/ 28 July 2021

Screen Grab: The devil is in the retail in Krugersdorp

Devilsdorp 9
Righteous depravity: A still from the new Showmax series ‘Devilsdorp’, a documentary about the Electus Per Deus murder cult

Satanists are very bad people, no doubt, doing their damnedest to do very bad things, but it’s time they raised their game. Because the recent evil feats of Electus Per Deus, the anti-Satanist Christian murder cult in Krugersdorp, took the praxis of bloodlust to the next level. Their work was groundbreaking: it made card-carrying Satanists look like a bunch of emo vegans.

This ideological twist is part of what makes Devilsdorp, the four-part docuseries screening on Showmax from 29 July, such a corker of a show. The Krugersdorp murders, we are shown, are a textbook example of how depravity can be enabled by the potent psychic energy of righteousness.

And with the benefit of hindsight, the murders seem like an inevitable eruption of the collective unconscious of Krugersdorp and white South Africa: a delayed, brutal echo of decades of coiled cultural anxiety about the threat of Satanism. As the media scholar Nicky Falkof writes, the fear of the occult in white South Africa was energetically stoked by the machinery of the late apartheid state — churches, schools, police and popular magazines. The spectre of Satanism was a projection of the spectre of the end of white domination. If Satanists were ever actually a thing in Krugersdorp, their antics were theatrical and reactive: an adolescent gesture of rebellion triggered by the tiresome pomposity of the moral panic.

Cecilia Steyn, the utterly loathsome leader of Electus Per Deus, tweaked that tradition of performative evil: during her years as a murder-cult leader, from 2012 to 2016, she assumed the character of a defector from Satan. That meant she wielded a double-edged dagger: the residual glamour of devilry and the added authority of virtue. Being the daughter of 42 generations of witches, she told her followers, she was quitting the family business and signing up with Jesus; hence she needed a vigil of 24-hour protection from the vengeful forces of Lucifer.

Her disciples camped out in her gloomy flat, kow-towing to the multiple personalities she faked, not least a thirsty inner brat called Anja who demanded regular treats of vanilla-flavoured milk from the Engen on the corner. Her acolytes witness Steyn’s staged fits of demonic possession, during which she vomited blood by munching on Halloween-pack sachets. So enraptured were the cultists by Steyn’s bogus spiritual drama — and so intimidated by her threats of damnation — that they were soon able to butcher random strangers, and intimate friends, at her behest. 

These people and their fantasies were preposterous, but the dead bodies they left were all too real, as was the money they stole. Says state prosecutor Gerrit Roberts, who was tasked with taking Steyn down, and did so by using the racketeering provisions in South African law: “I couldn’t believe that educated people could fall for these sometimes ridiculous stories she came up with. But they did, because this religious sauce was thrown over it. Once that comes into play, people tend not to think.”

Even Steyn, the source of all that sauce, was in some ways not the sharpest point on the pentagon; although she manages to keep her own hands unbloodied, she leaves a trail of incriminating financial evidence, and attempts a life-insurance fraud as inept as it was evil. Her chilling fibbery is captured in an interview filmed by a Discovery fraud investigator.

Devilsdorp’s director, David Enright, has collected a trove of footage and interviews, and constructs the narrative with great skill. His range of voices is well chosen, and the painfully intimate testimonies of the victims’ family members — and the two detectives who struggled to catch the killers — add a rich gravitas.   

The most intriguing — and distressing — subplot is a necessarily half-developed one: the possibility that the initial police investigations of the earliest murders by Electus Per Deus were compromised — and not just fruitless. The killers are finally in jail, but there might still be a darkness at the edge of town.