SA 'too shy' to discuss muti killings

The government must tackle muti killings and ritual murders even though some might want this problem to remain hidden, an expert said on Monday.

“In our country we are shy to talk about this. We have come to 10 years of democracy and we want the world to see we are managing and we don’t want to go public because it shows our bad side,” said Professor Thias Kgatla, professor of religious studies at the University of the North.

Kgatla said a repeat of a successful campaign in 1994 against the practice is needed.

This follows the burial on Sunday of Limpopo schoolboy Sello Chokoe, who was found in the veld with his hand, genitals and ear hacked off.

Kgatla explained that some people believe body parts are useful in achieving certain objectives. The more difficult the medicine is to obtain, the more power it holds.

“People can get animal parts but they believe that a human body part, which is more difficult to obtain, holds more power,” he said.

They believe a hand hidden in a newly opened shop can influence people to give money to the shop, a head can make people think about them and genitals—which represent reproduction—can cause wealth to increase.

They take their leads from others who show outward signs of success, and on enquiry can sometimes be referred to a supposedly helpful diviner.

“They will go to them for answers and the diviner will be guided by their beliefs and will prescribe according to those beliefs,” Kgatla said.

He said an awareness campaign will probably not bring forward the people who killed Chokoe, but will prevent future murders. 

“This person will do everything not to be discovered—he will be [fleeing] for his life.”

People who resort to murders and mutilations are in situations that make them resort to extremes.

“We are dealing with hardened people—murderers, people with AK47s looking for bank vans.
You can’t just rationalise it as a love for money.”

Kgatla explained that the beliefs on which ritual activities are based are not the kinds that see people gathering in groups on certain days.

“It’s a belief in the sense of ‘if you don’t believe, you can’t do it’. People believe that when they are stretched to the limit, human parts can do wonders. They believe nature has answers.

“The trees have power, there is power in objects like rocks. In Modimolle, in Limpopo, some people believe that if you climb up a big rock that is there, you won’t come back, God will meet you. It’s animism.”

Some people, particularly in rural areas, believe they can succeed without considering the circumstances. They might open a shop in a sparsely populated area and expect the success of a supermarket, or launch a taxi business in an area with little need for transport.

“Some people think you can succeed if you just have the right formula. It’s crazy but they believe it. They need to know that if there are 10 people living in a village, they are not going to sell 100 loaves of bread.”

Calling on the government to become involved in dealing with the problem of ritual killings and injuries, Kgatla said awareness programmes will have to be presented by people with credibility in the community.

Asked if presenting workshops on starting businesses might help, Kgatla said: “If you, a white woman, go there with a workshop on business strategies, some people will be abusive to you, some will walk away, the others will just stare. It has to be done by somebody who the community trusts, who has already established their credibility.

A profile of the communities affected by the problem is: mostly rural, not influenced much by Western ways of life, cut off by poverty, not interacting with other communities and not educated.

It could be in bushy areas where people still relate to the forest and believe forest spirits can help them.

The problem tends to be geographically defined and surfaces mainly in Limpopo and northern KwaZulu-Natal, which have links to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, where powerful diviners are said to live. Occasionally it is found in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape.

“It also happens in cities,” Kgatla said, “but they do it differently there.”

In a remote area a family’s house could be struck by lightning and they would ask why this powerful act of nature had been directed at them.

“It could appear that the neighbours are happy about it and they may start to think that the neighbours had something to do with it.”

He did not believe there are any elements of ritual killing in the death of a Soweto toddler over the weekend, allegedly at the hands of his actress mother, who, according to reports, said he was possessed by a demon.

“That sounds more like an act of frustration,” he said.

Traditional healers can be registered and in some areas, such as Limpopo, have to agree to a code of conduct. They are also bound by the Suppression of Witchcraft Act, which Kgatla describes as “confusing and colonial” and, although it has been updated, is often perceived negatively.

However, he believes practitioners who consider themselves “really powerful” refuse to be involved with any regulatory bodies or rules, “especially if there are any white people [involved]”.

Meanwhile, as the hunt for Chokoe’s killers continue, with a R50 000 bounty offered by police, residents of the area say they are scared to let their children out of their sight.

“We now fear for our lives. We don’t know who is next,” Mokgadi Komape told the Sowetan at Chokoe’s funeral.—Sapa

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