundane and not extoic enough to sell to global news services.

Here are the rest of the "experts" lined up to explain the phenomenon:

Mil Khim, a teacher who witnessed the string of incidents on Thursday, said one of his students started to complain of chest pains early in the morning and then suffered convulsions before falling unconscious.
"The strange phenomenon lasted only a few hours, as eight seventh graders and two from eighth and ninth grade fainted subsequently," he said.
Cambodians in rural areas often believe supernatural forces are behind unexplained events.
"We think that perhaps the spirits are angry because the doctors, teachers and even police found no trace of poison or physical weakness," said district governor, Pech Sophea.
Ironically, the story was carried without comment by various South African news media, despite the fact that the country boasts a rich body of such tales - and almost all of them explainable on a psychological level.

In The Burglar in the Bin-Bag: Urban legends, hoaxes and mass hysteria (Penguin, 2010), such panic attacks are placed in a South African context, and examples from as far afield as the United Kingdom and the United States are also explored.

While those examples show that it is not merely a Third World phenomenon, the following excerpt from the book makes the point that it is also not only a rural phenomenon:

Urban attack

It’s one thing for mass hysteria to sweep through isolated communities, but what about urban centres? ... On March 26 (2009), the epidemic reached a climax in Pretoria, capital city of South Africa.

It is a marvelous case study, in that it reveals that even ‘sophisticated’ urbanites do not have better informational resources than their rural counterparts.

Let’s follow the story as reported by the Pretoria News:

A wave of mass hysteria overcame a Pretoria high school as dozens of children collapsed, screaming in unexplained convulsions and fits.
The hysteria started when a Grade Nine girl collapsed at her desk at Daspoort Secondary School in Claremont on Thursday.
Within moments of the unexplained attack – the fifth to occur since February – about 25 pupils in various classes and grades were affected and started screaming hysterically, fainting and convulsing as they succumbed to the strange occurrence...
The wave of hysteria, which gripped Daspoort soon after the school lunch break, saw teachers and prefects carry at least 10 pupils from their classrooms and corridors where they had collapsed, while others were evacuated to the school hall for safety.
Pupils were eventually moved from the hall to different evacuation areas around the school after another nine collapsed in convulsions inside the building. It is believed at least six more collapsed after fainting or suffering convulsions as they fled the hall. Many reported seeing visions...
Megan Mabye, who collapsed outside the hall, said: ‘I remember hearing people scream and seeing a friend faint in the passage outside my classroom. I did not know what was happening. We were rushed to the hall where more children fainted and had fits...
‘I could see people around me and tried to get up, but I couldn’t. My body was stiff,’ she said, fighting back tears as she described how she had a vision of ‘three green four-legged men’ trying to kill her as a pastor stood over her, praying.
Megan’s mother, Doreen, said it was clear there was an evil spirit around the school. ‘How else do you explain what has happened. This is very worrying and scary,’ she said, adding that she had never believed in the supernatural until Thursday.
Confirming it was the fifth ‘attack’ since February, principal Gerhard Olivier said: ‘We are at our wits’ end. We do not know what is happening or why...’
Olivier confessed to the Pretoria News that the school was desperate for a solution. And then he dropped what newsmen refer to as a howler:

‘Whatever is happening is very unsettling. We cannot explain it, except to say that it is clear that this is a sign of the moral degeneration which is occurring in our society.
‘We are doing everything in our power to address the issue and have called in various religious people, along with psychiatrists and trauma counsellors to come and help our children,’ he said.
He was positive that what had happened at the school could be overcome with a solid Christian foundation. ‘At the moment we have a seriously dysfunctional school with major discipline problems which we are urgently trying to address, and once we have this under control we should, hopefully, be fine,’ Olivier said, adding that in the past week at least two schools in Sunnyside and Laudium had been affected by similar occurrences.
Little wonder that the problem could not be brought under control: the people in charge had no idea what the problem was!

Church leaders didn’t help either. Eyewitness News reported the next day that Pastor Andries Nel, who had witnessed part of the incident, had said Satanism may have been to blame.
He told reporter Cathy Mohlahlana: ‘You can only solve this problem spiritually. There are some demonic things on the school premises; maybe some of the children are also playing with the occult.’

Once exams were over, however, it appears that Satan decided to take a break.

* "The Burglar in the Bin-Bag: Urban legends, hoaxes and mass hysteria" (Penguin, 2010) is available in bookstores throughout South Africa. It can also be purchased online (click on the links below) from:

Exclusive Books
Red Pepper Books

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Arthur's new book

Arthur Goldstuck's new book on urban legends, "The Burglar in the Bin-bag: Urban legends, Hoaxes and Mass Hysteria" (Penguin), is now out.

It will be officially launched on Wednesday, October 27, at 6.30pm, at Love Books in Melville, Johannesburg. If you'd like to attend, RSVP to Kate by clicking here or by phone on (+27) 11 726 7408.

Wednesday, 01 September 2010

The Micro Frog of Floral Doom

If you see someone selling arum lillies you must call City Law Enforcement on (021) 596 1400/1424

It is the start of Arum Lily season. A tiny endangered Arum Lily Micro Frog breeds inside the water and dew held in the cup of these Lilies. We are desperate to curtail the gross destruction of Lilies. Please don't buy Lilies sold at traffic intersections.

Would you please do a tiny bit, and just FWD this email?

As Spring was about to be sprung, this warning spread faster than frogs in breeding season. During August 2010, it began doing the e-mail rounds, and was then taken up by blogs and community web sites. The popular Urban Sprout blog reported on 12 August:

Arum lily season is here! You'll know this because at any number of lights around the city, some well-meaning chap will thrust a bunch at your window. And the temptation to buy these gorgeous flowers is enormous.

I've been aware that one shouldn't buy as they're being picked in the wild, destroying the natural balance of what remains of the natural wetlands, wild places and roadsides along which they grow (they're regarded as one of the wild flowers of the flower route and indicated in reports on the flowers).

But what I didn't know is that the endangered arum lily micro frog breeds in the water and dew held in the cup of these lilies.

The Cape Tourist Guide Association came over all sentimental, headlining their version of the plea, "ARUM LILY Micro froggie – PLEASE". They then ran the exact text that went with the e-mail version quoted above, as well as this image that accompanied the e-mail:

The truly sad part about this plea is that the Arum Lily Micro Frog ... does ... not ... exist.

It is an urban legend, cobbled together from two distinct species of frog, the sprouting of flower sellers on the streets of Cape Town as spring approaches, and good old fashioned misinformation. Mix in the discovery of a new species of micro frog as the urban legend was spreading, and suddenly our inboxes were no longer safe from the amphibian invasion.

The City of Cape Town made a valiant effort to quell the legend, issuing a formal statement on 30 August, along with other relevant authorities, namely Cape Nature and the South African National Biodiversity Institute. It was a masterpiece of measured, balanced analysis, in classic urban legend debunking style, although it does not use the term "urban legend":

Setting the facts straight on arum lilies and frogs
The City of Cape Town’s Environmental Resource Management (ERM) Department has noted that inaccurate information is circulating about the sale of arum lilies, and the protection of two of the Cape’s amphibians, the arum lily frog and micro frog.

A campaign urging residents not to purchase arum lilies from vendors at the side of the road seems to be gaining momentum whilst spreading inaccurate information about arum lilies and frogs. This misleading information has also gone viral, and is being spread via e-mail and social networking tools. It is important that the public understand the facts about these frogs, before making a decision on whether or not to purchase the flowers.

The ERM Department, in conjunction with CapeNature and the South African National Biodiversity Institute would therefore like to highlight the facts.

The information being circulated refers to the ‘arum lily micro frog’ which does not exist. There are, however, two different species of frog, namely the micro frog (Microbatrachella capensis) and the arum lily frog (Hyperolius horstockii). The micro frog is smaller than a fingernail, while the arum lily frog is somewhat larger, growing to about 40 mm in length. It has been reported that the ‘arum lily micro frog’ is in danger because of the sale of arum lilies, but this is not at all correct for either of the frog species.

The supposed threat to these frogs’ habitat has been cited as one of the main reasons why the public should not buy arum lilies. However, no frog species breeds in the flowers of arum lilies. While the arum lily frog occasionally uses the flowers for shelter, it is not dependant on them. Arum lily frogs breed in wetlands and not in the flowers of the arums. The micro frog is ground-dwelling, breeding in temporary pools, and it does not climb into any flowers.

Arum lily frogs are very pale and they hide their bright orange feet and legs under their bodies during the day. In this way, the frog is able to use a white background as camouflage against predators and this background is sometimes the white arum flower. They do not use the pollen of the flowers to camouflage themselves, as has been suggested.

While arum lily frogs are only found in the Western Cape (and a small area of the Eastern Cape), they are not classified as threatened in the 2004 Red Data book. However, it is true that the species is becoming increasingly rare as their habitat is lost to urban development.

While the illegal harvesting of arum lilies will not lead to the extinction of arum lily frogs, the sale of illegally harvested flora at traffic lights is cause for concern. If left unchecked, other illegally harvested plants such as proteas, ericas, and various bulb species may be seen at traffic lights in the future.

The City does not wish to deter the public from purchasing flowers from hawkers – as long as they are legal retailers. All roving vendors and intersection traders selling flowers are illegal. However, traders selling flowers in demarcated trading bays are legal, and regulated by the City. The City encourages the public to report illegal trading on 021 596 1400/1424.

“The ERM Department is always grateful when residents spread its messages because the need for awareness is so great. Unfortunately, this message has become lost in translation, and we hope that the correct information, as it appears above, will spread in the same manner,” said the City’s Biodiversity Co-ordinator, Clifford Dorse.

The ERM Department is currently updating its pamphlets on frogs and lilies, and will distribute them widely in an attempt to ensure that the public receives the correct information.

How did the legend start? It appears the very balanced folk at the City of Cape Town may themselves have played a role in it. However, it caught fire through the confluence of three biological facts.

The first is that the Micro Frog, known scientifically as Microbatrachella capensis, is indeed an endangered species, and is found only in the Western Cape. The IUCN Red List of Endangered Species describes the frog and its habitat in great detail. It does not mention Arum Lilies. It reports that the frog lives in sandy, coastal fynbos heathland.

Then there is indeed an Arum Lily Frog (or Hyperolius horstockii). The web site of the Two Oceans Aquarium describes it and carries, in urban legend source terms, a dead giveaway:

Arum lily frogs shelter in the flowers of the arum lily during the day. They use the pollen of the flowers to camouflage themselves. At night they creep out of the flower and down the stem to hunt for insects.

They are threatened because arum lily flowers are picked and sold.

If you look very carefully you might find these little creatures hiding in an arum lily flower. Look out for their bright orange feet.

Please don’t pick arum lily flowers or buy them from the road side – you might end up taking a frog home with you!

No mention of a micro frog or breeding in the flower, of course. The arum lily is in fact a source of shelter, camouflage and food. But there lurks half the e-mail warning doing the rounds during August 2010.

The third fact was the discovery, in Borneo, of the smallest species of frog in the world, during August 2010. It was reported in scientific terms on 19 August (download the article as carried by Zootaxa here ) under the rather unscientific headline, Old World’s smallest frogs crawl out of miniature pitcher plants on Borneo.

And on 26 August Conservation International reported the finding like this:

The mini frogs (Microhyla nepenthicola) were found on the edge of a road leading to the summit of the Gunung Serapi mountain, which lies within Kubah National Park. The new species was named after the plant on which it depends to live, the Nepenthes ampullaria, one of many species of pitcher plants in Borneo, which has a globular pitcher and grows in damp, shady forests. The frogs deposit their eggs on the sides of the pitcher, and tadpoles grow in the liquid accumulated inside the plant.

Yes, no great leap from this breeding environment to the emergence of the Arum Lily Micro Frog.

After the City of Cape Town issued its correction, it also supplied the statement quoted above to the Urban Sprout blog, and added:

I’m guessing that this was based on the articles in the Bolander (11 August) or the Saturday Argus (7 August)? Unfortunately these articles contained some factual errors, and we have sent to following information to the papers:

We realise that some of the information was taken from one of the City’s pamphlets which, in hindsight, may have been ambiguous in its wording. We apologise for this – we are currently updating this pamphlet.

The pamphlet itself has not been quoted in any of the warnings, but it is clear that half-facts have been bundled together into the first urban legend of Spring. Astonishingly, even on blogs where the City statement was published, readers left comments to the effect that they had not been aware of these frogs, and would in future alert police about flower sellers hawking arum lilies.

As they say about headlines in tabloid newspapers, never let the facts get in the way of a good urban legend.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Shoes on the line

Old shoes hang from an overhead telephone cable in Thokoza, on the East Rand. Residents are not entirely sure why the line is festooned with the shoes - one said they advertise the fact that dagga can be bought in the area, others said the shoes are thrown onto the cable by recovering dagga smokers. Most residents said children throw them onto the cable when they are beyond repair. - The Times, Johannesburg, 24 August 2010
The photo on Page 2 of the Times shows dozens of old shoes hanging from a phone line. Intriguing? Only if you believe in the urban legends.

The idea of shoes on phone lines identifying drug-dealers or gang activity goes back decades. In 1996, Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope (book, web site and column) listed more than a dozen theories for the "truth" behind the phenomenon. Barbara Mikkelson over at urban legends oracle Snopes adds eight theories of her own.'s David Emery admits "up front" that "there's no definitive answer":
Like most people, I've noticed the darned things dangling high over virtually every neighborhood I've ever lived in and always assumed it was an artifact of one of those adolescent male challenges or rites of passage — e.g., let's see who can fling a pair of old sneakers over the highest wire.
But he also quotes a report that gets closer to the heart of the matter than most urban legend theories:
... an Associated Press story out of Tucson hoisted up the conventional wisdom that dangling sneakers are an emblem of gang activity and knocked it down with a quote from the police: "This is another kind of urban myth," a spokesman said. Like law enforcement officials everywhere, Tucson police have found no correlation between dangling sneakers and crime.

Tucson Electric Power officials added that in any given week, 5 to 10 pairs of sneakers are removed from power lines all over the city of Tucson: "The highest periods of activity seem to be after school lets out for the summer break," as well as holidays.
The South African versions of the phenomenon that have cropped up from time to time have shared the same characteristics - and the same theories - as the American ones. This, at the very least, shows that this country is sharing in a global urban legend.

However, there is one additional element that has been tagged on in South Africa, going back to the days of illegal shebeens in the townships. In the 1990s the urban legend was current that a white flag flying at a house meant it was a shebeen. But if that was too obvious, "look for plastic bags in trees with their carry handles both neatly around branches - in a way the wind could not have done".

Those legends, in turn, come up in the context of the colour-coded crimes discussed on this blog in 2007 (and included in my new book of urban legends, The Burglar in the Bin-Bag, out from Penguin Books in October 2010).

Among certain sectors of South Africans (usually those hankering for the old days), there is a near-emotional belief in the idea that trash left lying or hanging around is an indicator of crime. However, there is no evidence to support the belief. And there is plenty evidence to support the urban legend nature of the belief.

Taking all the evidence from all the global debunkers together, let's debunk this once and for all: old shoes hanging from telephone lines do NOT denote gang activity, drug dealers or shebeens. As dull as it may sound, they are merely ... old shoes hanging from telephone lines.

Monday, 26 April 2010

"KIll the Whites" Day

The police's national spokesman, Colonel Vishnu Naidoo, has slammed "malicious" text messages that claim pamphlets calling for white people to be killed on Freedom Day are being circulated in Limpopo. The police have found no evidence that such pamphlets existed, he said. - The Times, 26 April 2010

Which is more outrageous: a call to kill white people, or a text message claiming that pamphlets to that effect are being circulated? In one absurdly short report, the nature of the scare dilemma is encapsulated. Should one pass on a scare story just in case it is true? Or is that as bad as the supposed scare itself?

Colonel Naidu is in no doubt here: those who sent the SMS text messages around were as malicious as those who may or may not have created the pamphlets.

It is to the Colonel's credit, though, that the scare is immediately dismissed as such. In the history of such scares, such sane heads have seldom prevailed. The truth is, Kill the Whites Day is an urban legend going back almost to the beginning of racial conflict in South Africa.

The following appeared in my third urban legends book, Ink in the Porridge: Urban legends of the South African elections (Penguin, 1994). An updated version will appear in my next urban legends book, on scares and panics, due out later in 2010:

1. Blame it on Dingane ...

Its origins lie in the murky past of white South African history. The date is precise, the details are subject to controversy.

On February 6 1838, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief visited the kraal of the Zulu chief, Dingane, at Mgundgundlovu. He is said to have ceded half of Natal to the trekkers in exchange for their "returning" cattle stolen by another chief. The trekkers promptly returned the cattle, were instructed to leave their guns outside the kraal and invited in to share a drink with Dingane.

According to historians, Dingane suddenly ordered his men to catch the "witchdoctors" and kill them. This order has been rendered by many as "Kill the wizards", with "wizards" intended to mean "whites".

That order has never been proven, since there were no white survivors and only one outside eyewitness: the missionary Francis Owen, who saw the massacre from a distance.

Another, more persuasive legend, emerged from the killings: that a trekker search party found the land deed, signed by Dingane, among the possessions of the dead men. Historians have found no evidence for it, and it does not exist today. Some of those who insist it did exist, claim that it disappeared during the South African War in 1900.

Meanwhile, the trekkers, along with the British, finally subjugated every black tribe in southern Africa, but that fatal phrase - "Kill the wizards" - could never be banished from the minds of the conquerors.

2. ... and on Luthuli

It re-emerged most dramatically on March 21 1960, when police killed 69 people and wounded 180 during a protest march at Sharpeville. The facts were simple: it was a peaceful protest, the protestors had a legitimate grievance - the pass-books they had to carry - and it was the police who had resorted to violence.

But as far as whites were concerned, it was the blacks who posed the greatest threat. They seemed less horrified by the viciousness of the SA Police than by the reaction they expected from the black masses.

A headline the next day in The Pretoria News summed up the reaction: RUSH TO BUY WEAPONS - TOWNS BECOME ARMED CAMPS.

The story opened: "Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark were towns of armed men and women last night."

White men and women, that is.

Shares on the stock exchange plummeted, fortunes were wiped out, and a wave of emigration began.

Much of this fear was based on the urban legend that emerged overnight, although it had been simmering in the pot for more than a century: blacks were planning to rise up on one particular day and kill every white person in South Africa.

Now there was even a designated date: March 28 1960, the day Chief Albert Luthuli, then president of the ANC, declared a day of mourning and a work stay away. Protests there were, but all were peaceful. The worst violence came from police who forced back thousands of marchers setting out on the road from Cato Manor to Durban on March 31, and from armed white civilian onlookers who fired into the crowds.

A week later, all resistance had been crushed and, on April 8, the ANC and PAC were banned.

Despite all government propaganda and white fears, the protests had all been non-violent. But the armed struggle was about to begin, and many an urban legend would become reality - precisely because the white population had insisted on believing in urban legends which, for 50 years, had been groundless.

Now they would have reason for their fears.

3. ... and on Mandela

There was one last gasp for the old version of the legend, and for black attempts at negotiation. A conference between the PAC and ANC was held in Pietermaritzburg in March 1961, when a National Action Council under Nelson Mandela was established. It called on the government to establish a national convention by May 31 - the day South Africa became a republic. Failing which, a strike would be called.

Suddenly, May 31 1961 became not only the birthday of a new sovereign state, but also the new "official" Kill the Whites Day. The government predictably refused to negotiate, and a three-day strike was called, starting on the first Republic Day. "A new wave of fear began to spread through white communities", according to the Illustrated History of South Africa: contingency arrangements were made for the manning of essential services and up to 10 000 people were detained.

Mandela called off the strike on the second day. The following month, he presented a memorandum to the ANC's national executive in which the armed struggle was described as the only option remaining.

The first attacks began on 15 and 16 December 1961, with bombings of installations in Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, and another 200 attacks over the next 18 months. Yet, the Kill the Whites Day legend did not re-emerge for decades.

4. ... and on the tricamerals

The next cycle of panic began on September 3 1984, the day South Africa's tricameral constitution came into force. Rent boycotts led to riots throughout South Africa. The unrest kept building until, on 23 October, with 7 000 troops moving into Sebokeng and marking the beginning of the era of troops in the townships. Minister of Law and Order Louis le Grange summed up the government attitude: "It's war, plain and simple."

The tricameral elections also heralded a schools boycott by black and coloured pupils and massive protests against the disparities between white and black education: at the time, R1 385 was spent annually on educating a white pupil, R593 for coloureds and R192 for blacks.

Schools, especially in the Pretoria area, became the focus of all white fears. Parents refused to let their children walk home or even catch a bus, and the traffic jams intensified in front of the school gates at home time.

The government revealed its paranoia once again in its decision to ban the Pink Floyd album, Another Brick in the Wall. Why? Because they had heard that, during protest marches, coloured pupils were singing the chorus of the title song, which ran, "We don't need no education/ we don't need no thought control/ Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone/ All in all you're just another brick in the wall".

It was an attractive fantasy to those opposing the government: after all, the original song is arranged to sound like a chorus of protesting schoolkids. But there is no evidence that the song was used to rally protesting schoolchildren in South Africa. The government may well have fallen for another urban legend, and in the process given enormous political respectability to a pop song.

5. ... and on technology

In 1990, immediately after the unbanning of the ANC and the SA Communist Party and the release of Nelson Mandela, the legend came to life again, fed by the technology of the fax machine. Fake pamphlets which purported to call on blacks to rise up and wipe out all whites on April 10 1990 began circulating in offices in every city and town in South Africa.

They were so crude in their wording, and so blatantly rooted in white racism, that the fear they spread among whites was an indictment of whites' own stereotyped views of the supposed ignorance and savagery of the black population. The SA Police were forced to call press conferences to dismiss the pamphlets as hoaxes, and April 10 passed virtually without incident.

6. And now, on 2010

The fax machine has become the SMS. Cellphones barely existed in South Africa in 1994, the year the first network was launched here, and the year of the last major "Kill the Whites" scare. Today, they are pervasive.

What better means to spread an urban legend? And what better time?

In 2010, racial tensions are back on the agenda as a threat facing South Africa. With the murder of right-wing leader Eugene Terre'Blanche, many South Africans believe they are once again being targeted, en masse, by black people. White farmers not only believe it, but they will point to extensive evidence to support the claim.

In such an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, the seeds for urban legends of this kind are once again finding fertile soil.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

'Kill a Tourist Day'

An Irish actress and a major newspaper have both fallen for the same urban legend.

On 31 December 2009, Irish actress Victoria Smurfit came close to personal tragedy during a night out in Cape Town. The vehicle in which she and her family were travelling was driving along Strand Street in the city centre, when a bullet shattered the passenger window of the taxi, grazed her elbow, and lodged in the dashboard.

It was a nightmare experience in anyone's books but, one would have expected, it would have been forgotten once she had shared the experience with her fans through her newspaper column. Except that she made a startling claim in her column, right out of the land of urban legends. Let's follow her story as she tells what happened following a meal at a "fancy restaurant", en route to a club shortly before midnight, under the headline, 'It was kill a tourist day - and we were in the way':

Crack! Or pop? I can’t really work out exactly which sound is correct as it happened so fast. Maybe it was a crack and a pop as the bullet entered through (sister-in-law) Charlie's window. Crashing through the taxi, which had slowed down to turn right in to the street where the nightclub was.

Everything became very slow. No one looked at each other. It was not the sound of the copper bullet that told us we had been shot at, at point blank range, it was that we all felt it journey past us.

Either in front or behind our faces, it tangibly blew the air as it crossed our paths. The cab had taken a violent intake of breath. With the air in the vehicle sucked out, it left us in no doubt. That was not a stone that hit us.

Blood started seeping out of my collection of veins at the elbow joint. I could see Doug, next to me, was upright and shiny eyed. I reached an arm out to him. Thank God, he was fine.

The balloon we had nicked from the suburban restaurant bobbed behind his ears. He touched my solar plexus. Had I been hit? No, it was my heart trying to beat out.

Seconds ticked in silence. ‘Turn around and look, turn around and check your family are alive’ I told myself.

I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t bring myself to swivel to potential carnage.

The seats behind me held precious people. Mum, My brother Dermot and his wife Charlie. Still quiet.

‘Is everyone OK??!’ I shrieked. Well I think I shrieked, in my head I did.

‘Wow’ said Charlie.

‘Go driver, Go Go,’ Dermot instructed with the power of a man not used to being disobeyed.

The car started to slow down. ‘Llandudno. Now!’ Dermot had slid down his seat.

Trying to drag Charlie and Mum with him, out of range of this random attack.

My brother was the only one of us whose brain had taken in the outside. What and who was out there? The rest of us were in a clear fog of disbelief. No further shots rang out; no one had a chance to rob us.

At this stage we can all sympathise, and share in the family's gratitude that no one was seriously hurt. But then the South Africa syndrome entered her tale.

This is a term that describes the tendency among individuals and the media, both South African and foreign, to ascribe dramatically more negative connotations to events that, in other countries, might make news but would not be seen as symptoms of the collapse of civilisation. For example, a corrupt politician is exposed in the United Kingdom (and another, and another, and another). The public and the media have a field day, milking the story for all it’s worth. But never do they suggest that their country faces collapse as a result of the corruption. The same thing happens in South Africa. Immediately, a large body of opinion, among both local citizenry and foreign media, crow at the impending collapse of society and civilisation.

Ms Smurfit easily embraced the syndrome:

I feel a desperate need to know our taxi driver's name. Alvin he says. So unperturbed is our cabby I asked if this happens all the time in Cape Town. Well we have all read the stories.

‘Not to me.’ His voice was steady. Odd. Maybe he is thinking about the state of his car or policy.

‘I am bleeding!’ strangely thrilled that I have a war wound, I picked out a lump of Doug's window from my elbow. Schrapnel.

'Hospital?’ questioned flat Alvin.

It was a couple of minutes to midnight and we wanted to get to the bosom of our rental. It was only a surface bleed.

Alvin kindly slid open the door on Doug's side of the car and the window, which had taken the exit of our bullet, collapsed and smattered on the ground.

At the very moment we all gratefully stepped out of the taxi, a chorus of ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ could be heard around the Camps Bay coastline. Dermot raised an ironic eyebrow. Never had any of us had such a sober end to a year.

We called the police. We felt it was our civic duty to inform them that someone with a gun was roaming the main street.

‘Yes, thank you,’ and a hang up. Well, we were interrupting celebrations I suppose.

A few days later, Charlie's mother, was at a lunch locally and happened to be sitting next to a lady involved in the police.

The next day two cops were discharged to our rental to take statements. It turns out Alvin was on a scam and had logged the incident for his insurance.

He had quoted ’a shotgun came into the window. No passengers. Car was worth 40 grand'. Hmm, not the one we were in.

I can't blame Alvin. It’s a tough town. Apparently what happened to us was Gang Initiation.

A young man, wants to feel he belongs to something, tries to attach himself to a group but has to prove his mettle.

It was kill a tourist day. And we were in the way.

It is frustrating not knowing who the shooter was. Not as frustrating as it must be for him, unsure if he is now a murderer. Maybe he is only 12.

There is one crucial gap in this leap of logic: no evidence whatsoever that the shooter was a gang member, nor that it was part of any kind of initiation

Chances are that Smurfit was overlaying her experience of working in London, with its epidemic of gang violence and teenage killings, onto Cape Town. But equally likely, she was combining the image of South Africa in the UK media with the classic crime urban legend of the Biker Gang Initiations - which originated in the United States.

As it is, a report the following day in the Daily Mail, by Mail on Sunday correspondent James Tapper, kicked off with this strong innuendo: "Actress Victoria Smurfit has revealed she came within inches of death when a gunman opened fire on a taxi she was travelling in while holidaying in South Africa – the nation that will stage the World Cup in just six months."

Mr Tapper may like to know that a man was killed with a shotgun in what police believed to be a gang fight, in London just the previous week. As far as can be ascertained, not a single newspaper anywhere in the world linked this to the fact that London would be hosting the 2012 Olympic Games. Nor did they do so when a man was stabbed to death after chasing two muggers in London the same week. Nor did they do so when schoolboys were stabbed after a gang invaded a party in London that very weekend. Barely a day goes by without a violent incident in London involving killings and stabbings, but nary a connection to London being a host city in a mere two years' time.

Since there were a mere 844,245 victims of crime in London from April 2008 to March 2009, surely crime will have no impact on the Olympic Games? In fact, with those kind of statistics, the world should be terrified of sending its athletes to London.

But South Africa? That's different. There, all urban legends must be true.

Which brings us back to Ms Smurfit. Or rather, her colleague James Tapper, in his report the following day. He wrote: "Writing in today’s Irish Mail on Sunday, the 35-year-old actress says she was told by South African police the attack was likely to have been a gang initiation ceremony dubbed ‘Kill a Tourist Day’."

Yet, nowhere in her column did she attribute the claim to the police. Only in passing does she use the word "apparently" after describing a visit by police who took a statement.

The motives of Tapper and the Daily Mail become clearer further in his report: "The shooting happened in Strand Street, one of Cape Town’s main roads, which will be thick with football fans when the World Cup begins in June."

A photo of Strand Street carried the caption: "Horror: Victoria's Smurfit's taxi was shot at in Strand Street, Cape Town, by a gang. Police say the shooting was likely to have been part of an initiation ceremony". The caption alone encapsulated the urban legend, for which the actress, the showbiz correspondent, the sub-editors and the editor of the Daily Mail had fallen.

It's become clear over the years that the South African police and media alike are far more attuned to urban legends than are their counterparts in other supposedly more sophisticated countries.

Over to Cape Town police. The SA Press Association did the obvious, and contacted Cape Town central police station. The response was reported in The Times on 12 January under the headline UK actress 'not shot in gang ritual':

... Cape Town central police station Superintendent Randall Stoffels said yesterday: "The shot fired was not specifically for the occupants of that vehcile and it was definitely not gang-related."

When detective interviewed her (Smurfit) last Monday, there were no visible injuries, Stoffels added.

Smurfit opened a case of attempted murder, but this was later changed to the illegal discharge of a firearm in a municipal area.

"The occupants in the taxi just heard a loud bang and the left side window shattered. We believe someone [fired] into the air but the bullet went through the window and lodged into a panel of the van. No one was injured," said Stoffels.

He said the projectile and the panel were sent for ballistic testing and that no arrests has been made yet.

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