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Experts believe those consumed by cannibal-like crimes are mentally ill

Mary Papayya

Mary Papayya

Cannibal killing has come under the spotlight in KwaZulu-Natal after two extreme murders and several other ritual-type killings.

Experts believe the cases might be related to mental illness on the part of the perpetrators and not because of "hunger". They have also lashed out at those who murder for ritual or religious purposes.

In August this year Eric Delani Chala was sentenced to jail for 18 years for killing, roasting and eating a three-year-old girl on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast.

In September Aba Mathenjwa, 31, was arrested for killing a local woman and cooking her body parts in Esikhawini, in the province's northern region.

Some cases related to ritual killings, where body parts of the victims have been removed, remain unsolved.

All murders have been condemned in the communities and have raised questions about why they happen.

National police spokesman Puthi Setathi said it was difficult to say how many cannibal-related killings occur in South Africa. This is because when a person is murdered the police investigation focuses on the murder case. All other causal factors, including motives, emerge in a court of law during the trial.

"During such trials the suspect's state of mind at the time of the commission of such an alleged crime comes under intensive scrutiny. The outcome of such an observation is decisive in the conclusion of the case.

"Under the South African Penal Code, there is no such crime as cannibalism," Setathi said.

"Cannibalism might be considered as a motive and the courts will have to be satisfied with the evidence led by the state, from various experts - SAPS detectives, criminologists, psychologists, and so on - to label someone as a cannibal."

Benny Ringane, a leading senior traditional healer in South Africa, has condemned the use of body parts in black magic and for religious purposes.

"This is unacceptable. There is no such thing as human body parts, flesh or blood having been successful for curing purposes. We have our ancestors who give us moral support when dealing with traditional healing.

"People who recommend such killings are committing an offence. It is senseless."

Lawrence Schlebusch, professor of behavioural medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's medical school, said cannibalism is not a new phenomenon.

"In ancient times human sacrifices were made for religious and cultural reasons. In modern times such killings are associated with mental illness. Something triggers off the behaviour. Every now and then we also see reports of ritual killing that forms part of cannibalism," he said.

Gerard Labuschagne, a commander with the SAPS investigative psychology unit, said he is aware of about five cannibal-type killings in the past two years, including the KwaZulu-Natal cases and those committed in Bushbuckridge, Pretoria.

"The most common cause for such killings is mental illness on the part of the suspect."

He said in South Africa some traditional practices dictate not the eating of human beings but the mixing of body parts or a person's blood in a mixture of ingredients for washing rituals.

A report recently released by the Limpopo provincial government exposed several incomplete cases, dating back to 1994. The report recommends police set up a permanent special investigating unit to probe ritual murder cases in the province.

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