Missing the point about the murder of women

One warm Saturday evening in October 2011, a group of eight friends, a mixture of male and female, white, black and coloured, aged between 15 and 23, walked up a small hill behind a swimming pool in the suburb of Linmeyer in the south of Johannesburg. They went equipped to spend the night drinking, smoking marijuana and chatting around a campfire, as they usually did on weekends. But this was not a normal weekend. 

Hours later the majority of the group had fled, while two of them stumbled and crawled back to town: Kirsty Theologo, 18, most of her body covered in third and fourth degree burns, somehow assisting Bronwyn Grammar, then 16, her arms and body burned from trying to roll her friend in the sand and douse the flames that were covering her. Soon after, her brother found Kirsty in the kitchen of their home, so heavily burned that she was barely recognisable. She was rushed to hospital where she lapsed into a coma. The fire had severely damaged her lungs and upper body and she died days later. 

A story began emerging almost immediately of a planned attack in which the other members of the group soaked Kirsty with petrol, set her on fire and left her to burn to death. Lurid details including a bloody ritual, five-pointed stars drawn on the ground and the desecration of a bible led to a swift diagnosis by press and police that this was a ‘Satanist murder’, a phrase that has a long resonance in South Africa. Six people were arrested: five male, the oldest of them 21, and one 15-year-old female. 

The Theologo murder shocked South Africa, garnering a comparatively large amount of press coverage for a country with a high rate of violence against women. Journalists, editors, religious leaders and politicians flocked to report and comment on Kirsty’s brutal fate.

Hers was far from the only story of “satanic” killing to appear in the South African press in recent years. In the summer of February 2014, just days after some of the accused had been jailed for Kirsty’s murder, a man working in the veld near Dobsonville in Soweto, Johannesburg, stumbled across the mutilated bodies of two local teenage girls. Best friends Thandeka Moganetsi, 15, and Chwayita Rathazayo, 16, had been missing since the previous day. 

The girls, both pupils at nearby George Khoza Secondary School, were found metres apart, still wearing their school uniforms, with open wounds on their backs and cuts on their hands and necks. Three razor blades and a black candle were found near the bodies, once again leading to a quick diagnosis of Satanism from the press, police and parents. 

Distraught friends told tales about satanic cults operating within the school that may have “sacrificed” the girls. Two teenage boys, pupils at the same school, were quickly arrested. Religious and political leaders descended on Dobsonville to decry the scourge of Satanism in schools. Once again, these killings received an unusual amount of media and public attention in a nation that often glosses over public violence.  

The press narratives that surrounded the deaths of Thandeka Moganetsi, Chwayita Rathazayo and Kirsty Theologo were not just examples of news sensationalism. While there were undoubtedly features of the events of both nights that could be described as satanic, the media’s overdetermined focus on these elements of the murders meant that they were defined as a bizarre and unusual occult crimes rather than as part of South Africa’s ongoing epidemic of gender-based violence

In repeating moral panic tropes around Satanism to the exclusion of all other potential contributing factors, newspaper reporting on these cases disregarded the disturbing truth that violence in South Africa is usually structural and often gendered. The focus on Satanism also allowed newspapers to avoid considering the forms of these murders, which, in their echo of late apartheid violence, recall historical trauma. Within the reporting, anxieties about the alleged threat of Satanism displaced knowledge of how male violence and the residue of apartheid atrocities shape contemporary life, especially for the poor.

Elements of these murders that could be defined as occult, ritualistic or satanic were descriptive rather than fundamental. They tell us as much as other explanations offered for violence against women in contemporary South Africa: punishment for sexual or gender “misconduct”, as in cases of corrective rape; jealousy, as in domestic violence; the influence of drugs and alcohol, as in many random acts of extreme violence that happen to women. 

Any one of these causes could have been brought to bear without changing the base facts of the murders. Media claims that these killers were working under the influence of supernatural evil are just one of many ways to understand violence. Nonetheless media outlets failed to consider any meaning to the murders other than Satanism, a diagnosis that they, hand in hand with police, had imposed. In valorising Satanism as the only possible motivation for what was done to these girls, the South African press in effect legitimised its own claims. 

In these cases, the spectacular violence of a Satanist act almost entirely erased the possibility of more “normal” (equally brutal but less sensational) violence against women. The deaths of Moganetsi, Theologo and Rathazayo were made exceptional, categorised alongside other Satanist murders but never discussed in context of the rates of death of South African women or of other acts of violence perpetrated against them. 

Unlike in the case of Anene Booysen, whose killing was clearly sexualised, responses to these murders almost entirely avoided talking about them as instances of the rage and aggression meted out so frequently on the bodies of South African women by South African men. The spectacularisation of Satanist murders allowed the media to sidestep the disturbing awareness that, in fact, the greatest monsters are not monstrous at all: they are human, familiar, part of our communities and our worlds. 

The deaths of Chwayita Rathazayo, Kirsty Theologo and Thandeka Moganetsi were individual tragedies, appalling crimes and symptoms of a larger condition. They reveal the continuation of the embedded structural violence that has wounded South Africa since the start of the colonial project. The press’ incapacity to see past the screening fiction of Satanism recalls the way in which apartheid-era realities were deferred by privileged white people who claimed not to know about the violence and injustice surrounding them. 

Like the many South African women whose murders go unreported and unnoticed, Theologo, Rathazayo and Moganetsi are victims of this willed blindness, this refusal to know and concurrently to act against both the structural causes of violence and those pathological modes of gender that work out their rage, despair and fear on the always-available bodies of women. 

This is an edited extract from the book Worrier State: Risk, anxiety and moral panic in South Africa, published by Wits University Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Nicky Falkof
Nicky Falkof is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies department at Wits.

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