'Satanic' South Africa
Reports of Satanism linked to gruesome crimes in South Africa beggar belief, but does it exist to the extent suggested by media, where does it come from and how does it fit into the broader narrative of South Africa?
According to a testimony at the Palm Ridge Magistrate's Court, that's* the Bible verse that convinced youths to allegedly drug, bind, and set alight Kirsty Theologo and a friend in petrol last October.
Participator-turned-state-witness Lester Moody, who admitted to using drugs heavily, said the group decided Theologo was Johannesburg's "great prostitute" during a game where one asks questions and burns tissue paper with matches to see the answer. It was decided the "whore of Babylon" would be sacrificed. "Drinking her blood, eating her flesh and burning her with fire" would be rewarded with "power, wisdom, fame and money" thought the youths.
Satanism sounds too farcical to believe - too similar to The Craft or Stigmata and distant from facts and motives. Sceptics view it as an excuse used to sensationalise murders that are likely linked to poverty, violence in society, broken families, and psychopathic characters. Yet, media reports suggest it's a key motive for a number of murders and Satanism is indeed practiced by South Africans, in particular youth.
In May, a 14-year-old boy allegedly murdered four family members in Johannesburg's East Rand. Reportedly, he was fueled by drugs and Satanism. "This guy said he is a satanist. If he kills he is sacrificing his family for the boss," told a neighbour. "He said it came from his mind and told him to kill them because of the full moon." Those killings came after 14-year-old Keamogetswe Sefularo was allegedly murdered in Mohlakeng Johannesburg by Satanists who reportedly drank her blood.
Satanism has a history in South Africa. University of the Witwatersrand media studies lecturer (and Daily Maverick columnist) Nicky Falkof says in the 1980s and 90s, towards the end of Apartheid, white South Africa was gripped by paranoia and Satanism fell into the racially-based fears that characterised the era. Both the English and Afrikaans press had a relatively consistent position, says Falkof in "Satan has come to Rietfontein: Race in South Africa's Satanic Panic", treating it "as a legitimate and real threat to white South Africa".
Satanism was racialised. "Both white and black youth were implicated in the scare but only white youth retained access to its supernatural elements. Where black youngsters were concerned, the possibility of Satanism only opened another channel for state mediation in their lives, while for many young white people, Satanism became another mechanism of enforcing orthodoxy and the political compliance that went with it," writes Falkof.
"As an expression of the paranoias that dogged white mass culture in the last years of apartheid, as a screen for the repression of the real and radical threats to continued white dominance, the belief in a satanic conspiracy maintained apartheid's work of racial separation and kept black and white youth in their place, fulfilling the pre-ordained positions given to them by the system's racial obsessions: whites as conformist bearers of morality, civilisation and reason, blacks as infectious, pathological and preternaturally damaged," she concludes.
Before this, there were ideas around sangomas and muti murders, but white South Africans' involvement reflected practices in the UK and Europe, says Falkof. The "imported panic" featured key attributes familiar to European and American Satanism - the colour black, upside crosses, the use of wine, and slaughtering cats. But when Apartheid ended, the press coverage on white Satanism did too.
Current media, however, paints it as a crime wave. In 2010, the government's Tsireledzani report on human trafficking found that satanic cults operate across the country, with the main "operational centre" in Krugersdorp. They are well financed, usually white and count prominent members of society as members. When sacrifices are required, children are preferred. "Respondents believe that victims are either recruited by cult members or purchased from criminal syndicates that specialise in human trafficking: these syndicates are said to be mostly Nigerian. Alternatively, satanic cults will kidnap victims often from rural areas. Other targets are street children and prostitutes, probably because they are less likely to be missed and reported to the police. If the ritualistic killing requires a man, gay men in bars are targeted and sedated to overcome physical resistance," claimed the report.
The investigation offers information from "respondents" but apart from claiming to have seen a video of satanic sacrifice, offers no hard evidence. Critiquing the claims, Chandré Gould, Marlise Richter and Ingrid Palmery from the Institute of Security Studies said it suffered from "lack of evidence and methodological integrity". The report's claims that Satanism is predominantly practiced by whites also differs with media reports which paint it as a subculture among black youth.
Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, head of the Moral Regeneration Movement, advised caution when approaching the issue. There's a lack of scientific research to support the existence of Satanism as a religion, he said, and it's hard to separate individual cases of violence as stemming from a religious belief as opposed to other issues. Both the Old and New Testament of the Bible mention such aspects of behaviour but don't support the view that Satanism has been a distinctive ideology. What's particularly concerning, said Mkhatshwa over the phone, is if people want to practice Satanism as an established religion.
Dr Kobus Jonker, who headed the SAPS's Occult-Related Crimes Unit, is a common source of information on the issue. When contacted by Daily Maverick, he said he was too busy with his homeopathy practice, but he explained the issue in a past interview with Vice. "People jump on bandwagons and see the devil behind every bush and that's also wrong. It can be very dangerous, so I don't do that. The Cult Unit was mainly for occult crimes which would involve cult leaders who are generally very charismatic. They run the satanic sects and tell their followers that they must go desecrate graves and go kill people for sacrifices and that sort of thing. South African Satanists concentrate more on committing crimes. That's not the case with American and British sects. They are more concerned with LaVey's teachings and the religious side of devil worship. You will rarely find them committing any of the horrible murders committed here in South Africa by the local sects," said Jonker, who blamed the practice on the common breakdown of the family unit and children being left to their own devices.
This new breed of Satanism, according to Falkof, is totally different to that of the 1980s. "Now when we compare this to what's going on currently we see a very different beast indeed. There are similarities - the devil, Bibles, dangerous women, weird rituals - but in most cases, news reporting on 'Satanism' is more or less the same as news reporting on 'muti' or 'witchcraft'," says Falkof. "The spectre of that old fear remains in name at least but it's been subsumed into a larger South African occult. The best example of this is the way that most satanic tales these days involve not the murder of cats, associated with European witches, but rather endless oceans of chicken blood, which have powerful connotations of muti and local magic."
Asked whether she believes the hype, Falkof says she doesn't. Satanist acts of violence, however, may operate based on an individual's perception of, rather than a proven, satanic conspiracy. "Whether or not 'they' exist is almost beside the point when it comes to individuals adopting the language and iconography. If you hear enough about this stuff and start to define yourself as the mythical 'satanist', and perform his/her practices, then are you one or aren't you one? Does it matter how 'real' the thing is if people think it's real?" asks Falkof.
But rather than Satanists floating in the dark, she suggests the practice might be linked to the pulse of South Africa. The natural decline in Rainbow Nation rhetoric has been replaced not only by tragedies - Marikana, Anene Booysens, Reeva Steenkamp - but also a disenchantment with the ANC government, corruption, employment and service delivery. In short, dreams have been dashed.
Falkof quotes other academics on the state of flux and draws it back to Satanism: "I think then perhaps what the upsurge of Satanism stories in the last few years signifies is a symptom of this social fear, this sense that things are 'sliding out of control' and that we can't trust those in charge to keep us afloat. I think those sorts of fears often manifest in occult paranoia because the world begins to seem unmanageable. And, related to that, in a way it's easier to have a clear enemy; the other nifty task that Satanism scares perform is that they polarise things, they create a good vs. evil story that's very easy to digest."
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.
*Revelations 17: 16: The ten horns you saw and the beast will hate the prostitute; they will take away everything she has and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and destroy her with fire.