Black magic, murder and madness in Satanist South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa - A CHURCH custodian is murdered in the dead of night and his mutilated corpse, bearing vicious stab wounds to his head and side mimicking those of Jesus Christ on the cross, is left in front of the altar.

On the ground, in the victim's blood, is written the word "Satun" (sic).

The Halloween slaying of 53-year-old Charles Jacobs, janitor at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints in the quiet, church-going town of Paarl, east of Cape Town, is the latest in a long string of murders that reflect an obsession with Satanism that goes back deep into South Africa's apartheid past.

Jacobs's murder, inevitably dubbed the "crucifixion killing", was probably just a botched burglary, police say. But to relatives in the town, it was the work of the devil.

His brother, Ivor, who found the body, describes the scene at the church as "a place filled with evil. We saw a dark spot on the floor. The word 'Satun' was written in my brother's blood".

In South Africa, where murder is commonplace, the killing's satanic overtones made it exceptional. Official police denials of any occult link, and claims that descriptions of Jacobs's injuries were wildly exaggerated, have been drowned out.

To the police, the lurid crucifixion elements were nothing more than clumsy attempts to disguise the motives for the killing.

"The robbers who broke into the church probably did not expect to find anyone there," said police spokesman Billy Jones.

"It was just a robbery gone wrong. There was no occult involvement."

Two men have already been arrested: a defrocked priest whom Mormon elders fired after they discovered he had lied about being ordained, and a local unemployed man.

The "crucifixion killing" is only the latest to be proclaimed occult-linked and reflects the unique hold Satanism has on the South African psyche. In September this year, Willem Mouers, a deranged Western Cape farm worker, slit his three-year-old daughter's throat, hours after telling neighbours about "dark forces" that haunted him.

Unable to explain his mental breakdown, local residents turned to the only answer they believed would fit: that he was possessed.

When several pet dogs were slaughtered in an affluent Pretoria suburb in June, locals interpreted it as proof that a satanic coven was loose in the capital.

The fact that the pet killings took place at the winter solstice, a high point in the occult calendar, seemed the clincher. "Pets' death linked to Satanism" ran the headline in the Pretoria News.

The belief that malevolent dark forces lurk on the periphery, waiting to strike, runs deep in white South African society. Last year M Web, the country's largest internet service provider, offered a package that would allow users to block internet access to sites that included occult subjects.

The belief of lurking occultism goes back to the apartheid era when a blend of Christian fundamentalism and virulent anti-Communism fostered free-ranging paranoia, particularly among whites. In the 1980s, at the height of the liberation war, wandering preachers would visit all-white schools to warn children of the dangers of Satanism and, through a convoluted logic, its links to Communism.

Using props such as KISS album covers, candle stubs and other paraphernalia "recovered" from covens' lairs, these preachers would frighten and perhaps unintentionally titillate their captive audience with lurid descriptions of black mass, blood sacrifice and uninhibited sex.

Satanism was taken so seriously that the South African police set up an anti-occult unit.

The Occult Related Crime Unit was set up in 1992 under Superintendent Kobus Jonker. Jonker grew legendary as the country's top occult-hunter, dubbed in the press as "The hound of God", "God's detective" and "Donker (dark) Jonker".

The unit was disbanded in 1997 after human rights groups protested that the country's post-apartheid constitution guaranteed religious freedom, a definition broad enough to include Satanists, should they exist.

But the South African police have continued to keep a webpage devoted to Satanism and the occult, and Jonker is still the police's resident occult expert.

He declined to be interviewed.

An ex-colleague, James Lottering, a former detective who ran the occult unit's Eastern Cape branch and resigned after the unit's disbandment, still occasionally consults with his colleague.

These days, Lottering conducts exorcisms from a church in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. He now calls himself a pastor but his bull neck, cropped hair and penetrating eyes make him seem far more like the cop he was than a man of the cloth.

"A normal policeman cannot really investigate these cases because he does not have the background. So they have consultants to help," he explained.

Building a case against a Satanist is challenging. "If a person commits a crime and says 'Satan made me do it', by law, that person must produce the demon to testify on his behalf in court.

"But that, of course, he cannot do. The court cannot take the word of every person that claims to be demon-possessed."

Instead, Lottering and his colleagues would settle for building a criminal prosecution but also sparing time to try and save the possessed man's soul. "If a person is demon-possessed, ja, I can help him free himself of this thing but I can't help him in court."

Lottering was also once a member of the apartheid Government's feared security police, when hunting Communists, not Satanists, was a priority. To some, the switch from hunting Communists to hunting Satanists is not surprising.

"The only thing worse than having an enemy is not having one," says University of the Witwatersrand psychologist Gavin Ivey, who has published a paper on the phenomenon.

"These guys are just a waste of taxpayers' money."

Dr Ivey points out that Satanism-seeking is an especially Afrikaans phenomenon, and points to a society long accustomed to using religion as its method of interpreting reality.

In the past, Communists were anti-church and therefore the legitimate, and hidden, enemy.

Today -- with Communists sitting as members of the post-apartheid parliament -- Satanists, real and imagined, are the new subversives. Dr Ivey said: "As one enemy disappears, another has to be conjured up."