SOUTH Africa, much like most societies, is selective about its moral outrage. We are gripped by the Oscar Pistorius trial, ostensibly because of the celebrity drama, but entirely closed off to other, more serious crimes. Those crimes vary in nature, but most outstrip the Pistorius case when it comes to sensation and importance. They get neither the attention nor the recognition they deserve.
By way of illustration, consider brutal cultural crimes that are as prevalent as they are horrific: witch killings, muti murders and so on. These are the subject of small stories in the media and regional interest. Yet rarely does a week go by without the emergence of a new, even more horrifying example.
It is difficult to explain. The victims are almost always female, and that is a theme we take seriously. Culture, or an aberration of it, is nearly always to blame, and that is a subject in which we regularly indulge. The crimes are violent and sensational, and that is a flavour we love to taste, if only to condemn. Yet this universe exists far outside the public gaze. We don’t acknowledge or interrogate it in any serious way. Why?
By way of illustration, here are examples of these kinds of crimes currently before the courts or recently concluded, along with a selection of quotes from the many Twitter hashtags dedicated to the Pistorius trial. They speak to an entirely selective, sometimes superficial interest and a particular kind of conversation we are eager to indulge. As the backdrop: another conversation we are hardly ever willing to have.
This is not to suggest a mutually exclusive choice, but only to ask why we care so much about the one and not the other.
In January this year, David Ramakatsa was convicted and sentenced to life in prison by the Free State High Court (sitting in Ficksburg) for the 2009 murder of Nthati Alice Mothokho and Malintle Qothelo, who was five months pregnant at the time. Ramakatsa killed her, but not before he cut open her belly and took out the foetus and other parts of her anatomy to use for muti.
Body parts are best secured when the victim is alive, it is believed, as that increases their potency. When Mothokho’s body was exhumed, it was found that her eyes had been gouged out, while her tongue, genitals, armpits and nails had been ripped away too. The sentence got a 200-word write-up from the South African Press Association (Sapa).
["@AdamStainsby: This Oscar Pistorius trial is seriously gripping. Loving the updates from @barrybateman"]
The Free State Times, a regional newspaper, reported last year that Ramakatsa was standing trial for the murder with businessmen Tseliso Maqala, 51, and Handry Andries Sebofi, 55, as well as Tsepo Mokhobo Petrus, 28, Ngekale Petrus Monyepa, 46, Teboho Paulus Letsepa, 49, and Mbeki Mazibuko, 35, a witchdoctor accused of instructing other gang members to hunt for human body parts to make muti.
It wrote: "The gang is said to have killed about seven people in the Ficksburg area chiefly to harvest body parts for use to make muti potions."
["@Broonyyy: I am so interested in the pistorius trial !!!! Cant stop reading the updates ! Thanks @SkyNews #OscarPistorius."]
The story did breach the national interest threshold briefly when the Democratic Alliance said in a June 2013 statement: "The Democratic Alliance is shocked at the arrest of three ANC councillors and three prominent business people in connection with alleged muti killings in Ficksburg." That claim has never been interrogated.
["@andreasson_: I hope someone has had the decency to tell Pistorius the cricket score. #SAvAUS.]
Elsewhere, another trial is playing itself out in the Nelspruit Circuit of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Five people are accused of killing Dimakatso Shabangu, who went missing on April 21 2009. Her body was found floating in a river. The suspects — Jeremiah Ngwenya, 30, Judas Mandlazi, 25, Stella Zulu, 49, Sifiso Vilakazi, 25, and Thabile Mnisi, 33 — are out on bail of between R3,000 and R5,000.
Mpumalanga News, another regional newspaper, reports: "According to the charge sheet the postmortem results reveal that the left hand and tongue of the victim were cut off, her body was cut open from her navel to the end of her buttocks on the inside of both legs and all her (organs) and intestines as well as private parts (were) removed."
["@ems9612: Really interesting that Pistorius is writing notes, highlighting etc & passing them to his legal team. Seems occupied. Wonder what they say."]
The case, however, had to split because Zulu alleges she was tortured into signing a confession by police. She says a plastic bag was put over her head and she was suffocated during interrogation, until she signed the confession. That allegation is now being tested separately. The police deny any wrongdoing, although an officer charged with noting everything in a pocket book has admitted the relevant book went missing.
[@Leotjie: Next week’s gonna be rather confusing with the #Oscars and the #OscarTrial all happening at the same time... Please hand me the envelope..."]
Four months ago, Judge Rishi Seegobin said in the Pietermaritzburg High Court: "We live in a modern society where superstition and belief in witchcraft should not be viewed as a justification for murder. We are not dealing with primitive people, nor are we living in the dark ages. Sometimes witchcraft is just used as an excuse to commit a heinous offence."
He was handing down a sentence of 20 years in prison to Thulani Xulu, Bongani Xulu and Zakhele Nkosi, who pleaded guilty to the murders of Alice Dlamini and her daughter, Nkosikhona Xulu. They had bludgeoned the women to death with a hammer, a stick and a spear, because they believed they were practising witchcraft.
According to Sapa, "Thulani Xulu, 25, hit the women’s heads with a hammer. His brother Bongani Xulu, 28, used a bolted stick on them and Zakhele Nkosi, 26, speared them."
"@franzkruger: We look at the decibels of a scream in relation to the #OscarTrial #thescienceinside... http://fb.me/6o5etiUAN."]
Capricorn Voice, a Limpopo regional newspaper, reported last week that Mamayila Nkuna, 64, was walking home after having visited her family in Ximausa village near Giyani. She too was accused of being a witch, and had gone to clear her name. But she never made it. A mob of people accosted her, doused her in petrol, placed a tyre around her neck and set her alight. Then they petrol-bombed her house.
She was buried at her garden gate, but only because the community refused to allow her to be buried in the local cemetery. Municipal ward councillor Tsakani Maluleke said: "The deceased’s children had to make funeral arrangements from the police station, where they had been taken for safety and (were) living for a while after the community threatened to burn them alive as well."
["@SapaNews?: #OscarPistorius has arrived in courtroom GD. He used the side entrance. #Pistorius is dressed in a black suit pic. http://twitter.com/6nthsww6P2.]
The paper wrote: "Her grandson, Mandla Masingi, said Nkuna was a few steps away from her home when the violent mob caught up with her and set her alight. ‘She was near the gate when she collapsed, screaming for help. They (the mob) watched her die as they gathered around her and sang struggle songs,’ he recalled." There is a video of the murder circulating among locals.
Village headman Khasele Golele described the background. "The community started off by contributing R10 each, which they used to consult a traditional healer who apparently told them that it was two people, a man and a woman, who were behind these deaths," he said. Although the traditional healer did not specify the names of individuals involved, the community had already concluded that Nkuna was guilty.
["@NirenTolsi?: My piece in today’s Mail & Guardian about #OscarPistorius and constructions of white masculinity in South Africa http://bit.ly/Zm5ofc."]
Nineteen people were arrested in connection with the incident. The case was postponed till February 20, and those who were arrested were not asked to plead. You can see photographs of Nkuna’s torched house here.
On February 26, Col Attie Lamprecht of the South African Police Service’s Occult Crimes Unit said there were 48 occult-related crimes under investigation. There have been 78 occult-related murder and attempted murder cases in the past three months. "There are people who deal and trade in body parts; that is why perpetrators cut off private and other body parts while the victim is still alive," he said.
According to a brief story in The New Age, among other such crimes, the unit is investigating a Limpopo man who wanted to win the lottery and was told to bring his three-year-old son’s body parts. There is also the case of a man whose body was found in a veld in December with a hand and his private parts missing. Police spokesman Brig Neville Malila said: "The parts were later recovered in a bucket at the mountain. The docket is still under investigation."
["@IOL: Does Pistorius have a new girlfriend? http://iol.io/b6m8y."]