They first hit 10-year-old Sello Chokoe with a blunt instrument, causing a gash on his head. They then chopped off his penis, his hand and his ear. They were harvesting his body parts for “muti”—the murderous practice of traditional African medicine.
Yet it is far from a normal part of such medicine. “In my many years of service in the South African police, I have not encountered this sadistic taking of a young innocent life,” said police inspector Mohlahla Moshane as he led us to the spot.
The murder site is a few kilometres away from Sello’s village, Moletjie, in northern Limpopo province. There stands a distinct and lonely hill in a vast grass and shrub veld.
The unsuspecting Sello was lured to the spot after being asked to look for a neighbour’s donkeys. After a carefully planned ambush, his killers wedged him between the two large rocks to performed their macabre ceremony.
Sello seems to have dragged himself from the rocks where he had been abandoned. A woman collecting firewood found him and he was taken to hospital, but died a few days later. He was buried last Sunday in his fear-wracked village.
The practice of muti provides a disconcerting counterpoint to the contemporary image of the new South Africa. Dr Gerard Lubschagne, who heads the investigative psychology unit of the South African police service, conservatively estimates lives lost to ritual murders at between 50 to 300 every year. “We don’t have accurate figures because most murders here are recorded in our records as murders irrespective of motive,” he says. “Most people might also not regard a murder as a muti matter but just dismiss it as the work of some crazy killers.”
Dr Lubschagne admits the rate of murders signals a very worrying trend in South Africa. Despite South Africa being the most developed African economy, a huge chunk of its population still believes power and wealth are better stoked by witch-doctors than stockbrokers and market analysts. “People 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 their criminal acts turn to muti,” Dr Lubschagne said.
How the body parts are used varies with what customers want to achieve. They are eaten, drunk or smeared over the ambitious person. Various parts are used for different purposes. A man who had difficulty in producing children killed a father of several children and used his victim’s genitals for muti. In another case, a butcher used a severed human hand to slap each of his products 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 a quarter of a century and says muti is founded in the archaic belief that there is only a limited amount of good luck around. If one wants to increase his wealth or luck, then it should come at another’s expense.
The screaming of a child while his body parts are being chopped off is also regarded as a sign calling customers to the perpetrator’s business, Mr Mojolela said. It is also believed that magical powers are awakened by the screams. Eating or burying the body parts “capture” the desired results. Robert Thornton, an anthropology professor at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg , who has done research in traditional healing, says children like Sello are targeted because it is believed that the power of the virgin is greater than that of a sexually active adult.
The main motivating idea is what Professor Thorntorn describes as “symbolic logic”, the idea that another person’s penis will strengthen the perpetrator’s, or that the perpetrator’s far-sightedness will be improved by devouring the victim’s eyes. Blood is thought to increase vitality.
Professor Issack Niehaus of the University of Pretoria fears that muti killings will increase as the inequalities of wealth become more entrenched. He said: “I would expect the occult economy—that is the belief in using magical means to gain prosperity—to increase as poverty worsens.”
At the spot where Sello was murdered, Inspector Mashane said “A young kid is carefully lured into this bush and mutilated without any witnesses. If he survives, perhaps he is the only person who could 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 to harvest body parts. He had been lured to the house of a neighbour for food and ended up being castrated.
Dr Lubschagne says muti killings are difficult to investigate because there is no clear relationship between perpetrator and victim. Yet other reports have also suggested that the muti victim is often known to the perpetrators and is easily lured and murdered in the process. Communities themselves are often too afraid to come forward with evidence because of fears of a magical retaliation.
At Sello’s homestead, even the elders were too afraid to point any fingers directly at a neighbour, a traditional healer, although many villagers implicated him in Sello’s murder in muffled tones. The neighbour had allegedly sent Sello to fetch his donkeys without Sello’s mother’s permission. Peter Kagbi, who is in his late sixties, was questioned for four days by the police over Sello’s murder before being released pending further investigations. Mr Kgabi confirmed that he had sent Sello to fetch the donkeys, but he denied taking part in the murder.
He said he saw nothing wrong in sending Sello without the mother’s permission as he had done that on similar errands before, a point hotly disputed by the boy’s family. Mr Kgabi said he had been threatened by the community and told they planned to burn him alive because he was a wizard.
“Some are accusing me of killing Sello but I did not,” he said. “I have not fled my home despite the threats because if I do, the community will regard that as an admission of guilt.”
Even the eventual capture and conviction of Sello’s killers would do little for his brokenhearted single mother, Salome, 39, who lives with her two remaining children on a £15 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.
Her emotional state will not be helped when she learns that Sello’s body parts probably were sold for no more than £200 each, the price normally charged for a child’s body parts in the muti industry.