Children mutilated, murdered for 'good luck'

Published Aug 22, 2004

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They first hit 10-year-old Sello Chokoe with a blunt instrument, causing a gash on his head. They then harvested his body parts, chopping off his penis, one of his hands and an ear for muti.

Echoes of a hapless Sello screaming for help rang in my mind as police inspector Mohlahla Mashane led us to the spot where the young boy was mutilated.

"In my many years of service with the police I have not encountered the taking of a young innocent life this sadistic," Mashane said.

A few kilometres away from Sello's village, Moletjie, in South Africa's northern Limpopo province, a distinct and lonely koppie stands in a vast expanse of veld. The community had grown accustomed to knowing the spot as a favourite for young rurals experimenting with sex. But for Sello it was to be a different, tragic story.

The unsuspecting boy was lured to the spot after being asked to look for a neighbour's donkeys, which had strayed from the village. In a carefully planned ambush, his killers wedged him between rocks and performed their macabre act.

After briefly regaining consciousness, Sello seems to have emerged from the rocks where he had been abandoned, and called out for help before collapsing. A woman collecting firewood later found him and he was rushed to hospital, only to die a few days later. He was buried last Sunday in his fear-wracked village.

Ritual or muti murders occur frequently enough to provide a disconcerting counterpoint to the contemporary image of the new South Africa. Dr Gerard Labuschagne, who heads the Investigative Psychology Unit of the South African Police Service (SAPS), conservatively estimates that 50 to 300 lives are lost to ritual murderers every year.

"We don't have accurate figures because most murders are recorded simply as murders irrespective of motive," he said. "Most people might also not regard a murder as a muti matter but dismiss it as the work of some crazy killers."

While the estimates on muti murders would appear to be trivial compared to other crimes in South Africa, where a rape is reported every few seconds, Labuschagne says the rate of muti murders signals a worrying trend.

Many muti murders are of young children whose body parts are thought to provide more potent medicine. Despite South Africa being the most developed African economy, a large part of its population still believes power and wealth are better guaranteed by witchdoctors than stockbrokers and market analysts.

"Persons who want to do better, people who want to be promoted at work, gamblers and politicians who want to win and even bank robbers who seek to get away with crime turn to muti," said Labuschagne.

How the body parts are used varies according to what one wants to achieve. The victim's body parts, and sometimes the contents of the victim's skull, are sometimes used as ingredients for diabolical get-rich-quick concoctions that are eaten, drunk or smeared over the ambitious person.

Various body parts are used for different purposes. A man who had difficulty fathering children killed a father of several and used his victim's genitalia for muti purposes. In another case, a butcher slapped each of his products with a severed human hand every morning before opening, as a way of invoking the spirits to beckon customers.

Mathews Mojela is the head teacher at Sello's primary school. He has worked in rural areas for nearly 25 years and says the muti practice is founded in the archaic belief that there is a limited amount of good luck around. If one wants to increase one's wealth or luck it must come at another's expense.

The screaming of a child while his body parts are being chopped off is also regarded as a call to customers for the perpetrator's business, says Mojela. It is also believed that magical powers are awakened by the screams. Eating or burying body parts "capture" the desired outcome.

Anthropology professor Robert Thornton of the University of the Witwatersrand, who has carried out research into traditional healing, says children like Sello are targeted because it is believed the power of a virgin is greater.

The main motivating idea is what Thornton describes as "symbolic logic". This is the idea that another person's penis will cure one of impotence, or that a perpetrator's farsightedness will be strengthened by devouring the victim's eyes. Blood is thought to increase vitality.

Professor Isak Niehaus of the University of Pretoria fears muti killings will increase as inequalities of wealth become entrenched: "I would expect the occult economy - that is the belief in using magical means to gain prosperity - to increase as poverty worsens," he says.

At the spot where Sello was murdered, Mashane says: "A young child is carefully lured into this bush and killed without any witnesses. If he survives, perhaps he is the only person who can help identify his killers."

One of the few victims who lived to tell his story was Jeffery Mkhonto, who six years ago was mutilated by an organised gang set up to harvest body parts. He was lured to the house of a neighbour with food and ended up being castrated.

Labuschagne says muti killings are difficult to investigate because there is no clear relationship between perpetrator and victim. Yet other reports have suggested the victim is often known to the perpetrator and is easily lured and murdered. Communities are often too afraid to come forward with evidence because of fear of a magical backlash.

At Sello's homestead the elders were too afraid to point any fingers directly at a neighbour, a traditional healer implicated in muffled tones by many villagers in Sello's murder. The neighbour allegedly sent Sello to fetch his donkeys without the permission of Sello's mother.

Peter Kgabi, in his late sixties, was questioned for four days by the police over Sello's murder before being released pending further investigation. Kgabi confirmed sending Sello to fetch the donkeys, but denied taking part in the murder and said he saw nothing wrong in sending Sello without his mother's permission as he had done so several times before, a point hotly disputed by the boy's family. Kgabi said he had been threatened by the community and was told they planned to burn him alive as a wizard.

"Some are accusing me of killing Sello, but I did not. I have not fled my home despite the threats, because if I do, the community will regard that as an admission of guilt," he said.

Even the eventual capture and conviction of Sello's killers will do little for his single mother, Salome, 39, who lives with her two remaining children on a R170-a-month social grant from the government.

"Anything that does not bring back my son is hardly of any importance to me now. No mother wants to lose a child this way," she said.

She will feel no better when she learns that Sello's body parts and life probably went for no more than R2 500, the going price of a child's body parts in the muti industry. - Foreign Service

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