Even in a country grown accustomed to horrific acts of violence, it is a crime that still shocks. “Muti murder”, in which human body parts are removed to be used in traditional “medicine”, is increasing in South Africa—but victims’ families complain that the police too often ignore it.
The murder of four-year-old Connie Ncube, whose mutilated body was discovered in a river near her home east of Pretoria by her father last month, has sparked a public outcry and demands for tougher action against the gruesome crimes.
Jabu Majola said: “I was shocked to see my daughter that way. It took me 10 minutes to identify her because of the way they cut at her. I couldn’t believe someone could do something like this.”
Mr Majola condemned the police for not responding to his calls for almost 12 hours after Connie disappeared. “If they had sent police to search for my daughter when we asked them to, she would be alive today,” he said.
It was only after a report of her death appeared in a local newspaper, Mr Majola said, that the police launched a full investigation and eventually identified a suspect—a neighbour with links to traditional “healers”—who has not been caught.
According to the South African Council of Churches (SACC), there have been 49 ritual killings in one district of Limpopo province alone since the mid-1980s, including that of a seven-year-old boy, Mulweli Nemadandila, whose mutilated body was found in a stream next to his house last month.
Yet, from all of these, there have been only four arrests, and no convictions. The SACC is calling for the cases to be re-investigated.
The Rev Alunamutwe Randi-tsheni, the SACC’s district chairman, said: “We’re very worried about ritual killing at the moment, but the police seem not to be interested. People have been identified as suspects, so why are the police not arresting them?
“Usually they say these people have been eaten by a fish or crabs after drowning in the river, but what kind of a fish is it that just eats human private parts?”
Disquiet at the lack of police response has grown since it emerged that South Africa’s occult-related crimes unit, set up in 1992 to investigate muti (Zulu for “medicine”) killings and Satanism, has quietly been disbanded. The unit, which once numbered 52 officers, was closed, according to a police spokesman, because “the number of reported crimes was too low to justify its existence”.
But the unit’s founder, Kobus Jonker, who has since retired, described that explanation as “unbelievable”.
In 2000, he said, it had dealt with 300 cases of muti-related crimes and that number was “definitely increasing”. He said: “If this unit has closed down completely, it’s a terrible thing. It’s not just anyone who can do this sort of investigation. You must know the culture and the superstitions of the people.”
The belief that body parts contain powerful magic which can be used to bring good luck, help a woman to get pregnant or even make a criminal invisible to the police, is widespread in Africa—and the rewards for those unscrupulous traditional healers, or sangomas, who are willing to supply them are huge. According to Mr Jonker, a human head could fetch up to £1,150.
The victim is invariably alive when the parts are taken, as it is believed that their screams make the muti even more powerful.
Estimates of the number of muti killings vary widely, from six a year to 100. Anthony Minnaar, a professor of criminal justice studies at the University of South Africa, said: “Because it is often done in secret and the bodies disposed of down a mineshaft or similar, the incidence is much higher than is reported.”
Some of the 800 to 900 children reported missing in South Africa every year are likely to have been murdered for muti, he said.
Mr Minnaar said he believed that some policemen “don’t want to get involved because they think they might themselves be bewitched”.
Supt Attie Lamprecht, who became the head of the occult-related crimes unit in 2000, said that it had not been disbanded but had been “absorbed” into other units. “The capacity is there, it does exist, but it is not a task that is full time,” he said.