South Africa's sugar cane murders: Living in fear of serial killings

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A sugar cane field with a cross of one of the murdered victims superimposed on it and a woman praying at the site - Mthwalume, South Africa

A sugar-growing community in South Africa is reeling after the bodies of five women aged between 16 and 38 were discovered dumped on farms, writes the BBC's Kyla Herrmannsen.

Illuminated by the flickering of a small candle, Zama Chiliza's relatives sit in mourning.

Items of her clothing - a white top and skirt - are laid out on a mattress on the floor, as is customary practice.

The candle is placed where her head would be - symbolising the presence of her soul. Until she is buried, this candle will burn day and night.

Image caption,
The family now in mourning feared the worst after Zama Chiliza went missing in July

The 38-year-old went missing on 6 July, last seen on her way to the local supermarket, Boxer, in Mthwalume, a rural area about 90km (55 miles) south of the city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province.

"We were anticipating the worst... as each day passed, we started doubting she would come back alive," admits her relative Musawakhe Khambule after initial police searches yielded no results.

'She became a statistic'

Her family's fears were confirmed on 11 August - five weeks after her disappearance - when a body was stumbled upon by women collecting wood on an abandoned part of a sugar cane farm on the outskirts of Mthwalume town.

A short walk into a forest-like part of the farm leads to the base of a tree where Ms Chiliza's remains were discovered - the large leaves used to hastily hide them are still at the scene.

"Her body was already decomposing. But we found the lead from her identity document," says Mr Khambule.

He described her as humble, cheeky at times but quiet - not the sort of person to get into trouble as she was focused on looking after her 15-year-old daughter.

"She really was that type of person that loved her family, she loved her child so much, she would always be with her," says Mr Khambule.

Image caption,
Pressure mounted on the police after the fifth body was found in mid August

The family had been aware that the bodies of some women had been found in the area months prior Ms Chiliza's disappearance - but they never anticipated she would fall victim to such a gruesome fate.

"These deaths started happening while Zama was still alive. We would hear about the horrific murders. At some stage Zama and I even discussed these mysterious killings and had our own theories about them," says Mr Khambule.

"We were really worried when she disappeared," he admits, adding: "We woke up one day to be told that Zama had become a statistic."

Women under attack in South Africa:

Media caption,

Thembi Maphanga was doused in petrol and set alight by her partner

Indeed South Africa has among the world's highest crime rates - and last year President Cyril Ramaphosa himself admitted that the country was one of "the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman".

Despite overall crime dropping during the first few months of a strict lockdown in the country, there have been several horrific cases of recently reported femicides.

Ms Chiliza's body, the fourth to have been found in Mthwalume between April and August, made police suspect a serial killer was at work - and officers continued to search the area.

Image caption,
Siyabonga Gasa says three of the bodies have been found on his sugar cane farm

Aided by sniffer dogs, they found another badly decomposed body of a woman the very next day on the same farm owned by Siyabonga Gasa.

Mr Gasa says the body was badly mutilated. Police have not said if any of the murdered women were sexually assaulted.

Three of the bodies were found on his farm and two on the neighbouring farm.

The scene is now marked by police tape, a wooden cross and a few bunches of flowers. Local women continue to gather there to hold prayer meetings, their mournful songs competing with the heavy wind.

'No bail, rot in jail'

With fears of a serial killer on the loose, pressure mounted on the police, who arrested two suspects for questioning two days after the fifth body - which has yet to be identified - was found.

By Monday 17 August, six days after the discovery of Zama Chiliza, an angry crowd gathered outside the Mzumbe Magistrate's Court in Mthwalume in anticipation of catching a glimpse of the suspects.

Image caption,
Prayers sessions continue to be held for the vicims

"No bail, rot in jail" some of their placards read.

As their numbers swelled and their voices were raised in song, news spread that one of the suspects had allegedly taken his own life in police holding cells.

It was then confirmed that the remaining suspect would not be charged because of insufficient evidence.

This angered the crowd even more and under heavy police escort with sirens blazing, National Police Minister General Bheki Cele arrived to try and calm them down.

Image caption,
This mobile polices station has been set up in Mthwalume town

He explained that the man who had allegedly taken his own life had confessed to the murders.

Yet his revelation that there might be more dead bodies to be found caused more unease - especially as locals, like Mr Gasa, think the man who confessed could not have been working alone.

"It's clear that they were killed elsewhere and dumped in the farm," he said.

"For you to carry one person on your own it's impossible, you can't, so this person who is responsible for these murders first of all they need to have a car to transport. The suspect who committed suicide did not own a vehicle - so who assisted him to transport these victims?"

'I'm terrified'

Outside Mthwalume's Boxer supermarket, women voiced their fears - not convinced by the assurances from officials.

"I'm scared. I'm terrified," said one.

Image caption,
Zama Chiliza was buried on Saturday but Musawakhe Khambule (L) says the family still wants justice

"I really thought hard before even leaving the house today because chances are that I might never be seen alive… I could be the next victim," added another.

Mthwalume does not have its own police station, instead relying on the nearest one in Hibberdene, which is at least a 20-minute drive away.

To thwart fears, police have now placed a mobile police station in the town, which along with the surrounding area has a population of about 160,000.

Ms Chiliza's body was finally laid to rest last Saturday.

The candle has been blown out - symbolising that her soul is now at peace and has joined her ancestors.

But her family and the town of Mthwalume more broadly are not at peace - desperate for some form of justice.

They fear nothing more will be done to pursue the case and that those who may have assisted in the killings may still be living amongst them.

"They need to be brought to book," Mr Gasa says.

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