Durban - Sex workers in Durban are living in fear of being targeted for so-called muti killings after a traditional healer was among those arrested at the weekend in connection with the beheading of a Chatsworth prostitute.
Thuli Khoza, provincial coordinator for sex workers’ rights advocacy group Sisonke, said on Sunday the decapitation of Desiree Murugan, 39, had struck horror in sex workers, who have inundated their helpline seeking information about the case.
Murugan’s body was discovered by municipal maintenance staff at the Shallcross sports stadium in Chatsworth a week ago.
Police spokesman, Colonel Jay Naicker, said the head was recovered in Imfume on the South Coast on Friday. This was after the Chatsworth Serious and Violent Crimes Task Team held six suspects, aged between 18 and 32 years, on Thursday in connection with the murder.
The suspects - among them a woman and a traditional healer - were scheduled to appear in the Chatsworth Magistrate’s Court on Monday.
“This kind of killing has been happening but it’s the first time we have heard of a sex worker being killed for muti,” said Khoza.
She and other Sisonke representatives had visited the scene of the crime, to “show other sex workers they are not alone”.
Khoza said the killing showed that the law needed to change and sex work legalised so prostitutes could be protected. She said they feared this might be the start of a “trend” of targeting sex workers for body parts.
Professor Nceba Gqaleni, who has been working in African traditional medicine for 14 years, said the use of human body parts was not part of traditional medicine.
The honorary research professor at the Durban University of Technology said body parts were generally used to bewitch rather than to heal.
“Our society is gullible. Some people believe that body-part rituals will bring them riches and power. That is not part of healing; trading in body parts can never be considered a part of our culture, religion or healing,” he said.
Gqaleni said the phrase “muti killing” was a misnomer because muti (medicine) was meant to heal. The potion concocted with body parts was in fact ubuthi, which he equated to poison.
Gqaleni believes Murugan was targeted, “but there is no telling for what”. He said this was because such killings were “like hijacking a car. Criminals hijack cars, which have been ordered. They are told the particular body part is needed and the victim is targeted that way. Such murders are part of organised crime and should be treated as such”.
National police commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, called such killings “serious crimes against humanity”.
Phiyega was speaking in Limpopo on Saturday during the SAPS’s “witchcraft outreach programme”, prompted by a spate of “ritual killings”.
“We need to be deliberate in detail on the truthfulness of what research on ritual murders depicts on issues such as the beliefs that particular body parts harvested through a particular process and from selected victims could enhance health, strength, wealth or power,” said Phiyega.
“These matters can no longer be swept under the carpet and kept secret. Only when we start engaging with one another can we, as society, feel free to talk about these issues and even feel free to report these incidents to the police at the nearest police stations.”