A crime scene in Dobsonville, a township in Soweto, outside of Johannesburg. All photos by the author
The Devil is probably not launching an all-out assault on the people of South Africa, but if you pick up the tabloids, talk to the locals, or ask the police, they’ll all tell you: Satanic crime is a growing problem.
On the early morning of February 19, a man was walking though a long, dusty pit in Dobsonville, a township in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, when he found the bodies of two teenage girls. He spotted Chwayita Rathazayo, 16, and Thandeka Moganetsi, 15, in a field of high grass, broken pottery, and assorted pieces of trash. According to news reports, the girls were in their school uniforms, lying just a few feet from each other, with cuts and open wounds on their backs, necks, and arms, just out of view from the row of stout brick houses that border the field. Next to the girls were three black candles and two unused razor blades.
The field’s narrow footpath ditches keep residents, who fear attacks, at a distance. But that morning, as news of the bodies spread, the victims’ classmates slowly arrived at the scene. “They were crying and were saying they know exactly who did this, and they knew that this was going to happen,” Malungelo Booi, a television reporter who covered the scene, later told me. “They were told that they were going to be next.”
A week after the teenagers’ murder, the South African Police Service, the national police force, announced that occult-related crimes were on the rise: Between December 2013 and February 2014, 78 such crimes had been reported in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province. Formal cases were opened for 48 of those reports. By February 26, four of those cases had been closed, with court convictions ranging from 15 years to life. Not all of these voodooesque crimes were in the name of Satan: They span a broad spectrum of screwed-up rituals done in the name of crazy-ass religious practices. The official police statement mentions theft of body parts several times, but that’s oddly run-of-the-mill in South Africa, where witchcraft accusations and fake traditional healers still make headlines every week.
As soon as the announcement was made, religious groups descended to combat the threat. South Africa is currently engaged in a “spiritual war,” according to Pastor Mamorwa Gololo, a confident, middle-aged South African woman with a piercing gaze. Gololo has a church in Soweto where she preaches the teachings of the deliverance ministry—in short, she performs exorcisms. When I met with her, she described how she had helped save a Nigerian man from Satan last December. She even recited the special prayer she used to extract the evil from him.
This isn’t the first time that South Africans have been faced with an apparent outbreak of Satanism. Reports of satanic cults and brainwashed teenagers began appearing in the 1980s, which coincided with the slow dismantling of Apartheid. As criticism of the Apartheid system grew, articles on social unrest in South Africa’s white enclaves were a fixture of the news cycle, but the upheaval had little to do with larger social change. “The alleged rise of Satanism in the 1980s was being blamed for increasing divorce rates, feminism, kids using drugs, and kids not wanting to go to the army,” Nicky Falkof, a lecturer in media studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told me with a laugh.
Falkof had spoken to three other reporters on the week that we met, since she’s one of the only PhDs in South Africa who has written academically on the subject. Her focus was on how the media perpetuated these fringe beliefs of a sudden, calamitous emergence of devil-worshipping teenagers, creating what is commonly seen as a moral—or, in this case, satanic—panic. “And at some point it just stopped, and the Satanists just vanished, and no one talked about them anymore,” she said. “I had a really strong sense that there was something important about that happening as a consequence of the kind of consistent weirdness of the end of Apartheid among white people.”
This time, however, the crime increase is occurring almost entirely in the black communities—the underserved townships and informal settlements that, despite the radiant promise of 1994, remain painfully impoverished. A black kid growing up in South Africa’s townships today is surrounded by endemic joblessness (more than a quarter of the community is unemployed), pathetic housing conditions (about 13 percent live in corrugated metal shacks), and little to no chance of escape.
The day after the bodies were found, police arrested two black 16-year-old boys, schoolmates to the murdered girls. That same day police dug up animal bones, an ax, and a dagger from the yard of a nearby house. This was reportedly part of an older, ongoing investigation, but it happens to have also involved accusations of satanic practice.
The next day, the Daily Sun newspaper ran its cover with a picture of an ax in an evidence bag and an all-caps headline: “HOUSE OF SATAN BUST!”
I met with Reverend Gift Moerane, who helps coordinate church business and personnel in Gauteng, at his office in Johannesburg. Three days after the girls were found dead, Moerane and other local pastors, including Gololo, and a former education minister visited Dobsonville to hold a prayer session at the high school.
Moerane has played a big role in building a partnership with the Department of Education to allow religious groups greater access to schools, despite South Africa’s secular government. “Sharing the word of God helped us to be better people,” he said, carefully framing his preference for an Apartheid-era policy. “But now, because the secularization of the state has forced religion to be removed from education, it has opened a gap, a vacuum. And because nature does not allow a vacuum, something has come in to close that vacuum.”
Moerane sees this as a literal case of Satan coming in to snatch up South Africa’s children, but he conceded that these things don’t happen in, well, a vacuum. “The people who propagate this practice, they promise all kinds of things,” Moerane told me. “If you join this movement you get everything that you want. You don’t even have to work; you don’t have to go to school.” Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—they’re all included.
The religious side believe it’s the Devil, and the secular side thinks it’s economic disparity, but both happen to agree that these crimes are done out of desperation. “You listen to the testimony of the young people doing this, and they talk a lot about wanting to get power and about powerlessness,” said Falkof, referring to other recent court cases tied to the occult. “Satanism gives us a way to discuss these murders without having to ask what it is in this country that is raising a generation of kids that is capable of such extreme acts of violence.”
In the eyes of the law it’s essentially the same: A quickie exorcism is unlikely to alter any charges against the boys for alleged murders. “If they said, ‘The devil inside me said I must do this and this and this,’ most of the time it’s nonsense,” Kobus Jonker, who serves as an expert witness in occult-related criminal trials, told me. Jonker is the original head of South Africa’s Occult Related Crimes Unit, which was founded in 1992, during the last satanic panic. He’s also probably the most despised man in the country’s pagan and occult circles, having written the police guide on identifying harmful religious practices and occult items, which is frequently criticized as outdated, biased, or downright inaccurate.
“I don’t care if you’re a Wiccan or a pagan or an Antichrist or a vampire. I don’t care. We’re there for crime that’s been committed,” Jonker told me. He said that he doesn’t have nightmares as he turned past an illustration from his first satanic crime case—a picture of a naked dead woman with the words “Jesus” and “Christ” carved into the bottom of her feet and a “666” sign carved into her arm.
As a police consultant he’s more than a little aware of the reported increase, and he even gets calls from concerned parents—especially in the past few months, he added. “I think some of the children are bored,” he said. “They’re on their own. They don’t feel they have a place in society. Then they read this and say, Oh, this can get me in a position where I can actually dominate people.”
The two Dobsonville boys are still awaiting trial after a series of postponements for psychiatric evaluations. Innocent or guilty, the case is unlikely to hinge on whether the Devil had anything to do with it. Likewise, it probably won’t hinge on whether the boys were lost to the desperation of economic helplessness. The case will be a criminal one, and South Africa will continue to battle its demons.