|Swaziland's first known serial killer, David Simelane - charged recently with the slayings of 34 people and suspected to be responsible for the deaths of others - has done more than prematurely end the lives of dozens of women and children. He has exposed to Swazis the myth of their national belief, that Swaziland is a country where members of extended families living within multi-generational homesteads look out for their own, where crime is low because everyone knows everyone else.
“We have been living with an illusion that the traditional ways that safeguarded our ancestors still protect us in a rapidly changing society,” says Dr. Thandi Malepe, director of the Swaziland Psychiatric Institute. “The serial killings have proven that false.”
Charged under his surname Simelane, though he is more widely known by the pseudonym David Mhlanga, the killer preyed on women traveling through both rural and urban areas. His victims were either alone or with small children, and police sources speculate they were often hitchhiking. Evidence at the crime scenes showed that the women were raped and decapitated. The children were suffocated, and some were found with plastic bags over their heads.
“This had been going on for probably two years,” said Magagula. “Most of the bodies were severely decomposed, others were mere skeletons. They were buried under thin coatings of dirt and pine needles.” Most of the bodies were discovered within the SAPPI/Usuthu Company's commercial forests in the rural community of Malkerns, about 30 km from the capital Mbabane.
These gruesome finds were at first assumed to be the work of another suspect, Bongani Vilakati. In July 2000, the bodies of six people were unearthed at Vilakati's farm in Malkerns. He was implicated by two Mozambicans who were hired by Vilakati to dig the graves, and were arrested by police for their role in assisting the killer. For eight months, Vilakati was in hiding, until he was spotted by police, chased through a maize field, and fatally shot.
The Swazi media criticised the police for shooting the unarmed suspect, who if he had lived might have shed some light on reports of missing persons in the Malkerns area.
But what bothers observers of Swazi life more is that so few of the victims were reported missing by their families. The bodies of one woman and her child who did receive attention turned up along the Malkerns roadside after her distraught husband placed newspaper ads asking for information.
“We have to be careful about blaming the police for not doing more to stop the serial killings while they were in progress, because there were few missing persons reports,” says a source with the Royal Swaziland Police Force.
“The crimes have highlighted the danger of assuming your relatives who are in transit are alright,” says Dr. Malepe.
Phefeni Vilakati (unrelated to the mass murder suspect Vilakati) is a social worker in rural Luve. He describes the poverty that leads women to put themselves in peril by wandering about the country. “The traditional homestead can no longer support all its residents, particularly now when AIDS is hitting so hard and taking away many breadwinners. Women go off, sometimes with their children, with only enough bus fare to get to a place like Malkerns, where they hope to find work. They have no money to get back.”
Malkerns is a centre of pineapple and sugar cane cultivation. Seasonal workers are employed at planting and harvesting time. Swazi custom prescribes that a newcomer to an area has to report to a chief, and a resident who gives shelter to a stranger has to do the same. This once had the salubrious effect of reducing crime. But in a modern peripatetic society, where men and women are in constant motion, the old formalities have largely disappeared from all but distant rural lands.
“Fifty years ago, Swazis lived their entire lives at their homesteads, and rarely ventured outside their chieftaincies,” says historian Richard Motsa. “The only ones who ever left the country went to South Africa to work in the mines under contract. They were illiterate, and did not write home. But their families knew they would eventually return.”
Motsa feels that the miners began the Swazi assumption that a family member may go off for long periods of time to seek work and not communicate, but all is well.
The communication infrastructure is still inadequate for the poor in Swaziland. Public telephones are few, and those that do exist are generally located within post offices, which close at four in the afternoon, or at shops that close in the evenings. Electricity, not to mention private phones, is a luxury in rural homesteads. None of Swaziland's 300 chiefs are connected to the worldwide web to send or receive e-mail. As for regular mail, illiteracy and slowness of delivery tend to discourage its use among the poor.
“So, off these woman go walking into the night, because the buses stop running at sundown,” says Khosi Mtetfwa, director of the women's counseling service Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA). She criticises the government for failing to provide a public transportation system, leaving riders at the mercy of private transport operations whose concern is profit.
In addition to counseling women and children who fall victim to rape and abuse, SWAGAA assembles statistics about these crimes. “All our figures will be skewed this year because of the serial killings,” says Mtetfwa. “If there is anything positive to come out of the serial killings, it is an awareness of the vulnerability of women to such crimes, and the need for better communication and transportation, a need to be vigilant.”
Non-government organisations and religious groups joined SWAGAA for a prayer vigil at the forest location where most of the bodies were discovered. At the time, police had posted a substantial reward for information leading to the apprehension of the killers. Police authorities suspected Vilakati was not the only one involved, if indeed the dead suspect was involved at all.
A wary fiancé broke the case. He had been tailing Simelane for several days after hearing that the woman he was to wed was last seen in his company. Why the unnamed woman was with Simelane may remain a mystery, because her body was discovered along with her eight-month-old child amongst the corpses uncovered in the forest. Besides Simelane's confession to having committed the murders, the circumstantial evidence of the woman seen with Simelane is the strongest link between him and the killings.
The fiancé alerted police to Simelane's whereabouts, and the suspect was picked up while shopping at a supermarket in the southern Swaziland town Nhlangano. The arrest and the subsequent confession of Simelane seem a bit tidy for Swazis, who are traumatised by the killings.
Dr. Malepe says, “Many people are asking how one man could carry out such killings, and why he would do so?”
One motive given by the suspect's foster father was that Simelane was bitter about a rape conviction that imprisoned him for 20 years. His release in 1999 corresponded with the first of the serial killings. “David felt he was wrongly convicted,” his father told the local press.
“Nonsense,” countered Manzini businesswoman Lindiwe Matsebula. “The way to protest your innocence is to prove you did not commit the crime in the first place, and not repeat the same crime 30 times and then kill the women you rape.”
Such an acerbic assessment indicates the emotions that have been stirred up by the serial killings. Swaziland has lost some of its innocence with these crimes. An expanding population, economic imperatives that drive people from their family homesteads, and a breakdown in the monitoring of strangers in chieftaincies allow psychopaths to carry out dastardly crimes new to the traditional kingdom.
“We no longer live in the womb of traditional life that used to protects us,” says Reverend Jabulani Dlamini of Manzini. “We must be more proactive to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, our women and children, from African predators. These predators are no longer lions and leopards. They wear human guises.”