The spine-chilling reality of muti killings has come to the fore again with the disappearance of little Joslin Smith.

The disturbing claim that the missing Saldanha girl, Joslin Smith, was sold for muti, has put muti killings in South Africa under the spotlight again.

Joslin – who is known as “the green-eyed girl” by members of her poor coastal community of Middelpos, in Diazville – disappeared on 19 February.

Joslin Smith sold for muti?

In a dramatic new development in the tragic case of the six-year-old Joslin, her mother, Racquel “Kelly” Smith and her boyfriend Jacquin “Boeta” Appollis have been charged of human trafficking and kidnapping.

They appeared on Thursday, 7 March in the Vredenburg Magistrate’s Court alongside their co-accused Steveno van Rhyn and Phumza Sigaqa, an alleged sangoma.

The state alleges that her mother instructed Appollis and Van Rhyn to sell Joslin to a traditional healer for R20 000 to be used in muti.

ALSO READ: Two men claim in grim confession they sold Joslin Smith for muti

Suspects In The Joslin Smith Disappearance Case Appear At Vredenburg Magistrate's Court
Kelly Smith during the Joslin Smith disappearance case at Vredenburg Magistrate’s Court on 7 March 2024 in Vredenburg. Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach

Muti murders: Why are victims mostly children?

The practice of muti killings for body parts, are founded in the belief that there is a limited amount of good luck in this world and if one wants to increase one’s wealth, health or luck, it must come at the expense of another.

In African communities, muti murders are associated with witchcraft that involves the use of body parts instead of a mixture of plants and animal parts in medicine or potions.

Many muti murder victims are vulnerable young children whose body parts are thought to provide more potent medicine because they are “pure”.

ALSO READ: Joslin Smith latest: The Saldanha sangoma and new beach evidence probed

Muti victims dismembered while still alive

According to Gauteng police spokesperson Selvy Mohlala, muti killings are particularly gruesome because the victims are dismembered while they are still alive. 

The screaming of a child while his body parts are being chopped off, is also believed to awaken magical powers.

The case of Bontle Mashiyane

Bontle Mashiyane. Photo: Supplied

On 21 May 2022, the discovery of six-year-old Mpumalanga girl Bontle Mashiyane’s mutilated body in Mganduzweni near White River, sent shockwaves across the country.

Mashiyane went missing the same weekend as the late Hillary Gardee, the daughter of former Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) secretary general, Godrich Gardee. Her murder, too, is believed to have been linked to muti killing and the two bodies were recovered in areas not too far from each other.

Fifth suspect arrested in connection with Hillary Gardee’s murder
The late Hillary Gardee. Photo: Facebook

Mashiyane’s body was found decomposed, with some body parts missing.

Bontle’s neighbour Ntombikayise Ngwenya, her boyfriend and serial offender Collen Hlongwane and their friend Thapelo Ngomane, sangoma Samuel Tsela and his son Philasande Tsela were charged with the little girl’s rape, murder and mutilation.

‘Me and another man have slaughtered three children’

 In a video recording widely circulated on social media, one of the suspects, Ngomane confessed to how they dismembered Bontle’s body and removed her womb and her knees on instruction of a sangoma.

He said that, at the time, wombs were in demand.

“For another child, a sangoma paid us R45 000 for body parts and for Mashiyane we were given R20 000.”

“Me and another man have slaughtered three children [before Bontle]. I can’t dismember the body, the other guy is the one who can do that. I can kidnap only, but can’t slaughter a human being,” said Ngomane.

Muti murders: ‘Value chain’ of key players

Forensic psychologist Gérard Labuschagne has been involved in more than 30 muti murder investigations during the time that he was the head of the Investigative Psychology Unit of the South African Police Service (Saps).

Crime statistics in South Africa only record muti murders within the general category of murder.

Labuschagne said it is therefore difficult to determine the extent of such crimes, especially because most often these murders occur in rural areas, and may go unreported to the police.

In a lot of these cases the community also fear magical backlash from the sangoma.

According to his 2004 research paper, titled Features and Investigative Implications of Muti Murders in South Africa, three people are usually involved in these murders: A client, a traditional healer and the murderer(s).

This is echoed by Mohlala who said there is a “value chain” of people involved in these killings with the sangoma being the “key person”.

The client

The client who approaches the sangoma, is usually someone who wants power, protection, financial gain and influence, or has fertility problems.

Labuschagne writes that a businessman may, for instance, be instructed by the traditional healer to bury a hand under or near the front door of his business. This because a hand is symbolically what attracts customers and takes their money.

A criminal could approach a sangoma for muti which will make him bullet-proof, invisible, or to prevent arrest.

The author makes mention in his research of more than 10 instances where cash-in-transit robbers were apprehended with muti on their persons.

In the case of muti killings, the client approaches a sangoma who acts as key figure in identifying his or her needs and then instructing the murderer(s). Photo: iStock

“The client is not involved in the murder and only approaches the healer to explain his need and provide the money and collect the muti when it is prepared,” wrote Labuschagne.

“It would not be the client himself who suggests the use of human body parts. The traditional healer is the one who decides what ingredients would be necessary to meet the client’s demands.”

This, he said, made it difficult to convict the client in cases of muti killings, as it was hard to prove that that person had paid for the muti that would require the murder of a person.

ALSO READ: Why extra sangomas get in the way of Chiefs success

Muti murders: Harvesting of body parts and organs

Labuschagne said that the victim’s death was induced by the injuries inflicted while the body parts were being removed.

“Traditionally, the victim must be alive when the body parts are removed, as this increases the power of the muti because the body parts are believed to retain the person’s life essence,” he said.

The weapons used tend to be everyday items such as pocket-knives, sharp kitchen knives or even in one instance a sharpened putty-spatula used for tiling and inserting panes of glass, according to Labuschagne.

Victims can range in age from a newborn infant to an adult.

Murderer usually knows the victim

The forensic psychologist said that most of the times, the murderer knows the victim to a greater or lesser extent, as he had to make sure the victim met the client’s requirements.

For example, if a client wanted to have more luck in gambling, the murderer might be instructed to seek out a victim known to be a “lucky person”.

Labuschagne said that most Africans and traditional healers did not condone muti murders. They associated the practice with evil traditional healers.

ALSO READ: Blood cancer: Sangoma addresses cultural misconceptions around stem cell donation

Occult economy in SA

Traditional healer Mhlongo Sazi – who served as deputy chair of the council of traditional healers and chaired the South African National Traditional Healers Association – told the Mail & Guardian that money is one of the biggest driving forces behind the killings for muti.

“It’s money. The people who are killing young ones are not traditional healers, [they] are witchdoctors [and] sorcerers,” said Sazi.   

Professor Isak Niehaus of the University of Pretoria fears muti killings will increase as inequalities of wealth become entrenched.

“I would expect the occult economy – that is the belief in using magical means to gain prosperity – to increase as poverty worsens,” he told IOL.

  • The search for Joslin Smith is still ongoing.

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