Senior State Advocate Maro Papachristoforou is seen speaking to police officials at the Palm Ridge Magistrate's Court following the prison death of man accused of raping 34 children and two women, Thursday, 25 July 2013. Sifiso Makhubo, 42, a suspected serial child rapist, hanged himself in his prison cell just hours before he was to appear at the High Court in Johannesburg, sitting in the Palm Ridge Magistrate's Court on Thursday. The charges he faced included rape, kidnapping, murder, robbery, and attempted murder by infecting his victims with HIV. The crimes took place in the Kathorus area, in Vosloorus, during 2006. He was arrested in 2011. Police have opened an inquest docket. .Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Johannesburg - A serial rapist accused of raping 33 girls and two women was found dead in police cells on Thursday morning, just hours before he was due to stand trial.

The case was expected to become legal precedent-setting. For the first time in South Africa prosecutors were planning to charge an HIV-positive rapist with attempted murder.

Sifiso Makhubo had known his HIV status when he raped his victims, therefore they believed he was aware of the possibility of infecting them with the virus.

But police said on Thursday morning that Makhubo had hanged himself in the cells and that he was alone at the time.

Makhubo was set to face 122 charges of rape, kidnapping, robbery, murder and attempted murder between 2006 and 2011.

State prosecutor Maro Papachristoforou said that she was devastated, as they had waited a whole year for the trial. Makhubo appeared at the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court in Alberton, south of Joburg, on Monday but the matter was postponed to Thursday for the start of the trial, which was set down for just over a month.

NPA spokeswoman Phindi Louw said they were informed of his death by prison authorities but the information was still “sketchy”.

“To them (witnesses) it would have been closure. I just feel sad for the victims,” she said. Louw said a lot of work had gone into the case. She said the NPA had hoped to make legal history so that it could align with societal changes, Louw said.

Papachristoforou told Judge Dimpheletse Moshidi that they did not have the exact details and did not want to make any decision or withdraw the charges until they had confirmation of Makhubo’s death.

“In other words you hope that he is still alive?” the judge asked.

“Yes, my lord, I was waiting for the case to proceed for justice to be served,” said Papachristoforou.

The matter was allowed to stand down until 2pm.

Earlier Sapa reported that a prison official said police have opened an inquest docket into Makhubo’s death.

“The Mondeor police are investigating following his death in his cell. He was staying in a single cell, as he was a high risk offender,” said Gauteng correctional services spokesman Ofentswe Morwane.

“Prison officials found him hanging in his cell this morning (Thursday) when they went to fetch him to take him to court,” said Morwane

Makhubo’s reign of terror is believed to have begun in January 2006 and his last attack was just before his arrest in February 2011.

Last August, a packed courtroom was shocked to listen to all the charges being read out by the State prosecutor, advocate Joyce Xakaza, in the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court. Xakaza said Makhubo knew of his HIV-positive status before he raped the girls and should therefore be charged with the attempted murder of each victim.

The Star