Walking through the crowded Chris Hani Road in Chiawelo, Soweto, you can feel a chill down your spine. The silence is almost tangible and the stares are as direct and sticky as an accusation. The silence is suddenly broken by four elderly women walking past a particular house, exclaiming loudly to each other that Satanism is very much alive in their community.
Their voices sink lower at the mention of the recent spate of four brutal murders, particularly that of a 95-year-old woman stabbed to death by her 38-year-old grandson on this street last week. It is alleged that he killed her for her pension money while under the influence of drugs; however neighbours are adamant that Satanism is at play.
The same accusation has been flung in the case of four family members in Benoni who were brutally hacked by a 14-year-old boy using an axe. Three died and one is recovering in hospital. Community members have accused the teen of sacrificing his family in a Satanic ritual, while others believe he was under the influence of drugs – the sentiment Chiawelo residents share.
"Satanism is real; the instigators have made testimonies on live TV and radio. The manner in which this granny and the other family were murdered surely is a sign that our young people are not in control," said Nomvuyo Sibaya, a neighbour.
She added that although drugs – particularly nyaope – were freely available in the township, this kind of behaviour was too brutal for drug addicts.
Nyaope is a cocktail of, among other things, rat poison, dagga, heroin and antiretroviral medication.
'The need to see blood'
"Our children buy nyaope at spaza shops every day, some make their own nyaope mix, and they don't hack people to death. At most, they will steal a fridge or rob people. The need to see blood splattered is an act of Satanism," she said.
Anna Moyo of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), however, attributed this behaviour to the ever growing decay of the social system. The levels of poverty, lack of prospects for the youth and the general impatience are said to be the main causes of violent crimes in South Africa.
"It is hard to attribute these incidents directly to Satanism as there is no extensive research done to substantiate that. The legacy of apartheid and colonialism are the key drivers. This speaks to high levels of inequality; unemployment, poverty, social and political exclusion," she said.
Moyo added that drugs were widely used by perpetrators of the hackings as a result of this social context.
This perspective was supported by the Institute for Security Studies's Johan Burger, a crime specialist. He insisted that South Africa may never make a significant dent in its high crime rate until it fixed the economic inequality that has resulted in one of the highest wealth gaps between the haves and have-nots in the world between.
Dr Sello Mokoena of Gauteng's agriculture, rural and social development department warned against using unfounded references to Satanism as a way to derail the main scourge of alcohol and drug use. "It is difficult to comment on Satanism but this attitude undermines the fight against the social problems that need to be addressed promptly," he reiterated.
Mental state of the two
So far, police investigations have not given a clear indication of the mental state of the two accused. The social development department in the meantime said it would focus on the catastrophic implications of nyaope being so easily accessible. In both cases, it is suspected that drugs, especially nyaope, were the main catalysts. In a summit held earlier this year, social stakeholders resolved to lobby for the strengthening of law enforcement efforts to reduce access to it and other drugs.
But locals in Soweto and Benoni are adamant that if drugs were the cause, such murder cases would be rife in places such as Eldorado Park, where Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane recently set up a task team to fight drug use in the area.
According to the South African Police Service's figures, 60% of crimes nationally are related to substance abuse and nyaope users constitute a substantial number of users. Last year, in Gauteng alone, 25 949 drug-related crimes were recorded. Of great concern was that nyaope users were typically between the impressionable ages of 13 and 19.
Yet in the impoverished community of Chiawelo and others like it, where small houses crowd upon each other and news spreads like wildfire, paranoia persists about these brutal hackings. Satanism offers a convenient explanation for gossiping elders to explain the behaviour of an alienated and often depressed youth they don't understand.
"Whether we say it is drugs or not, it is all a part of Satanic practices," concluded Sibaya firmly, before continuing on her way.