FEW people will know the name Hopolong Moeketsi. He is a 34-year-old male, originally from Lesotho and, until last week, a resident of the Free State. In 2009, he killed an 84-year-old farmer and last week was sentenced for the murder. It warranted small stories in the Sowetan and Beeld, as well as a few other marginal mentions. But it is the nature of his crime that sets Moeketsi apart.

When he was caught, he was found sweeping the victim’s porch, dressed in nothing but his underpants, his legs stained with blood. Inside was found the badly mutilated body of the farmer, his intestines strewn across the floor. Moeketsi had used a pair of garden sheers to gut him. On the stove were found boiling in a pot the victim’s testicles, presumably to be eaten later. They had been removed while the farmer was still alive.

Moeketsi, a witch doctor, was found by the court to be criminally insane — unable to distinguish right from wrong — and will spend the rest of his life in prison or a mental institution. While he might not have been in full control of his faculties, his story is by no means unique. It mirrors many other underreported examples.

Read the news in brief (those matchbox stories collated down the side of a newspaper page) or the community and regional newspapers, and such stories appear on a fairly regular basis. Witches and witchcraft remain a well-entrenched cultural belief in many parts of South Africa, particularly in rural areas. And when bodies are not being mutilated for parts, people are being killed as witches.

It is medieval, a throwback to the dark ages. In a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and complex democratic machinery, look a little harder and, on the fringes, our society is often defined by a kind of primitive savagery reminiscent of a time when human rights and the rule of law were as much about magic as principle.

Yet these horrific stories rarely make the front pages. More often than not, if reported at all, they are small asides. There is no concerted effort on the part of the state to quantify the problem and certainly no public programme of action or policy to address it. In the big picture, it is something nobody really wants to talk about — an aspect of our society that is perhaps best ignored, the attitude seems to be, in the hope it will go away.

It is everywhere, from Marikana to Bafana Bafana. A belief in witchcraft and magic, from the mild to the murderous, permeates our society. Yet it enjoys none of the moral outrage South Africans are so quick to attach to other brutal crimes. The reason for that is worth interrogating. The answer will have everything to do with "culture" — the one idea used to excuse so much abhorrent behaviour in South Africa.

Ask the South African Police Service how many people are killed as witches or murdered for body parts each year, and it cannot tell you. Every murder is categorised as simply that: a murder, regardless of circumstance.

As it happens — and as further evidence of the fact that in South Africa the developing and developed world live side by side — we do have longstanding witchcraft legislation in the country. The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 makes it illegal for anyone to identify another person as a witch (as this inevitably leads to death or torture) or to instigate what is a called a "witch-sniffing ceremony" (in which someone is called into a community to identify a witch).

In 2006, the Democratic Alliance asked a parliamentary question about the number of people arrested on such a charge. Here is a breakdown of that reply:

• 1994: 10 (case withdrawn); 13 (guilty); 0 (acquitted)

• 1995: 8; 7; 9

• 1996: 26; 16; 26

• 1997: 30; 33; 49

• 1998: 121; 45; 36

• 1999: 256; 84; 88

• 2000: 272; 109; 133

• 2001: 463; 173; 139

• 2002: 676; 231; 181

• 2003: 547; 247; 144

• 2004: 567; 345; 141

The number of people found guilty has increased every year, from 13 in 1994 to 345 in 2004. This increase is no doubt linked to a rise in reported cases, as both the number of cases withdrawn (10 in 1994, up to 567 in 2004) and acquittals (nine in 1995, up to 141 in 2004) also increased sharply.

The average conversion rate is about 30% — one in three charges brought resulted in a conviction. These are, however, only a fraction of the actual number of incidents. Not all resulted in a murder, though many would have. Many others might have prevented such a death. But this was all 10 years ago. The extent of the problem today is unknown.

Mpumalanga, in an attempt to curtail the problem in that province, where it is acute, tried in 2007 to pass the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill. But it was met with staunch resistance from South Africa’s pagan community, which opposed any legislation that might outlaw what it argued was the fair practice of a religious belief.

The bill is now in limbo as the South African Law Reform Commission reviews all the country’s witchcraft legislation. I asked the commission about the status of the review.

Commission spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga says a draft issue on the subject has been finalised and is due to be published for public comment.

"The term of office of our last commission expired and we are awaiting the appointment of a new commission (by the president). Once the commission is appointed, it has to approve the issue paper, after which it will be published for comment and posted on our website."

Essentially the paper will explore the constitutionality of the Witchcraft Suppression Act. Mhaga says: "Due to the lengthy consultative process that is undertaken during an investigation, it is not easy to predict when an investigation is going to be finalised or what recommendations are going to be made."

This process has now been under way for four years, and counting. Perhaps that is testament to the small amount of importance the public mind attaches to this issue.

In the meantime, the South African Pagan Rights Alliance established an online archive of people killed as witches from 2010 to 2012 (http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/remember-their-names/). It is fairly sparse and does not include muti murders but it already contains the names of about 50 people killed in this way over the past few years. The archive was part of a 30-day campaign against witch-hunts and witch killing.

When the commission does publish its issue paper, it will be interesting to read its recommendations. Forced to balance the constitutional rights of pagans with a need to address the killings that plague many parts of South Africa, it will be as much a test of our constitutional principles as it will be of our willingness to address some of the more horrendous aspects of cultural belief. In many respects, that is the fundamental challenge facing South Africa.