Simthembile* crosses the highway which divides the rural area of eSigodlweni into two sides. On his way home from school, he was careful to walk in a group because they have been told to watch out for “ama-zimu zimu”, cannibals.
Dlabantu (the one who eats people), is the name this community has given to the man who walked into the Estcourt police station last Friday, produced a part of a human leg and a hand, and declared he was tired of eating human flesh.
The name is on everyone’s lips: at the spaza and as neighbours talk over wire fences, the shock of a cannibal among them has the community engrossed.
“We must stop walking around at night, man, some people see us as walking meat,” said a young man to another outside a tavern.
After changing out of his school uniform and eating what his maternal grandmother, Winnie Magubane, has prepared, Simthembile is oblivious to the whispers as he starts the less than five-minute walk to his paternal grandmother, Ntombifuthi Sithole’s house, where he hopes to get a second lunch.
He is carefree and smiles at strangers, even though his grandmothers have not stopped crying since the suspected cannibals were arrested.
One of the men expected to apply for bail on Monday, Lungisani Magubane, is Simthembile’s maternal uncle.
He and four others, including one man arrested on Wednesday, are also believed to have dug up the grave of Mongezi Mkhize, Simthembile’s father, and they allegedly ground up his bones for use in muti.
“They (the Magubane family) know my heartache. Mongezi was shot by his own brother. I hurt so much for both my children that I wanted to die myself. He would have been resting six years on December 23 but these people have gone and dug up his bones. I wanted to forget. I wanted my heart to stop being sore, now I don’t even know where his bones are,” said Sithole.
Weeping through blind eyes, gogo Sithole feels for the hem of her pinafore to wipe away her tears.
On the other side of the highway, gogo Magubane does the same, but because of the ibovu (red soil) used as a makeshift sunscreen, the hem of her pinafore turns orange.
“Lungisani was a good boy, a quiet child who never got into any trouble. His twin, Mlungiseni, is the outspoken one, he doesn’t even want us to talk about his brother being jailed for this thing.”
Lungisani, 30, had brought Nino Mbatha, 32, the man who confessed to police, to their home in June. He asked that his brother, Philani, let Mbatha stay in one of the rooms in his rental property, a stone’s throw away from the Magubane household.
“I told him to tell the man to come back the next day but when we woke up in the morning, we found the man had slept in Lungisani’s room at home.”
Philani chastised his brother for letting a stranger, an inyanga (traditional healer) sleep over and was forced to accommodate him at the rental property. He paid rent only once, and when Philani went to ask for the R300 monthly rent, Mbatha said Philani was the one who must pay him. “I was so angry, but kept my cool because I didn’t know what he was going to do, we had already started hearing about his use of muti,” Philani said.
Lungisani and his friends, some of whom were also arrested, never left Mbatha’s side. Philani learned later that this was because he promised them riches and claimed to be the son of former Nquthu mayor and renowned traditional healer Sosobala Mbatha.
He said during one ceremony, Nino had slaughtered chickens and let them bleed out over toy trucks, telling them they would get money by the truckloads.
His brother and the others who hung around Nino were convinced, pointing out the cars they would buy once they were rich. “Lungisani would not even listen to reason,” Philani said. “How could this man, who did not even have a place to stay, make them rich when he had nothing?”
Gogo Magubane said she could not fathom why her son would get involved in such darkness. “I felt uneasy about this man from the time he came to my house. Lungisani changed after that.” She said that when his 3-year-old daughter had done something naughty, he would threaten to use her body parts for muti, then laugh it off as a joke.
They are afraid that if Lungisani gets bail and comes home, the people they have lived with for generations will turn on the family. “We talk about him as if he is dead. I am hurt, not angry at him because I know my son, he would never do such a thing if he was himself, but it is done and he must accept what is coming to him,” she said.
The mud house in which the men allegedly cooked and ate human flesh is locked up, the key taken away by police. Black plastic bags are taped on to the windows. One cannot see inside, even through the spaces where the tape has come undone, because blankets are hung over each window.
On the other side of the highway, Mkhize’s grave is wide open. The mounds of dug up earth have buried the rocks used around the grave to mark it. The logs used to secure his body are the only sign that the freshly dug up grave is in fact old and used.
Six years ago, when she buried her son, Sithole was supported by the Magubane family. She took comfort in knowing that Simthembile’s father was resting in peace at the corner of this small cemetery at the foot of a hill which marks the end of eSigodlweni.
The highway continues beyond this hill, eventually reaching Ladysmith, where Lungisani and his co-accused are believed to be held.
“I do not blame Simthembile’s grandmother because we do not send our children to do harm. If I could see, I would go to her so we can comfort each other.”
So far, gogo Magubane has been too afraid to cross the highway and face gogo Sithole.
* Not his real name