Pressure of AIDS, Economic Decline Spur Ritual Murders

"Ritual murder is a fact in Swaziland. Our only protection is to adopt a defensive attitude," Robert Dube, a businessperson in the capital city, told IPS.

Dube said his views were shared by most of his country people.

"Ritual murder" is the imprecise name given to gruesome killings where no ritual is involved.

"The victim is usually easily overpowered - a child, or a widow - and killed usually by hired killers," said Vusie Masuku, spokesperson for the Royal Swaziland Police Force.

Body parts of the murder victims are then "harvested". Taken are bits of flesh from under the armpits, a finger and some internal organs. Legend says the most potent parts are cut from a still living person. The parts are then brought to a witch or sorcerer, who combines them with other ingredients to make a potion that brings "invulnerability" to the user.

"It's a form of sympathetic magic - the life force of the victim is sacrificed to give power to the user," said Dr. Thandie Malepe, director of the National Psychiatric Centre in Manzini, the commercial capital of Swaziland.

The Swaziland police report half-dozen findings of mutilated bodies annually. The number increased twofold in 1998, which was a year of parliamentary elections, and were up slightly last year, which also saw the most recent parliamentary elections. Some suspects were caught and tried for a few of the killings that year, but none were involved in the elections. This did not keep the Swazi press from linking the upswing in "ritual murders" with electioneering.

"Ritual murder" has allegedly long been a dark and secret part of politics in Swaziland, a conservative kingdom where traditions good and bad, including some destructive superstitions, are a key part of life.

"The charming traditions draw the tourists, but there are aspects of culture that are not so good. There is a superstition that an ambitious person can kill someone to take body parts for potions they believe will make them stronger and wealthier," Themba Shongwe, a student of psychology at the University of Swaziland, told IPS.

Swaziland has several thousand traditional healers, condemned as "witch doctors" by European colonialists. They provide herbal medicines and cures for a majority of Swazis for whom these healers are the preferred health care providers.

Recently, the Ministry of Health enlisted traditional healers in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in a country where nearly 40 percent of the adult population is estimated to be HIV positive.

Legitimate healers opposed any misuse of traditional medicine, and unanimously condemn the practice of "ritual murder."

"A diviner/healer gets his power or her power from the ancestral spirits. But if a healer is involved in a Satanic type of activity like ritual murder, the ancestors will kill him," one respected healer, Gogo Phutaza, told IPS. "That is why it is forbidden for healers to even be near dead bodies."

Worries over ritual murders have taken on a new urgency in anticipation of the trial of Swaziland's first mass murderer. David Simelane confessed to police nearly three years ago that he kidnapped and killed over 60 women and children. He was caught after dozens of shallow graves were uncovered in the commercial timber forests of Malkerns, 50 km south of Mbabane. Simelane confessed to the killings, and brought police to more graves.

"The Swazi people want to know who is behind this," submitted Senator Abednego Dlamini during parliamentary debates last year. But little action has followed. No trial date has been set for Simelane, and a conspiracy theory swirls around Simelane and this country's first case of serial killings. The theory, played up in the local press, holds that the self-confessed murderer was working with others, perhaps a syndicate whose business was to secure body parts for ritual murder potions.

The suspicion has increased the public's desire to see a trial, and with no trial forthcoming, has raised fears that a powerful cabal of authorities is keeping Simelane out of view, lest he implicate others.

"There is no evidence for the conspiracy theory, but doubts were inflamed last year when Simelane grew mysteriously ill in prison, and was reportedly close to death. Many people thought his colleagues on the outside wanted him dead before he could talk," a report in the 'Times of Swaziland' said.

The reality of "ritual murder" in Swaziland has convinced people that the 63 alleged victims of Simelane were killed for their body parts.

Dr. Malepe said that incidents of ritual murder increase during times of societal stress. The pressure of AIDS in the country, which has one of the world's highest HIV infection rates, combined with economic decline and the traditional family, whose value system was the glue that once bound Swazis on the home and community level, have raised uncertainty about survival in the present and about times ahead. Confused or pathological people can resort to ritual murder in attempt to find a magical "cure" to personal insecurities.

Last week, the most disturbing case yet was reported in the Swazi press, when the dismembered body of a two year-old boy was found at the edge of the family homestead. The toddler's own relatives are implicated in the murder.