When King Mswati III dissolved Swaziland’s Parliament this month in anticipation of October elections, he sternly warned prospective candidates not to murder innocent people in order to harvest their body parts to make a “muti” to bring good fortune.
“During election times, we tend to lose our grandmothers, grandfathers and young children. They just disappear. But I want to warn you all that you should not resort to ritual murder,” Mswati said.
Addressing more than 15 000 people at Ludzidzini Royal Village, 20km east of Mbabane, the king emphasised: “Don’t do that, because you might get caught and then you will not achieve your dream of going to Parliament.”
Why would the head of state risk ridicule for his country by dwelling on a grisly, superstitious practice as if it was normal in the course of Swazi electioneering? According to police records, the king has reason to.
Before the last parliamentary poll in 1998, the number of corpses with missing body parts discovered in rural or peri-urban areas increased from the usual three or four a year to more than a dozen.
No actual ritual is performed in “ritual murders”. Usually marginal people in society, such as widows or orphans, are killed for pieces of flesh that are roasted, ground to powder, and combined with other ingredients for a potion its users believe will allow them to triumph over their rivals.
“It’s a form of sympathetic magic. Users believe that by committing a God-like act — taking the life of another human being — they are proving their strength, which they call upon dark powers to confirm by using a potion made from body parts,” said Justice Mngomezulu, a local doctor.
Gogo Ndwandwe, a sangoma who practises in Kwaluseni, near the University of Swaziland, said: “No legitimate sangoma would have anything to do with ritual murder, because we are forbidden by the emadloti [ancestral spirits] from coming in contact with dead bodies. The moment a sangoma gets involved in such things, he or she becomes an umtsakatsi [witch].”
But enough people are involving themselves in ritual murder to have the king and law enforcement officials worried.
The late journalist Vusie Ginindza believed the escapades of Swaziland’s first serial killer, David Simelane, may have had something to do with the trend of ritual murder. Ginindza was investigating the Simelane case.
“Here was a man with no job and no car, who confessed to abducting 60 women, taking them to the remote Malkerns forests, killing and burying them,” Ginindza said at the time. “How did he accomplish this alone and without transport? People wonder if others, higher-ups, are involved, and maybe even a body-parts racket.”
Simelane, who was arrested two years ago, has not been brought to trial, further fuelling speculation of a cover-up involving a body-parts-for-muti syndicate. Prosecutors say the delay is due to the lengthy process of identifying victims via their DNA.
Meanwhile, Mswati wants the first Parliament under a new constitutional dispensation to be elected without homicide, and is urging candidates to stick to conventional means of campaigning.