Satanic Panic in South Africa

Satanic Panic in South Africa
Satanism is a moral panic regarding widespread satanic ritual abuse, which originated in the United States around the 1980’s. The phenomenon spread to other countries including South Africa, where it is still evident periodically. South Africa’s association with the Satanic panic was particularly because of the creation of the Occult Related Crimes Unit in 1992, described as the “world’s only ‘ritual murder’ task force”. The concern with the presence of Satanism and other occult practices has continued into post-apartheid South Africa.

satanis-wallApart from religious groups, government and the media have aggravated this local phenomenon. Mainstream media persists in sensationalistic reporting regarding Satanism, especially with any suggestion of satanic involvement in criminal cases. The Satanic Bible published in the United States in 1969, containing the main principles of Satanism, Government officially banned in South Africa during apartheid from 1973 to 1993 for moral reasons. The government disputed claims of widespread Satanism in a Dutch Reformed Church report of 1978. However, elements within the South African government continue to play a role in propagating the satanic panic despite the constitutional right to religious freedom in post-apartheid South Africa.
In September 1992, Dawn Orso was murdered in her Cape Town home. Following an investigation, her daughter Angelique Orso and Angelique’s boyfriend Lawrence van Blerk were convicted of the murder in March 1994. The judge rejected their defence that they were acting involuntarily under the influence of demons. Angelique Orso received an 11-year prison sentence and van Blerk received an 8-year prison sentence. During this time, the South African Police Service (SAPS) Occult Related Crimes Unit was established in 1992 during the final years of apartheid. Based on an internal SAPS memorandum dated August 2012, the SAPS definition of occult-related crimes reads: “crime that relates to or emanates primarily from an ostensible belief in the supernatural that formed a driving force in the forming, planning and execution of a crime”. The scope of occult-related “crime” that may be investigated has since been expanded to include: Witchcraft-related offences, including black magic; traditional healers rooted in the occult; curses intended to cause harm; voodoo, vampirism and infringement of the Human Tissues Act. Harmful cult behaviour; spiritual intimidation; occult related vandalism and graffiti; occult suicide,; ritualistic abuse; rape by a tokoloshe spirit; animal and human sacrifice of the occult movement and poltergeist phenomena.

There have been many cases of occult-related crimes throughout the years. One such case is the abduction of Alison Botha in 1994. Alison was raped, stabbed and disembowelled by Frans du Toit and Theuns Kruger in Port Elizabeth. She miraculously survived the attack. Press reports in the media stated that Du Toit said he was possessed and underwent a publicised exorcism in June 1995. Kobus Jonker testified he did not believe he was possessed. Du Toit and Kruger both received life sentences in August 1995. However, Satanism was not considered a mitigating factor their sentencing.

Lester Moody, 19, who is serving a prison sentence under a plea bargain reached after he confessed to being part of the killing of Kirsty Theologo. Picture: Werner Beukes

Lester Moody, 19, who is serving a prison sentence under a plea bargain reached after he confessed to being part of the killing of Kirsty Theologo. Picture: Werner Beukes

More recently is the case of Kirsty Thelogo. In October 2011, 18-year-old Kirsty Theologo died and a 14-year-old girl was seriously injured after being doused with petrol and set on fire in the Linmeyer, a southern suburb of Johannesburg. The incident, described as a “Satanic ritual” in the media. Six people aged 16 to 23 were charged with murder and attempted murder. In March 2012, 18-year-old Lester Moody, the son of a Christian pastor and 18-year-old Jeremy King entered into a plea bargain with the state. Each received a 17-year prison sentence, five years of which was suspended. In April 2013 Moody testified in the trial that the ritual, which he described as a “sacrifice” after reading the term in magazines been described that way, was based on a Bible verse with “Satanic elements”. The court also heard from a defence attorney that Theologo’s friends were curious about Satanism but did not really understand what it entailed. In November 2013, Lindon Wagner and Robin Harwood were convicted of assault, murder and attempted murder. In February 2014, Wagner was sentenced to life imprisonment for Theologo’s murder plus 18 years’ imprisonment for attempted murder, while Harwood was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Nicky Falkof, journalist, author and senior media studies lecturer at Wits, notes that paranoid lists of warning signs of Satanism, published by SAPS and contained in the Gauteng Education Department Handbook, operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lists of warning signs of susceptibility to or involvement in Satanism included a litany of adolescent signifiers, from feeling strong emotion to wearing black clothing. Public demonization of youth behaviour engenders the spread of the rebellious social practices that take much of their colour from media reports about moral panic.
According to Falkof, Satanism is very different to that of the 1980’s. “Now when we compare this to what’s going on currently we see a very different beast indeed. There are similarities – the devil, Bibles, dangerous women, weird rituals – but in most cases, news reporting on ‘Satanism’ is more or less the same as news reporting on ‘muti’ or ‘witchcraft’,” says Falkof.

Rather than Satanist floating around in the shadows, Falkof suggests the practice may be linked to the pulse of South Africa. “The natural decline in Rainbow Nation rhetoric has been replaced not only by tragedies – Marikana, Anene Booysens, Oscar Pistorious and Reeva Steenkamp – but also disenchantment with ANC government, corruption, employment and service delivery. In short, dreams are dashed.


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