The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of South Africa's Anti-Occult Police Unit
The satanic panic of the 80s and early 90s gave birth to a squad dedicated to hunting satanic crimes, and today the status of the unit remains shrouded in mystery.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In September of 1999, Rina Radloff, a 51-year-old millionaire businesswoman, was found dead in her luxury South African estate. She'd been stabbed to death after answering a knock at the door, a trail of blood leading to her study upstairs. A nonsensical riddle was left in a note on her desk. "Strange pictures" were found in a downstairs room by investigating police—images of five-point stars and shadowy figures.
Two weeks after the murder, notes containing details that only the killer could know were faxed to the police. Suspicion fell on Radloff's ex-husband, who had subsequently married a famously eccentric local woman with a penchant for the "occult," Antoinette Radloff. Investigations were initiated and Antoinette was taken in for questioning. It was a long process fraught with sensational reports in local tabloids that she was capable of "transforming" and "moving things with her eyes," and ended with her suicide in December of 2000.
Two years later, two young men from the neighboring township were sentenced to life in prison, having been convicted of Rina's murder and confessed to being hired by Antoinette. A strange case came to a mundane conclusion, though local media had missed one fact: It was South Africa's Occult-Related Crime Unit's head, Dr. Kobus "Hound of God" Jonker, who'd initially brought Antoinette in for questioning due to the case's "occult" nature.
The Occult Unit was—and possibly is—the first and only of its kind in the world. Jonker founded it in 1992 at the behest of former Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok during the last days of Apartheid. However it had its origin in the 1980s, from the notorious Dungeons & Dragons–inspired global Satanic panic.
The phenomenon had hit white South Africa—a community with a rich vein of Calvinist and conservative religious heritage—harder than anywhere in the world, bar, perhaps, the United States. As late as the early 2000s, many Afrikaans kids were still banned from reading Harry Potter, with its graphic depictions of witchcraft, or buying Lay's chips, which contained novelty Pokemon collectibles that children were said to have killed each other for. What had been an almost forgotten occurrence of global paranoia had crystallized into a state-sponsored, community-sanctioned witch hunt in South Africa; the original Occult Crime Unit channeled all of this existing paranoia, fanaticism, and fear into its mandate.
Jonker is a born-again Christian; an apparent ritual sacrifice during his career shocked him into the world of occult investigating. The Radloff case hadn't been his first jaunt into what he believed was the dark underbelly of South African satanism, but it would be close to his last—he retired in an official capacity after suffering a heart attack in 2000. Before then he'd written several books on the subject, toured the country speaking at schools, penned articles for the community police mag SERVAMUS ("We Serve") on how to identify satanists, and investigated cases of murder that had alleged satanic links.
According to Jonker, he was investigating upwards of 250 such cases a year in the 90s. He believed that there were "thousands" of satanists active in South Africa. According to another piece in SERVAMUS, quoted by Sunday Paper City Press in September of 2000, Jonker had been receiving death threats from satanists and was sent a pair of severed baboon hands by post. The Occult Unit's section on the South African Police Service's (SAPS) website was only removed in 2006. However, thanks to the magic of the internet, it's still available.
The official webpage makes for baffling reading. Warning signs of "possible destructive occult-related discourse" included "changes to the appearance of the child's bedroom," "child experiences sudden gender confusion," "child plays/loves fantasy games," "rejection of parental values," "draping hair across left eye," and other descriptions of the kind of things plenty of teenagers tend to do while also not being satanists.
Predictably, Christianity was a prerequisite of joining the unit.
Magazine features during the time of the Radloff case paint a holistic picture of Jonker, one of a man who considers all sides and remains reasonable and steadfast amid a cloud of skepticism, even from his peers. Apparently, Jonker broke up seven satanic rings in the Eastern Cape, with only two eluding him. Tales from those times include finding the severed head of a Chinese woman in a cupboard in a flat, several episodes of what Jonker calls demonic possession, and allegations of satanist police officers breaking into Jonker's offices to sabotage his work.
Jonker moved his offices (and so presumably those of the Occult Unit) from main headquarters in Pretoria. His commissioner would refuse to enter his office, which was filled with creepy souvenirs from his adventures, like candles made from human fat, chained Bibles, and animal skulls. A plaque above the entrance read: " Onde Jesus Bloed," which means "Under Jesus's Blood [protection]" in Afrikaans.
A documentary series called Witness followed Jonker and his deputy, Rietta Everton, around for a spell towards the end of the millennium, during the beginnings of the Rina Radloff case. In the show the two first inspect the house before Antoinette is filmed being arrested. It's not really clear in which capacity Jonker and Everton are operating, but the narrator does describe their positions within the Occult Unit—they work from offices in Pretoria but are called across the country to other police districts, where detectives meet them to discuss individual cases, none of which are conclusive of supernatural involvement or the like. The pair operate in plainclothes, and no mention is made of the size, budget, or mandate of the unit. They're certainly not parading about as some kind of Ghosbusters-esque squad, merely as detectives called in on specific cases.
The point here, however, is that South Africa did—and still does, to a large extent—take satanism very, very seriously, at least among certain parts of the population. The fascination with the occult hasn't disappeared, even since Dr. Attie Lamprecht—who succeeded Jonker in 2000—announced in 2006 that the Occult Unit had been officially disbanded and reabsorbed into other departments within the Detective Services as a result of a potential infringement of the right to freedom of religion, guaranteed by South Africa's famously progressive 1996 post-Apartheid constitution. This came in the wake of outrage from several Pagan and other alternative religious groups in the country, who were accusing the unit of conflating Pagan practice and identity with harmful satanic rituals.
Despite these groups' protestations, however, the fear lives on. Case in point: Some in the country tried to boycott Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" tour, with its satanic influence, back in 2012, and local pop star Toya DeLazy was accused of satanism for her album cover last year. The tragedy is that in between the complex net of alternative belief systems that encompass paganism, satanism, and traditional African cultures involving alternative medicine practices, people do get murdered, assaulted, and brainwashed. Murders with ritualistic or satanic undertones almost always make headlines in South Africa—like here, and here, and here. In many of these cases, Jonker has been called as an "expert" to give evidence.
The sad reality of the situation is that there truly is a need for a specialized unit dealing with ritual murders in South Africa.
In 2012, a leaked internal police memo revealed that the dissolved Occult Unit appeared to have been revived, albeit under a different name: the SAPS Harmful Religious Practices Unit.
By redefining occult crime as "crime that relates to or emanates primarily from an ostensible belief in the supernatural that formed a driving force in the crime," the new unit lends itself to a more practical, less fanatical air. Emphasis is placed on preventing (literal) witch hunts, a common occurrence in rural sectors, as well as ritualistic abuse. However, all this effort to appear sensible is sort of undermined by the inclusion of "curses intended to cause harm," "vampirism," "spiritual intimidation, including astral coercion," and "allegations of rape by a tokoloshe spirit."
And then reports surfaced that Jonker himself had returned to train detectives and equip them with the necessary skills to combat the occult. The focus this time seemed to have been shifted to tangible and real occult threats and not factually dubious underground conspiracies, but seeing as the "Hound of God" had trained the officers and the list of occult crimes still echoed traces of early-90s sentiment, how could anyone be sure?
What made the deal even more unclear was the fact that Parliament was unable to supply questioning members of the opposition with official statistics about the number of occult-related crimes. Dianne Kohler Barnard of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition to the ruling majority African National Congress, was the MP who led the charge.
In response to an email about the statistics, she said: "In 2012 the SAPS effectively re-established the Harmful Occult-Related Crime Unit. We asked a question the previous year and the response was that they needed to get the info from the provinces. The question posed to the Minister was the number of occult-related crimes which have occurred in the last financial year following reports in the Daily Sun that the Occult-Related Crime Unit was to be re-established. We were told the information is not readily available."
The sad reality of the situation is that there truly is a need for a specialized unit dealing with muti (traditional South African medicine) and ritual murders in the country. Kohler Barnard feels particularly strongly about this. "One of the most awful incidents was of a ten-year-old boy who had his nose, ears, eyes, and shoulder ripped off, and a bone from his arm removed. This was quite possibly a muti murder," she said.
Kohler Barnard once again queried Parliament towards the end of last year, and it was revealed officially that there are 40 detectives within the SAPS who had received additional training to deal with the occult, but that no dedicated task force exists. This, then, is the current situation in 2015—murky, unsure, with a troubled and controversial past. A group exists, but it's unsure whether they're addressing real problems or chasing phantoms from the 80s.
Among the questions of organizational structure, operating costs, and logistics, ideological aspirations of transparency and accountability this raises, one overarching question remains: What is the true mandate of these 40 officers, and how can South Africa be sure that they don't operate as the Occult Unit did in the 90s when its head is Lamprecht and Jonker is still involved?
Without official government statistics it's impossible to tell, meaning—for now—we'll have to make do with the few facts we have.
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