A community united in fear

One of the slogans used to market houses in Mitchell’s Plain during the late 1970s offered potential buyers “a healthy new life for your children who will live free from fear”.

In a community ridden with fear and anger at the outrages committed on its children by a psychopathic serial killer, dubbed the Station Strangler, it’s as well the marketing campaign has long since ended.

For in Mitchell’s Plain, the New Town people who were urged to move to “for a better life”, the dream has become a nightmare and now no child is deemed safe. Within eight years of the first residents moving in, the rate of murder, robbery and assault soared.

Welfare agencies reported burgeoning case-loads as families started to buckle under the strain of a host of pressures still hearing down on them today. Travelling 30km or more to work burns holes in pay-packets and brings parents home late. Day care for children costs extra; houses are too small for extended families to live in comfort and many were shattered by Group Areas removals.

The 1991 census gives it a population of just under 250 000; unofficial it’s put at twice as much. There is one police station and one satellite. One swimming pool though more are planned. A few sportsfields and playgrounds, these days deserted as parents keep their children indoors.

Of Mitchell’s Plain’s 160 000 school-going children, many are latchkey kids who while away the hours playing video games. Much of the anger directed at the still faceless killer stems from parents’ own sense of helplessness against forces beyond their control — but makes it no less real.

“If they catch him, they mustn’t send him to a mental home or to jail. They must tie him to a pole and let us stone him. He must die, little by little.” The speaker is a woman, the mother of three children. She has come to help beat through the bush with the men of Mitchell’s Plain’s neighbourhood watches, formed out of frustration at the lack of policing.

At the dump, where a fireman dousing a bushfire stumbled on the small body which sparked the search that produced 10 more, an acrid stench of decay still hangs in the air.

All young boys, all from homes, rather than the many street children who’ve fled violence and abuse at home. All were laid face-down in shallow graves, their hands tied behind their backs, sodomised and strangled.

One of them was Caroline Benjamin’s son, Jeremy. A single parent, she works in a shirt factory in Woodstock. Jeremy lived with his grandparents. On December 13 he headed off to a video game arcade and never came home. They looked for him, but thought he might be with his father in Masassar a number of kilometres away.

Five days later, when his grandfather, Dawid Swartland, went to report his disappearance, police treated it as mother routine occurrence – until the discovery of the bodies brought the realisation they had a serial killer on their hands.

“They found the first body in 1986,” said Swartland. “Now they’ve found 20. If they’d been white children, it would have been mother story.” If there is a positive side to the tragedy, it is the extent to which it has set fires under sluggish authorities and drawn the community together.

Gangsters help police with their inquiries parents and teachers meet to discuss keeping children safe. “It’s a victory for people really,” said Salama Petersen, of Beacon Valley. “Were all helping each other look after our kids.”

Profile of a killer
The “Station Strangler” appears to be a “lust murderer” – a sadist who kills his victims after sex. The category is used by Unisa criminologist Irma Labuschagne, who distinguishes it from ”rape murder”. In the latter, the rapist kills to prevent being identified – like the “Norwood Rapist”.

Most lust murderers, Labuschagne said, were overt or latent psychotics with explosive breaks with reality. Psychiatrists listed five contributory causes of sexual sadism: hereditary predisposition, hormonal malfunctioning, pathological relationships, a history of sexual abuse and the presence of other psychiatric syndromes. Such killers usually had a history of sexual perversion and derived great satisfaction from the ritualistic degrading of the victim.

Said Labuschagne: “The assaults always ritualistic and usually involve bondage and torture. But the offender usually has normal sexual relationships as well”. The victim was stalked, captured, abused and murdered and the assaults were deliberate and premeditated, she said.
The sadist typically:

  • Takes pleasure in the psychological or physical suffering of people.
  • Is fascinated by weapons, violence martial arts, injury or torture.
  • Has used violence or cruelty to establish dominance in a relationship.
  • Humiliated or demeaned people in the presence of others, or terrorised people into doing his will — Cathy Powers

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Gaye Davis
Guest Author

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