Our courts crawled with all sorts of shady characters, from serial rapists and killers to businessmen who kill their wives, and children accused of murdering their own parents.

The shadows were dark at the Johannesburg High Court this year, with some horrifying trials.

The trial that drew the most media and public interest was that of serial rapist and killer Sipho Dube.

The court heard that 27-year-old Dube of Mhlumayo, Ladysmith, had preyed on boys and girls, aged 9 to 16, in his home town and Joburg from May 2001 to January 2004.

Dube's oldest victim was a 39-year-old woman whom he murdered in Ladysmith by crushing her skull with stones.

In committing his unspeakable crimes Dube, dubbed the "mine dump child serial killer", lured his young victims by convincing them to either help him carry boxes in exchange for money or sell something for him. He would then take them to deserted spots, where he would rape, sodomise and even kill them.

Judge Seun Moshidi described him as a "callous, violent person who showed contempt for his victims".

The court convicted Dube on 31 charges including seven murders, 11 kidnappings, six indecent assaults, three rapes, one of common assault, one of assault and one of robbery and theft. He was sentenced to 10 life terms and 114 years for his crime.

What was striking was that Dube was present at some of the crime scenes, mingling with witnesses and the police.

During his trial he showed extreme mood swings - he would sit calmly in the dock, but then get agitated. At some point he tried to commit suicide in the dock by attempting to set himself alight.

When judgment was handed down he swore and verbally abused the relatives of his young victims.

The case of businessman Gordon Alexander of Sandton proved interesting too. Alexander, 46, was convicted of murdering his former wife, Lisl Strauch, 36, by stabbing her 13 times at her Bryanston townhouse complex in August 2002.

Alexander had had a fit of rage after he discovered a computer disk with images of Strauch having sex with another man.

The accused and deceased were married in 1988 but divorced in 1994 to protect their assets after Alexander was declared insolvent. Although divorced legally, they continued living together as husband and wife.

Early in 2002 Alexander had moved to Botswana where he was working. After seeing the images on the computer disk, Alexander drove back to Joburg and confronted his former wife. An argument ensued and resulted in the businessman stabbing Strauch repeatedly.

In court he pleaded that he had suffered temporary amnesia and could not remember how the stabbing had taken place. The court rejected this claim and convicted him. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

The trial of Erefaan Vallie Khan was also an unusual one.

Khan, 36, of District Six in Cape Town, had met Mathilda Sinden, 25, of Roodepoort through an SMS dating service.

Four months later Sinden flew to the Cape where she married Khan under Muslim customary law. Sinden converted from Christianity to Islam and changed her name from Mathilda to Malieka.

Sinden's parents, friends and relatives did not know she was married and had converted to Islam.

Two months into marriage she wanted a divorce. Khan agreed on condition she had sex with him one last time and gave him R10 000.

Khan moved to Soweto to live with another woman he had also met via the SMS dating service. In August last year Khan went to his wife's home in Witpoortjie, Roodepoort, where he bashed her head with a vase, strangled her with a necklace and stabbed her 23 times.

After the murder Sinden's mother, Therena, received an SMS on her daughter's cellphone which read: "I am sorry what happened to your daughter today, but she had it coming. I hope she is dead."

Khan was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.

Family murders are becoming a national phenomenon.

The case of a young Soweto woman is a reflection of this growing trend. Nhlanhla Mbali is serving life in prison for murdering her grandfather and aunt at their Rockville home in July 2004.

Mbali, 28, had recruited her boyfriend Thabo Mathamaha, 33, and his friend Thabang Molefe, 28, both of Orange Farm, to commit this heinous crime.

Mbali was angry because her grandfather, Amos Seponono Ntlheng, 72, and aunt Boitumelo, 41, had thrown her father out of their home.

Mbali, Mathamaha and Molefe had set out for Ntlheng's home. Once inside the house they tied up Ntlheng and Boitumelo, before stabbing them 16 and 32 times respectively. They stole R9 000 in cash and household goods.

Court evidence was that the strikingly beautiful Mbali had begun taking drugs when she was only 13. This made her mix with the wrong crowd.

The Kadwa murder trial has also drawn huge media and public interest. Riaz, 23, and his sister, Nabeela, 18, are on trial for murder and for being an accessory to murder respectively regarding the brutal slaying of their parents at their Crown North, Mayfair, home on October 5 last year.

Dr Anwar Kadwa, 50, and his 49-year-old wife Munira were shot several times and killed. Riaz was arrested together with his sister, Nabeela, and wife Nabila, 22, a few days after the incident.

This was after the accused gave three different accounts of what happened.

Riaz and Nabeela had first told the police that an intruder had murdered their parents while they were sleeping. Later he changed his version and said he had killed his father after Dr Kadwa had murdered Munira.

The third story he gave to the police was that his mother had killed his father before turning the gun on herself. It is this third version that the accused are sticking with in court.

Riaz has pleaded not guilty to double murder and attempting to defeat the ends of justice and his sister has denied being an accessory to murder and also attempting to defeat the ends of justice.

Early this month Riaz's wife, Nabila, was acquitted on charges of being an accessory and attempting to defeat the ends of justice.

This was after the court found that she had not contradicted herself in the two statements she made to the police in which she said she was in the shower when she heard gunshots. Upon investigation she saw a man running downstairs and Riaz upstairs.

As Nabila was discharged it means her husband and sister-in-law will have to testify. The court has heard evidence that the Kadwa marriage had been troubled for four years.

The state has argued that Riaz had killed his parents because he was afraid Dr Kadwa was going to marry a second wife, and this would have impacted on their inheritance.

He killed them because he and his sister stood to benefit R10-million from his parents' estate. The trial continues on April 16 next year.