Crime drops its political veil


BOKSBURG, South Africa -- South African President Nelson Mandela spent part of last week in the bleak, barren fields that are surrounded by flattop mountains of distant mine dumps, to look at the place where the bodies of 10 women had been found. It was a pilgrimage of sorts.

Government leaders used to make pilgrimages to scenes of political violence -- the clashes fought between supporters of apartheid and its foes, between those seeking to stake out their turf as the old South Africa became the new. But Mr. Mandela's visit was due to the work of a serial killer, and it was a reminder that political crimes are giving way to "ordinary" crimes.

Outside of the province called KwaZulu-Natal, where fighting between political factions has never stopped, most murders in South Africa now are just that: murders. They can no longer be hidden behind the excuse of politics. And the gruesome evidence that one or more serial killers are now at work in the Johannesburg area is becoming a major part of what seems a national obsession about crime.

In this latest case, the 10 victims were found in a nondescript Johannesburg suburb called Boksburg, thanks to an off-duty policeman hunting rabbits. The first body was sniffed out by his dog. A police search party the next day found the other nine, bringing to 40 the number of victims -- all women -- of what police say are three separate serial killers.

Mr. Mandela's visit was to demonstrate his confidence in the police. "They are not the enemy any more," he said, recalling the era of apartheid, when blacks had good reason to fear them. "They need our support."

But he limited his vote of confidence. He stopped short of declaring that police had done a good job from the start. Most police commanders are white who held the same posts during apartheid, while all the victims of the serial killers are blacks -- and in such cases there are widespread doubts about the investigational zeal of police.

"All I can say is that the police are doing a good job investigating the crime now," Mr. Mandela said. "Let us wait until the investigation is finished before we decide about these other matters."

Police, who admit they have little expertise in the matter of serial killings, have called for help from a retired FBI agent, Robert Ressler, who created the U.S. agency's personality analysis program. He arrived here last week to help psychologists compile profiles of the suspected killers.

There were serial killers in the past, says Rika Snyman of the University of South Africa's criminology department, but the police just didn't notice.

"The function of the police was to enforce the apartheid laws," she says. "They weren't really interested in what happened in black areas. So we had a 'linkage blind spot' -- people would die, but no one would link the deaths together."

There are other complications. In the latest killings, police discovered near the bodies a group of objects apparently used in some sort of rituals. Knives and mirrors were found stuck into small mounds of earth, and in front of some of the mounds were chicken bones.

Police doubt there is any connection with murders, speculating that these may be remnants of ceremonies performed by men who work in the nearby mines, and who came to the area for the same reason the killer did -- for its remoteness. But the occult is taken quite seriously here. The police may not have a serial killer specialist, but they do have an occult crimes unit.

The first evidence of serial killings appeared last year, when police found 15 bodies near the suburb called Cleveland, not far from Boksburg.

That case was declared solved in January with the arrest of a suspect. The next day, he was taken to the area where the bodies were found. He was shot and killed there by the police when he allegedly tried to assault an officer.

Then bodies began turning up near Pretoria, 40 miles to the north. That case remains unsolved. But there is speculation that the police arrested may have the wrong man for the earlier killings and that the real killer simply moved his operations north.

The subject seems endlessly fascinating to South Africans. In newspapers and on TV, most crime news still focuses on crimes against the well-to-do. That is, against whites. But stories about serial killers have peaked the interest of everyone.

Few reliable crime statistics exist here, but almost every study finds that the crime rate is above the world average. In 1994, one report found, there was an average of 56 murders among every 100,000 people, compared to 9.8 in the United States.

Public worry about crime meanwhile climbs ever higher, perhaps because whites now hear more about crimes against blacks.

"I think what is really going on is that the reality of black township life, which was always hidden from white South Africa before, is now becoming accessible to everyone," says Graeme Simpson, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Violence and

Reconciliation. Also, the fundamental changes in society may have so unsettled some already unbalanced people, he says, that they feel driven to violence.

When Mr. Mandela visited the latest killing ground, he was met by black demonstrators who came from nearby townships as well as neighborhoods that are newly integrated.

The protesters made clear that they supported Mr. Mandela's African National Congress and that they were not demonstrating for political reasons. But they wanted whoever killed so many women brought to justice.

"This is happening too close for us," said Tabisile Msezame, who lives in Dawn Park, only three miles from these fields. "I have two children, a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy.

"We are all very scared."

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