The Killers of Swaziland
March 4, 2015
Some fifteen years ago in this African kingdom, two serial killers were hard at work. Just one of them was human.
I. The Sad Man
IN MID-MARCH OF 2001, twenty-six-year-old Samantha Kgasi-Ngobese disappeared. She had planned to travel to Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland, a kingdom of a million people in southern Africa, to apply for a job at the High Court. Samantha had a law degree from the University of Swaziland and was hoping to use it.
But at the bus stop in Manzini, she met a man who promised her a different job, and she never made it to Mbabane. The man said his name was Thabiso Sikhodze and that he could get her a position at a chemical company. The job would pay 4,000 emalangeni (a bit less than $500) per month, a very good salary in Swaziland, then and now.
Excited about this opportunity, she ran home to change. When I first spoke to Mable Kgasi, Samantha’s mother, in 2011, she described how hopeful her daughter had been when she came home. “‘Mommy, mommy! I’ve got a job,’” Mable remembered her saying. “‘There’s a man that’s offered me a job.’”
Fourteen years ago, as today, it was not a trivial thing to offer a job to a woman in Swaziland. In 2001, unemployment stood at nearly 30 percent. Men from Swaziland often went to South Africa to work in mines, leaving the women to provide more immediate income. The women and children would be left at the husbands’ homesteads, which often included several buildings with housing for different wives and older relatives as well as land for agriculture and animals. “In that situation of socioeconomic vulnerability, all hope is pinned on this one female member of the family who has gone to look for a job,” said Nonhlanhla Vilakati, a professor at the University of Swaziland who has written about the murder of women in Swaziland. “What becomes important is finding the job, and all issues of personal safety just fade into insignificance.” Most young women actively seeking jobs don’t find them. To turn down an offer, even from a stranger, in a country where it is impolite to not greet everyone in the room, would be unthinkable, particularly when the man making the offer seems to have money.
“I heard nothing that day,” Mable said. The next day, Samantha’s sister-in-law phoned and asked where Samantha was. She hadn’t come home, and the baby was crying.
Around the same time, a man named Simon Motsa reported that his wife, Fikile, a thirty-seven-year-old preschool teacher, and his one-year-old daughter, Lindokuhle, were missing. Simon had last seen his wife and daughter on the night of March 10, when he and Fikile had an argument. The couple did not live together during the workweek, and she had left Simon late to head back to the home of her in-laws. Simon was concerned because Fikile and Lindokuhle would have to walk in the dark. There were few streetlights in Swaziland.
Days later, Motsa found out that his wife never arrived, and her preschool students had no teacher. He contacted Fikile’s family, but they hadn’t seen her. He reported her missing to the police in Matsapha. He called all three major hospitals, in Mankayane, Mbabane, and Manzini, but Fikile had not been admitted. He even visited what he called “diviners”—people who could help Simon through supernatural means—but they “could not see her in their mirrors,” leading Simon to think that his wife was dead.
Then on April 2, 2001, in nearby Eagle’s Nest farm in Malkerns, a one-market town fifteen miles from the city of Mankayane, a worker was answering the call of nature when he came upon the decomposing bodies of two women and a baby girl. The bodies had been in the bush about three weeks, and one of the child’s legs was missing.
Simon Motsa was able to identify two of these bodies as his wife and child. Fikile’s hands had been tied behind her back, and she had deep cut wounds on her head and neck. He recognized little Lindokuhle by her clothes. The third body was not positively identified. A few days later, a skull was found in a plastic KFC bag in the same area. On April 10, six skeletons and a decomposing body were also found, all within a short distance, bringing the total dead to eleven. The police began warning people to stay in their homes at night.
THE FIRST BODIES WERE ALL FOUND in Malkerns, in and near Usutu Forest, a huge man-made forest spreading over more than 160,000 acres. These constructed woodlands of pine and eucalyptus, cut for pulp and timber, cover nearly four percent of Swaziland’s landscape and thrive in the western highveld, where the trees can mature twice as fast as they do in the northern hemisphere. For miles, the long-trunked trees are set apart from one another at perfectly matching heights, like armies of clones. Viewed from afar, the well-ordered forests seem too planned to be beautiful. But they make the natural land of the Swazis even more stunning by comparison.
Swaziland is shaped like a west-facing profile with a hooked nose. It’s about 120 miles from the neck to the top of the head and eighty from nose to ear—not quite as large as New Jersey. A landlocked teardrop in southern Africa, Swaziland is the second-smallest country on the continent, but within its tight boundaries are four distinct geographical regions: the high, middle, and lowvelds, and the Lubombo Plateau. Each veld runs north–south, with the topography getting closer to sea level as you move toward the eastern border.
During the rainy summer season in the western highveld, the mountains turn a tropical green that would fit in well in Costa Rica. Dotting the Swazi landscape are enormous boulders, piled high enough in some areas that you can go caving underneath. In between are grasslands and forest. One rarely gets far from a homestead or herd boys with their grazing cows. Rivers and waterfalls are clean and plentiful, but the moisture can make it easy to get lost when the fog comes. It can engulf you as you drive, with vehicles, people, and cattle emerging as if out of nowhere. From the top of a mountain, a view that would stretch for miles on a clear day is swallowed up by the mist, until you feel utterly alone.
“It is a fact that few men who have entered into Swaziland life care afterwards for any other,” wrote the Archdeacon of Swaziland in 1922. “A land of contrasts!” he proclaimed. “The very life of joy and color, and of the gratification of the senses, steals over [a visitor], and he realizes that call of the bushveld which is in the marrow of every old Swazilander’s bones.”
The few outsiders who experience Swaziland’s effortless natural splendor, often international development workers or tourists on a side trip from South Africa’s game parks, come to appreciate the Archdeacon’s words. But even years spent within its borders don’t necessarily translate to anything like an understanding of its esoteric culture. To explore the meaning of the bodies found in Malkerns in 2001, and as an attempt to get inside that complex culture, I started with a ghost story.
STORIES ABOUT GHOSTS ABOUND in Swaziland, but perhaps none is as real as that of Solinye Dlamini, the boy who was not murdered.
At the end of May 1959, Solinye returned to his home of KaMkhweli after a decade away. He had been only a boy when he left, but now he was a man, and it took two days for his mother, her eyesight failing, to be convinced that the person in front of her was her son. A special commission assigned by the British colonial authorities of Swaziland, in those pre-independence days, reported that when he finally persuaded his mother that he was Solinye, she “looked at him with the light of a firebrand and knew him and wept.”
Solinye’s poor mother may have wept because she was happy to have her son back. Or she may have wept because she was frightened. After all, like everyone in KaMkhweli, she knew that Solinye was a ghost. He’d been murdered a decade earlier, and his killers had been brought to justice. As she told the investigators who questioned her upon Solinye’s return, “I was convinced that he was dead.”
Back in 1949, at the time of Solinye’s disappearance, colonial police in the KaMkhweli area heard that a child had been killed. When the police investigation concluded, prosecutors presented a harrowing story to the judge: Solinye’s brother had been chosen to be a chief. But the members of the family all agreed that the brother was too weak for such a role, and that he required strengthening in order to become a leader. Strengthening required “medicine,” which, in these remote parts—at least according to the prosecutors—required human flesh. And once it was decided that the brother would need medicine, all that was left was to pick the “buck.” The family chose Solinye.
The prosecutors’ story opened as young Solinye, all four feet of him, was out herding the family cattle. He was seized by several of his family members and tied to a tree near a stream. He was kept there until the “doctor” could come to perform a strengthening ceremony. Witnesses testified that, in order to keep Solinye from escaping, a powder was blown into his ears and nose, “the effect of which was to render him helpless and half-mad.” Another witness who came upon the “frightening sight” of the bound boy in passing told investigators that Solinye, like an animal, was “just going round and round.” For eight or nine months, Solinye was manacled by his own family and subjected to the elements, until “he clearly became demented and he wasted away to skin and bone.”
Finally, months later when the doctor arrived, Solinye was felled with an axe by his “nearest and dearest” and his body was dismembered, with portions of it—including the head, lower lip, and testicles—used to make “medicine” at a subsequent strengthening ceremony. Solinye’s mother, the report said, was present for the ritual, but refused her portion, saying she did not want medicine made with the flesh of her son.
Word of the “medicine murder” eventually got to the authorities, and six men were arrested, including Solinye’s brother, father, cousin, and two uncles. No trace of the boy’s body could be found to use as evidence in the ensuing trial, but nevertheless three of the men were declared guilty, and two were hanged soon after. Solinye’s father was sentenced to seven years in prison. The future chief, Solinye’s brother, was spared. In the 1951 judgment, the presiding judge wrote: “It is quite clear that the people living in the vicinity must have known of Solinye’s existence…But as so often happens in these cases, there was a conspiracy of silence and the child was left to his inevitable fate.”
Except Solinye’s fate was not as the colonial authorities had determined. The child Solinye had not been killed. He had simply gotten up and left the village to look for work. He brought nothing with him except a blanket and the loincloths on his person, one white and one red. For several days, he walked, sleeping at night near the Great Usutu River and eventually in the hills of Hlatikulu. He walked until a storm came, and a man in a car stopped and asked what he wanted. Solinye said he wanted work.
He was taken to the southern town of Nhlangano, where he found a job with an Afrikaner farmer. He took the name Joseph because he thought Solinye was too difficult for his white employers to pronounce. For most of the next ten years, Solinye was sixty miles away from KaMkhweli. And then, in 1959, Solinye came home.
According to the 1960 report on the mysterious case of Solinye, after his return, it was determined that a murder had in fact taken place, but that the victim was a “person unknown.” In following up on the case after Solinye’s return, it became clear that many of the witnesses had been coerced during the original investigation into testifying that Solinye had been murdered.
Part of the difficulty the police faced was that they had no body, only evidence from so-called accomplice witnesses. The commission wrote that “the witnesses spoke of the police threatening ‘to kill them’” if they did not testify. Though the commission did admit that threatening to kill people was improper, it did not recommend disciplinary action for the original investigators because of how difficult it is to obtain evidence in such cases.
Of medicine murder, the commission members said that “as a rule the offense is committed at the instigation of or on behalf of some person of authority”—in this case, Solinye’s brother, father, and uncles. And of the typical witness to such murders, usually an accomplice, the commission stated: “He knows quite well that if he speaks he will incur the wrath of a large number of people, one of whom is nearly always a witchdoctor, who, in some cases for their own safety, would quite likely revenge themselves on him in a most unpleasant manner. Further, it is a well known fact that witchdoctors form an elite which is very much feared in primitive societies.”
However, the witnesses were motivated to lie by fear, not of the supernatural as much as of the territorial authority, according to the commission. The consensus of the inquiry was that two men were executed for the murder of a boy who had been alive all along, and the original witnesses had finally said they’d lied because they were scared of the interrogators.
BY APRIL 2001, WHEN THE BODY COUNT reached eleven dead women and children, two of the nation’s top cops, Superintendent Jomo Mavuso and Senior Superintendent Khethokwakhe Ndlangamandla—with a combined fifty-three years of experience on the force—were assigned to head the investigation. Their cell phone numbers were printed in the newspaper, and they led a team of nine other officers. On April 12, 2001, they brought more than 200 police officers and soldiers to comb the Eagle’s Nest area. An additional thirteen sets of remains were discovered, some just loose bones, but several more recent victims with flesh still remaining.
The total was now twenty-four, and with news of the bodies spreading to all corners of the country, reports of missing women began pouring into police stations. All of a sudden, women who had been absent for as long as sixteen months, whom no one had heard from, were displayed on the front pages of the dailies. Sizakele Letsiwe Magagula, twenty, of Emalangeni, under Chief Hhobohbobo, had disappeared weeks earlier. Siphiwe Goodness Ginindza, seventeen, of Feni, under Chief Myengwa, hadn’t been seen since September 2000. Nelsiwe Ndzinisa, twenty-five, of Madlenya, under Chief Madlenya, had vanished in December 1999. The list went on and on.
The deputy police commissioner at the time said, “Never in the history of the country have we experienced such a spate of killings.” In Swaziland currency, the emalangeni, a reward of E50,000 (a bit more than $6,000 in U.S. dollars) was posted for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the guilty party. That amount was roughly equivalent to the yearly pay of the job offer that had led Samantha Kgasi-Ngobese to her death.
In a country with a reputation for peace, the bodies in Malkerns were a rude awakening.
THE SWAZIS DESCEND FROM a group that came down from East-Central Africa hundreds of years ago, along with the ancestors of the Zulu and Xhosa peoples. On their journey south, these Swazi predecessors were faced with the mighty Zambezi, a river so big that it forms Victoria Falls and helps divide six countries. Oral history has it that the settlers, both farmers and domesticators, crossed the Zambezi on rafts of reeds, and Swazis now say savela eluhlangeni, “we came from the reeds.”
Over the centuries, the people who crossed the Zambezi formed clans. Peacefully or by force, weaker clans were absorbed into stronger ones. The Zulus became a power to the south in what is now the Kwa-Zulu Natal region of South Africa. One clan that showed strength in the southeast, near the Tembe River, in what is today Mozambique, was led by a man called Dlamini, a name that would later become synonymous with Swaziland and its royal family. By the beginning of the 19th century a Swazi kingdom was birthed, and for at least another century the Dlamini clan continued to absorb other semi-independent clans in the area, including the Zwane, Shongwe, Tsabedze, Hlope, Kunene, Mabuza, Motsa, and Ngwenya. The names of these clans and many others are the names that survive today in Swaziland. Spend just a few weeks there, and you will meet their descendants. Clan names have become surnames.
There are written records of Swazi leaders, all from the Dlamini bloodline, going back until the late 18th century. Sobhuza I was a particularly impressive Swazi king who ruled from 1815 to 1836. It is said that shortly before his death, Sobhuza I had a vision in a dream where white people would come to his land and bring books and round metal. He said to accept the books, which are now known to have been Bibles, but to avoid the round metal, money. The Swazis listened very well on one account. Swaziland is now about 90 percent Christian.
Sobhuza’s son, Mswati II, continued aggressively uniting clans who sought protection from the Zulu, and eventually the people living under his rule became known as bakaMswati, or the people of Mswati. Europeans called them the easier-to-pronounce “Swazi,” and their territory Swaziland.
The land of the Swazis in the late 19th century was situated in just the right place to stay under the rule of locals. But due to a combination of fear, illiteracy, greed, and lust for power, Swaziland’s leaders signed away nearly every inch of workable land during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sometimes three or four times over, leaving Swazis dependent on colonialists to survive. Despite occupying one of the most fertile lands in Africa, by the 1930s Swazis could no longer feed themselves or the cattle that were and remain so important for survival, prestige, and traditional rituals. Swazis were also made to live in “native areas” that were situated like a patchwork quilt across the Swaziland map.
After the British won the brutal Second Boer War—ending in 1902—the victors began a “conquest by pen” of Swaziland until it was effectively under British rule. An independent Swazi nation in the modern sense would not be real and true until 1968.
Still, despite all the land-grabbings, concessions, and de facto rule by outsiders, Swaziland is perhaps the least artificial state in Africa. As Swazi historian Alan R. Booth put it, “It is inhabited by a fairly homogenous people living on the same land as their ancestors. They are bound by countless customs and traditions that unite them and permit them to pull together when necessary. This has been a definite strength when they have been attacked by other African peoples or subverted by Western colonialism, and it permitted an exceptionally smooth transition to independence. But these traditions can also be a weakness when they hamper progress toward more ‘modern’ social, economic, and political practices.”
BASED ON THE LOCATIONS OF THE BODIES and the last places the missing women had been seen, the police traced the routes of the victims. Most of them were last seen in, or known to have been traveling to, Malkerns or Manzini, towns where job seekers might head in Swaziland. Manzini, along with its next-door neighbor Matsapha, is the center of industry in the country, and comes closer than any other city to a truly urban atmosphere. Malkerns, by contrast, just a few miles down the road, is situated in a picturesque agricultural valley of maize and pineapple fields, lined by unsullied mountain ranges where Swazi royalty are buried.
Police also attempted to track down those who had last been seen with the victims. Different names were floating about. It was clear that the killer or killers were taking advantage of women desperate for money, for jobs of any kind. Several victims had last been seen with a man who had promised them work at a garage or a packing plant, or even in a police station. Because of the great number of victims, an officer told me, they were certain they were looking for more than one murderer.
South African police officers were brought in, including specialists in forensics, investigative psychology, and profiling. “As part of our effort to solve this historic mystery and to bring to book these heartless killer maniacs we have solicited assistance and support from our neighboring force,” said the Swazi police commissioner. Besides assisting with the investigation, South African police were meant to help identify the bodies using DNA profiling and facial reconstruction, expertise not available in Swaziland.
The victims’ families and dual police forces were not alone in their quest to find the murderers. “There was this hype,” the husband of one victim told me. “Immediately after the bodies were found, all of Swaziland got worried. Everyone contacted the investigators, and everywhere, everywhere there were prayers. Religious people were praying, women were marching, saying ‘the killer must be found.’” As part of a prayer service at the national soccer stadium during the Easter festival, the Indlovukozi, the king’s mother and co-ruler of Swaziland, asked the nation to work with the police to find the people responsible for the murders. As one newspaper writer put it, the Indlovukozi “called upon Christians to pray for the country, as it was apparent that the demons of the devil have taken its toll.”
Also offering help was the Zionist Christian prophet, Simanga Mthalane, who vowed to assemble a team to use divine powers to aid in the investigation. Mthalane said that he and his team of prophets would find those responsible and bring them to the authorities. “This is war,” he said. “Everyone should come together and work towards getting the killers.” Before he got started, Mthalane requested that the police provide his team with protection, in case his investigation led to people in power.
With radios blasting about dead bodies; people reporting missing women from all over Swaziland; and the diviners, the Swazi community police, and detectives from two countries under such pressure to find out who had killed what was now at least twenty-eight women and children, the manhunt did not last long.
David Thabo Simelane, a.k.a. David Mhlanga, a.k.a. Phephisa Yende, was recognized at a supermarket by the husband of a missing woman and arrested on April 25 in Nhlangano. David was brought to the station by local police, who called in the investigative team and who, in turn, said David confessed to the crimes then and there, without coercion. The head officer told David that he was investigating the deaths of the women and children who had been found in Malkerns.
“Calm and collected,” one of the original arresting officers told me, “that man said it was him.”
DIVINERS WHO CAN COMMUNICATE with spirits make up one part of the body of Swazi customs and practices. These traditional healers, also known as sangomas or inyangas, are for many Swazis the first line of defense against hard times, whether caused by illness, romance, or poverty. They are called upon to harness the power of traditional medicine, called muti, and heal wounds both physical and spiritual. In 2000, there were as many as 8,000 traditional healers in Swaziland, versus 150 medical doctors.
In July 2013, I spoke with Lydia Makhubu, a retired Swazi chemist who studied traditional medicine for much of her career. As vice-chancellor at the University of Swaziland, Makhubu was key in creating a department at the school to study the effects of the sangomas’ treatments. We met in the living room of her large house on the outskirts of Manzini. The walls were covered with items picked up from her travels around the world. Makhubu did her undergraduate studies in Lesotho, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in Canada, and then returned to Swaziland to conduct research on traditional healers.
Makhubu had grown up with healers, so when she decided to study their work from a chemist’s perspective, they welcomed her in. In 1984, she wrote a paper with Edward C. Green, an American medical anthropologist, on how the medical community could work with healers to improve Swazi healthcare. They found that one in every twelve rural homesteads had a healer living on the premises, and that an estimated 85 percent of Swazis used their services. “The traditional belief system,” wrote Makhubu and Green, “provides answers to the basic questions that perplex people.”
Healers act as both medical doctor and psychologist in one, providing much more than medicine for particular symptoms. They “treat the whole person” and “know how to calm a patient’s fears, explain how and why he became ill, and perhaps even make sense of his problems with neighbors and family.” The authors found that some traditional medicines appeared to be effective in controlling diarrhea, sedating patients, easing pain, and reducing swelling. And healers would often have a strong psychosomatic effect on patients, who sometimes stayed with a healer for days or weeks, removing them from stressful situations at home. “Swazi healing practices,” they wrote, “are based on a belief system of magic and religion that parallels Western science and Christianity in its attempt to find order, regularity, and simplicity in the apparent chaos and randomness of nature.”
The social anthropologist Harriet Ngubane, who died in 2007, wrote about the role of Swazi traditional healers in society. “They are seen as fully possessed of professional skills and professional responsibilities, in quite the same way as Western practitioners are,” she wrote. “The difference lies in what is expected of them.”
A Western doctor is expected to fix some sort of chemical breakdown within the body, and while the same may be asked of a healer, a healer may also be asked to treat such things as bad luck or unpopularity. They may be paid to help an unsuccessful business or to boost a chief’s rise to power, as in the case of Solinye’s brother in 1950. Traditional treatment for such ills may include eating or inhaling powdered herbs and actions by the patient, including self-induced vomiting or the sacrifice of livestock. Medicines are derived from plants and animals and are prepared in many different ways, including boiling and burning.
For many Swazis, everything that happens is caused by the ancestors. Like those who believe Jesus is present in every moment, Swazis believe the ancestors are watching them and often speaking to them. “They are our guardians, the spirits that really want to look after us on Earth,” wrote one famous traditional healer. “If we don’t listen to them, and don’t start their assignment, then there is a high chance that we will die early. Then the tasks that were assigned to us will be passed on to the next generation.” The ancestors have a social structure after death, as they did in life. They have personalities that change over time and grow much as those in life. A traditional healer is often thought to be able to speak with the ancestors better than the average person.
The most extreme version of muti involves ritual murder, also known as muti murder or medicine murder, in which a human is killed and his or her body parts made into a concoction or charm.
It’s hard to believe that ritual murder still occurs, but it’s important to understand that in southern Africa, it is at most a fringe practice, and yet a brutal reality. Rarely does a week go by in Swaziland without rumors or reports of a person killed for body parts, with victims ranging from albino children to old women to healthy teenagers. It’s been a part of Swazi history as long as it has been written—in the 1950s with Solinye’s faux death, certainly, and well before that.
AFTER ARRESTING DAVID SIMELANE—whom the public would soon simply call David—the police and prosecution spent the next five years building a case against him. By 2010, both senior investigators had died, and apparently taken their paperwork with them to the grave, so how exactly they built their case will never be known. But through court records, newspaper archives, and interviews with police officers, journalists, and the families of victims and others, a sort-of chronology began to appear.
The police had their confession seemingly the instant that David was caught, though getting it on paper was more of a challenge. Two written confessions were submitted as evidence during the trial, one from the day after he was arrested, and the other taken twelve days later in front of a different magistrate. Though the common language of Swaziland is siSwati—a click language similar to Zulu—the confessions were written by a translator in English, the language used for police and court records.
The man they arrested was forty-three years old and had not finished high school. When word of David’s arrest reached the public, there was speculation that he was going to be very good looking, an Adonis even. How else could he have led so many women to dark places to kill them? He had to be charming, rich, educated, and good with the ladies.
But when he first appeared in public, David let the gossipers down. He was far from an Adonis by almost any standard. As one Swazi writer put it, “when David Simelane stepped out of a white minibus, handcuffed to a police officer, numerous lower-lips fell to the ground in disappointment. He was dark in complexion, with a broad forehead, average-size bloodshot eyes, an apology for a nose, and a mouth that must have been carved with a pencil knife. David was anything but handsome. He was dressed in blue jeans and a navy-blue T-shirt with a red stripe and a brown windbreaker—a rather unsavory color combination.”
He was not a looker and he was not rich. At his most recent known residence, he had been paying E60, or seven dollars a month, for a single room with one lightbulb and no electrical outlets or running water.
He was born a Mhlanga, his father’s surname, but was raised from infancy on his aunt’s Simelane homestead, located in a remote part of the country far from a paved road. In exchange for herding the family cattle and helping with the harvest, the Simelanes paid his school fees. But after he finished the 10th grade, he stopped going to school, according to his aunt, and “was all over the place.”
He would spend nights in the forest, eat from other people’s fields, and come back to the homestead and sleep in the kraal, a domestic animal pen. “Even when he was in school,” said his aunt, “he was someone who was leading a nomadic life.” But she also called him a “very brilliant child” who started school later than some of his peers and soon surpassed them. “We do think a lot about what went wrong in his mind,” she told me one night as the sun was going down under the mountains on the family’s rural plot. “What really caused him to have such a bad heart, to brutally kill people?”
He was first arrested at age nineteen, his aunt told me, for stabbing his girlfriend. She didn’t die, and he served fifteen months in prison. Police records show that he was convicted of indecent assault, robbery, and housebreaking in the late seventies and early eighties. He once went to jail for threatening to stab a woman with a knife in order to steal a handbag containing the equivalent of two dollars. One of his ex-girlfriends who I tracked down told me that, “He seemed like a very kind man. But when I looked deeply, I noticed that he had a subtle violence in him that he was trying to suppress.” In the early nineties, he was arrested for rape and robbery, and was sentenced to another five years in prison.
IN HIS CONFESSIONS, DAVID ADMITTED to murdering thirty-two women and three babies. His motive, he said: revenge against women due to a false rape charge from 1991, for which he served time. He claimed he did rob this woman, but did not rape her. In his second written confession from May 2001, he stated, “I then told myself that I will revenge to [sic] any woman if the chance avails itself.”
David’s descriptions of his methods for luring the victims to their death follow a very simple pattern. Here is one of the dozens from his confession:
Her surname was Tsabedze. I found her at the Manzini bus rank looking for a job. I promised her one and we proceeded to Malkerns. I went with her to the Bhunya forest where I strangled and stabbed her to death.
That June, the police took David out of his holding cell so he could lead them to more bodies, to add to those found in Malkerns. Much of the search was videotaped, including when he was read his rights and told that what he showed them could be used against him in court. The video follows David as he leads officers to several skeletons in a heavily forested area so difficult to access that it was later visited with the aid of a helicopter. The real mystery, Judge Jacobus Annandale later wrote, “is how on earth he managed to persuade the deceased to accompany him to such a remote place in the mountains.” Even the most trusting person, or the most eager, would have had to suspect something.
Once all the bodies were recovered, the next step was figuring out exactly whom he had killed. The reported number of victims reached as high as forty-five, but I don’t believe anybody knows the true total except perhaps David. The written confession that included a numbered list of the victims had two number sevens, and several of the women he said he killed were either unnamed or identified only by a surname. David was eventually held on thirty-five counts of murder, but four years into his trial the number of counts was reduced to thirty-four when it was discovered that two of the victims named were the same person.
Since most of the found bodies had long ago decomposed, the police quickly turned to using the victims’ clothing as proof of identity. They held an “identification parade,” calling in to the Matsapha police station friends and family of all the women that David admitted to killing. They were brought in to match pieces of clothing to those that belonged to their sisters, daughters, and wives. Some of the clothing had been found near the bodies, and some had been found in the possession of one of David’s girlfriends.
More video footage was taken and confirms that David was in the room, uncuffed, helping the police and victims’ loved ones attribute pieces of clothing to each woman and child. In the room were half a dozen police officers on one side, family members on the other, and David in the middle. The clothing was not gently handled, and during the video, the police can be seen riffling through items in plastic bags or old suitcases, and some just tied up with white string. The relatives identify bras, scarves, dresses, blouses, baby clothes, sweaters, T-shirts, traditional skirts, shoes, and more. At one point in the video David takes the shirt off his back, telling the investigators that it belonged to the victim whose family is sitting in front of him.
It’s bizarre, and chilling, to see seventy-year-old grandmothers, called gogos in Swaziland, sitting in the room with their grandchildren’s murderer, listening to him describe how he met and killed them. The noble composure for which Swazis are known is on display.
With help from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, reports on at least some of the skeletal remains were made, but they only proved the sex and the likely age range and race of the bodies found. Even after years of waiting, DNA evidence never came through. Not a single body could be positively identified by experts post-mortem, nor could the cause of death be confirmed. South African police told me that they didn’t receive the help they needed from the Swazis. The Swazi police never said why they couldn’t get conclusive DNA evidence, and it soon became a lost cause.
The prosecution had to make sure David was fit to stand trial. From the time of his arrest to the beginning of his trial, several incidents indicated that he might not have been psychologically sound, or even physically sound. Over the years, it was reported that he went on a hunger strike, overdosed on some unspecified substance, had a stroke, beat his head against the wall, and tried to hang himself with a shirt. In October 2004, he was taken to Mbabane Government Hospital where he was unconscious for five days in the ICU. Both in 2001 and 2004, he was reported to be very sick with an “undisclosed illness,” leading many to believe he was HIV positive.
Just before his head-banging incident, a psychiatric assessment said of David:
He is an adult male who claims he has no physical or mental problems. He is fully conscious and fully alert. He presents with a restricted affect. He also claims to feel sad most of the time but with no suicidal ideation. He also admits to auditory hallucinations in the past, but [they] have since stopped. His thought form is normal and no delusions have been noted during interview. Also he shows no signs of being disordered…He is coherent and gives a good account of himself: He is fit to stand trial in court.
One and a half years later, his day would come.
DAVID’S TRIAL DID NOT BEGIN UNTIL 2006, more than five years after his arrest, with the delay attributed to the police’s failed attempt to collect DNA evidence. The first of eighty-three witnesses for the prosecution appeared on May 29. Because most of the remains found were just bones, the prosecution depended on amassing an irrefutable amount of circumstantial evidence to prove that these were the missing women.
In addition to family and friends of the victims, those who took the stand included members of the investigative team, arresting officers, magistrates, and David’s landlady and girlfriends. The trial was plagued with delays. According to one report, there were twenty formal postponements between September 2004 and August 2009. During the final six months of the trial, which included a two-month holiday break, court was postponed due to a faulty recording system; attorneys who were sick or didn’t show up; late arrival of the accused or of witnesses; lack of an available courtroom; multiple no-shows by both lawyers; missing documents; lack of a translator; a broken copy machine; a power failure; the prosecutor forgetting her robe; and the replacement, at the tail end of the trial, of David’s lawyer.
The High Court in Mbabane was suffering from serious organizational snafus. When the primary translator was not available, a sub-par one would take her place, leaving Swazi witnesses and lawyers and the Afrikaner judge all listening to different versions of testimony, and often squabbling over the meaning of words and phrases. One day the noise of construction outside the courtroom was so raucous that you could actually feel the room shaking. When Lucky Howe, David’s attorney, responded by saying, “Well, it’s coming down anyway,” it was clear he didn’t just mean the courtroom.
At the start of the trial, fifteen police officers were needed each day to keep order among all the spectators. By the time it ended, five years later in 2011, I was sometimes the only one watching. A couple of local reporters would usually show, but friends and family had long ago lost faith in seeing justice for their loved ones.
When things were looking particularly grim, the prosecutor said, “I wonder if we’ll ever finish this case.” The judge said, “This matter has dragged on for so long that there are feelings that the wheels of justice have stopped to turn.”
OVER THOSE FIVE LONG YEARS, victims’ family members who had met David took the stand and told their stories. The women David killed were mostly from rural areas, part of the forgotten majority of Swazi society. They were largely poor and uneducated, and many were living off the food they grew or donations from NGOs and foreign governments. Most of them did not start high school, much less finish. In sharp contrast with the wealthy few who enjoy the country’s modern amenities—cable Internet, good roads, satellite TV, stocked supermarkets—many of these women lived without electricity or running water. Their homes were made of mud and sticks, with thatched or corrugated-metal roofs. Their yards were mostly dirt, with shade provided by lowveld gardenias or marula trees, and clothing hung to dry in the branches.
Sibongile Dlamini was fifteen when she met David in January 2001 (No relation to Solinye Dlamini. Dlamini is the most common name in Swaziland; the current King’s name was Makhosetive Dlamini until his coronation.). One day, she and her older sister, Vosho, traveled to see a traditional healer because Sibongile had taken ill and become “bewitched,” she told me. They were at a bus station when David introduced himself and “proposed love” to Vosho. Over the next three months he became a regular visitor at the Dlamini homestead in the St. Philips area as he courted Vosho and got to know the family. Sibongile said she knew David well. She remembered him as a quiet man who always seemed to have money, though she never knew where it came from. “He sounded like a nice person,” she said, “but he wasn’t someone who would smile….He always looked sad.”
In court, David said that he and Vosho had discussed building a house together and that he had proposed marriage. He claimed to be a recruiter looking for female workers. Vosho knew that her sister Twana badly needed a job. She had recently left her marital homestead and was caring for four children on her own. Twana was the first to leave with David to start a job as a maid in Ezulwini, a valley just outside Mbabane, which translates to “place of heaven.”
About a month later, he offered employment to another sister, Thandi, who traveled with her eighteen-month-old child, Kwanda. When she didn’t return after another month, the family became worried. They had no phone, and “each time we suggested we go and see Thandi’s place he would say that Thandi was busy,” Sibongile said. “He would perpetually postpone the visit.” But David came back to the homestead once again, this time with a letter supposedly from Thandi, in which was written in type, “It is a long time not coming to see you…but there is nothing I can do because at present I am alone at work, my partner is on leave until April 8…Anyway I am okey [sic] here nothing wrong so far.” In the letter she also asks for her sister to meet her. Soon after, Vosho left with David, too.
They had already been suspicious of the letter. While Thandi knew some English, they didn’t think she’d be capable of actually typing out a full letter in her second language. Just weeks later, when David’s arrest filled the headlines, they knew that the letter was a fake. Thandi had been killed a month earlier. Years later, while being cross-examined about the disappearance of Thandi, David said to Judge Annandale, “My lord, the truth of the matter is that I’m not the one who requested better employment. She came to me.” Twana, Thandi, Vosho, and young Kwanda were never seen alive again.
Thandi had been a breadwinner for the family. She was the only sibling to have finished high school, and she had a decent, if not great, job at the post office, sorting mail and such. “She was very kind and generous,” Sibongile told me about her sister. “She liked children and she wouldn’t hurt a fly.” In addition to buying her little sister clothes, Thandi was paying Sibongile’s school fees, but when she died, the income died with her, and Sibongile never made it past grade seven.
“I think he noticed that we are easy people who wouldn’t give him much trouble,” Sibongile told me. “That’s why it was so easy for him to come back and fetch more people.” She believes she would have been the next victim if David had not been caught. He had come by her school and brought her new clothes and groceries. He said they were presents from her sisters. A friend of the Dlamini family told me: “He would bring these things, these groceries, and we were convinced that where they came from, there was life.”
IN JANUARY 2011—ten years after the bodies were found and David was arrested—the prosecution rested, and Lucky Howe, David’s defense attorney, boycotted the trial. He accused the judge of bias, and David was assigned a new lawyer, who was nicknamed “Tsotsi” (a South African term for a gangster). After just one week of familiarizing himself with the entire trial, including more than a thousand pages of testimony alone, Tsotsi presented his case, calling exactly one witness: David.
Rather than defending against the thirty-four counts of murder of which his client was accused, Tsotsi decided that twenty-nine of the counts had not been proven by the prosecution, and ignored them completely. The remaining five victims, including three of the St. Philips Dlaminis, had all last been seen with David or a man thought to be David. On the stand, David admitted he had known each of them, but said before they went missing he had handed them off to an employment agent named Sipho Dlamini—a name that had not been brought up in a single police report, witness account, or cross-examination in the previous ten years. In Swaziland, the name Sipho Dlamini is similar to John Smith in America. The 2015 phonebook in Mbabane listed fourteen Sipho Dlaminis, and those are only the ones with the luxury of landlines.
David’s testimony and cross-examination took two days. In his closing statement, Tsotsi used an analogy of a case of stolen golf clubs: If the clubs are found in someone’s house, he said, that is not proof that the owners of the house are the robbers. It didn’t work. There are no juries in Swaziland, so Annandale made a judgment on his own, on March 23, 2011, finding David guilty on twenty-eight of the thirty-four counts. The Swazi Observer, a popular daily, printed the entire 40,000-word judgment the next day.
A week after he handed down the guilty verdict, and a day before he would hand down the sentence, I met Judge Annandale at his house outside Mbabane. We sat at his classic wooden bar and listened to the nighttime rain battering the roof. An imposing man with a Santa Claus look and deep Afrikaner accent, he had become well known in Swaziland because of David’s case. He’d never once handed out the death penalty, not in Swaziland and not when he worked in South Africa many years earlier. He told me he had once convicted someone to not-quite life for killing a man over half a cigarette. He’d always found a way around the death penalty, some sliver of a reason to not kill, and he wasn’t sure now that he could rely on reasoning alone to avoid it.
“I wish I could send a fax upstairs and have the answer come to me,” Annandale said. “I’m between two fires here.” As we spoke, the rain got heavier, and the thunder and lightning began. The lightning storms in Swaziland have no equal, coming often and with a godlike roar, painting the sky with zig-zags and striking dead more people per capita than in any other country on earth.
As we drank our whiskey, the power went out. We sat by candlelight in an otherwise dark room. The case had worn Annandale down. He had started smoking again after a feeble attempt at quitting. A forty-year-year habit is difficult to break while making a decision that could end a person’s life. The judge, whose family is devoutly Christian, told me that the Bible is big on executions.
Though reporters are not allowed in the prison to interview him, five minutes before the sentencing began, I was given time to speak to David. We were surrounded by cops. David told me, in decent English, that he was happy the trial was coming to an end, but that he was not worried about the outcome. “Any sentence he is going to give me, I am okay for that,” he said. “Whether it’s a death sentence or life sentence, I am not worried because I believe in God.”
After turning to their shared god, unable to find any “extenuating circumstances,” as Swazi law requires to evade the death sentence in a murder conviction, Judge Annandale gave David the death penalty, shocking most Swazis. Annandale had looked up and found his answer.
But the sentence did not necessarily mean that David would be executed, even though an appeal was denied at the end of 2012. The last official executions in Swaziland took place in 1983, when the country was in between kings, and the current ruler, King Mswati III, has not allowed a hanging since his coronation in 1986. All prisoners condemned to death row either sit there still or have had their sentences commuted. Swazi law says, “No sentence of death shall be carried into effect except upon the special warrant of His Majesty.” David’s life would be in the hands of the King, where it remains to this day.
TOWARD THE END OF MARCH 2011, just a few days after David’s guilty verdict took over the Swazi newspapers, I got hold of two keys to the David Simelane case that the public knew nothing about. The first was the set of videos that showed his interrogation and the identification parade. In those videos I would get to see 2001 with my own eyes, as well as a killer in a room with his victims’ loved ones.
The second key was Detective Sergeant Vusi Dlamini (again, no relation to previously named Dlaminis), a young Swazi policeman. I had been trying to find him for weeks, but had been given the runaround by other officers who were ordered not to speak about the case while the trial was on. When I finally got in touch with him, Vusi was willing to talk because he had not been on the investigative team in 2001, when the bodies were found, and therefore not subject to the same restraints as his colleagues. He was only a constable back then, and he was trying to solve a mystery of his own. In February of that year, his wife had vanished.
It was 1995 when Vusi found love. Her name was Sindi Ntiwane, and she was from a distinguished Swazi family, the daughter of a former government minister who had studied at Columbia University in the U.S. Sindi had a brother who was a lawyer and another who was a doctor. The Ntiwanes were a respected, intellectual family.
Sindi and Vusi knew each other when they were younger, but they did not start dating until they were both in their twenties, after Vusi, an engineer, finished college and enrolled in the police force. Vusi, who was five years older than Sindi, was patrolling the streets of Manzini as a trainee when their relationship was rekindled. He spotted Sindi at the clothing shop owned by her parents, where she was working in the afternoons designing and manufacturing school uniforms. “I saw her there,” he said, “and everything clicked.”
Sindi had found her prince—not an actual prince but the son of one: Vusi’s father was royalty.
Swazi kings have many wives, some as many as seventy, and many children, some as many as 200. For this reason, to be a prince or princess is perhaps not as prestigious in Swaziland as it is elsewhere. Still, Vusi’s father, Prince Jahamnyama, was a prominent traditionalist magistrate and an advisor to King Mswati III. As a member of the royal family, Jahamnyama was related to many of the most important people in Swaziland, and he used his institutional memory and influence over the king to try to make sure Swazi traditions did not disappear with modern times.
Vusi and Sindi were soon married in the traditional Swazi way—though they had not yet reached the stage of lobola, where the man purchases cattle or hands over some other form of payment to the woman’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage—and were living in the police barracks in nearby Mbabane. By 1999, Sindi and Vusi had a plan: He would work his way up the force, and she would continue managing her parents’ shop while working on opening one of her own. Money was tight, as he was earning only a small salary. “But since we were crazy in love, we just did it together, with few resources,” Vusi told me.
At the turn of the millennium, Vusi and Sindi were well into starting a life together.
SINDI CAME FROM A WELL-OFF FAMILY, but like many of the missing women, she was in need of money. She was looking for an investor to help open a clothing shop, like the one her parents owned. Her shop would make uniforms and badges that schools in Swaziland required. But to open the shop, she would need a lump sum of cash. “She had some money,” Vusi said, “but it wasn’t enough, you understand. It wasn’t enough.”
The night before she disappeared, Vusi had a scare. Sindi hadn’t come home from work at the usual time and Vusi could sense something was off. “It was unusual for her to not call, but I did not own a car then,” he told me. “It was difficult to go anywhere, not knowing where to start.”
Finally she called, at around half past 10, late for a country where nighttime is truly dark. When she got home, Vusi was initially angry, but soon saw that she was in good spirits. He couldn’t remember many details—such as names, or how they met—but Sindi said she had found potential partners to help her kick off the business. In the end, Vusi told me, “I was just happy she was okay.”
The next day, he was assigned to guard the deputy prime minister’s residence. He left Sindi at home that morning around six, after eating the breakfast she’d prepared. Sindi told him that she was going straight to meet the possible partners for the store, and that they would be traveling about an hour’s drive from the police barracks to look at a commercial space. She didn’t want to compete with the family shop in Manzini, so she was exploring other towns. “She was looking forward to the day,” Vusi said.
Sindi had a cell phone, uncommon in Swaziland back then, as the service was in its infancy, and she would call Vusi two or three times each day to let him know where she was. At around 8 a.m., she called and told him she was heading to an area called Bhunya. Only after hanging up did Vusi ask himself why she was heading to a mill town. There were few schools in Bhunya, and it didn’t seem an appropriate place for a shop that sold student uniforms. But cell phone calls were expensive, and he didn’t call her back right away. “We were trying to be economical,” Vusi remembered. “The conversation was short. She said, ‘I’ll see you in the evening, baby.’ That’s the last time I heard from her.”
Sindi didn’t come home that day or the next, and his calls went unanswered. But Vusi delayed telling her family or his own for almost two days. He didn’t want to give the wrong impression about his marriage. “Those issues are quite sensitive in Swazi culture,” Vusi told me. “A woman cannot just disappear…I didn’t want rumors to spread that I’m starting to have problems with my wife.”
He also delayed telling his fellow officers, hoping Sindi would suddenly show up with a great story to tell. But when he did finally tell them, he was advised to open a missing person inquiry. Vusi provided photos and all the information he had. While his colleagues searched, he took a leave of absence and began scouring the country. “There’s nowhere in Swaziland I never went,” he said. “Traditional healers, prophets, whoever I thought could help.
“How could I rest? No, I couldn’t,” he said. But then he reconsidered. “You know when I rested? I rested when I heard about the women that were found, the corpses that were found in Malkerns.”
Sindi was well known at the police station. She would come around often, prepare food for the officers. She was an open person and a “very beautiful lady,” Vusi said. Photographs of Sindi only confirm that judgment. In the photo the police used when searching for the missing women, she is wearing a light blue collared jacket with a white pattern. Her generous lips, thick eyebrows, and light brown skin stand out. She has tightly woven braids running behind her head. In the Swazi way, she does not smile for the photo. She looks off to her left, as if somewhere else entirely.
The assistant commander, one of many people at the station who knew and loved Sindi, called Vusi into his office early one morning in April. He wanted to talk before Vusi saw the newspapers. “I thought I was in trouble or something,” Vusi said. “He told me they’d found these bodies. A lot of bodies,” just a few miles from where Sindi’s family lived. “I prayed it mustn’t be.”
IN DAVID’S WRITTEN CONFESSION, he admitted to killing Sindi Ntiwane. “I strangled her to death with my hands,” it stated. A skeleton and clothes that belonged to Sindi were found at Nkonyeni Farm in the area of Sidvokodvo. It was one of the final bodies that David pointed out to the police.
As her husband and the last person who was known to have seen her alive, Vusi was brought in to identify her belongings, including a quartz watch that Sindi loved and had been wearing when she disappeared. He remembered a day when she came home crying because the watch had gotten a small crack. That same small crack helped prove that Sindi was in fact one of the deceased. The police found the watch at David’s flat.
The 2001 video from the police station shows Vusi Dlamini, only twenty-seven years old at the time, sitting no more than a few feet from David, identifying Sindi’s dress and T-shirt. Vusi is stiff in the video, his lips tight. The man who murdered his wife is within arm’s reach. “They made sure that I was not armed,” he told me. Vusi was introduced as a civilian, not as Constable Dlamini, and none of the officers nearby were carrying weapons, in case Vusi tried to steal one and attack David. Vusi told me that back then he might have taken the opportunity. “I would have killed him,” he told me. “And I didn’t mind if I got killed.” But his colleagues made sure that the chance never came, and Vusi would go on to play a key role in making their case against David Simelane.
II. The Other Killer
WHEN THE BODIES WERE FOUND in Malkerns, the media frenzy and the nationwide reaction must have felt familiar. It was not the first time that the entire kingdom of Swaziland had been thrown into a whirl about an unknown and quiet killer.
Fifteen years earlier, another one was discovered in the Kingdom, grabbing triple-sized headlines, brewing rumors about its modus operandi from officials and the press alike, and necessitating the import of experts from South Africa to investigate. Like David, the other killer also struck from within Swazi society, and among the primary targets were the young women you see in Swaziland’s bus stops. But this killer was not human.
The human immunodeficiency virus was identified in the early 1980s, when it mercilessly attacked the gay community in the United States, putting a definitive end to a “free love” era. But HIV originated across the Atlantic, in Africa. The first humans were likely infected well before Solinye’s killers were hanged back in the 1950s, and possibly as early as the turn of the twentieth century. HIV is thought to be a mutated version of a simian virus that found its way into a human through open wounds on the skin of hunters in Cameroon. After the transfer to humans, the virus found its way from Cameroon to the Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo), Rwanda, and Burundi; to neighboring Tanzania and Uganda in the east; and Congo-Brazzaville in the west. Later, it may have come to the U.S. in Haitian men who had participated in a UNESCO educational program in the Congo in the ‘60s.
A retroactive testing of blood samples—from a study of hemorrhagic fever in Burundi in 1980 and 1981—found that 4.9 percent of the healthy adult people involved in the study were HIV positive. By the time HIV and AIDS became a somewhat known, if not understood, cause of death in the 1980s, another epidemic was moving through Africa. By the beginning of the next century, more than two million people were dying each year due to the virus, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
But one country soon raced past all others, reaching the highest prevalence of the virus worldwide, and ever recorded: Swaziland.
The first publicly documented case of HIV in Swaziland was announced in the fall of 1986. On November 1, the front page of The Swazi News sported a headline twice the size of its nameplate: “AIDS CASE HERE.” Two days later, a headline in the country’s most-read newspaper, The Times of Swaziland, paraphrasing the director of medical services, read, “It’s not so serious.”
So little was known about HIV back then in the kingdom that the newspaper reported that the “disease is transmitted through sex, kissing, saliva, and possibly sharing cigarettes and drinking from the same beer bottle”—all false but for the first.
An anonymous editorial ran on the cover of The Times of Swaziland that same week, with the title “AIDS man must get out.” It included the following:
Without being alarmist, since AIDS cannot be cured, the source of it must be removed. It is very wrong for the director of medical services to say it can be prevented, by condoms and such silly things…It is a fact that we Swazis have very healthy appetites. It would take just one person to introduce it to one of the high sex-disease blackspots; and the country will be on fire.
The metaphorical “AIDS man” was in fact HIV positive, but did not yet have AIDS. It ordinarily takes years for a person who has contracted HIV to see symptoms from the opportunistic infections associated with AIDS. After the first case was discovered, the virus spread and attacked quietly, like the famed black mambas that slither through Swaziland’s grass. In 1992, surveying began with women at prenatal clinics. That year, the HIV rate was 3.9 percent in new mothers.
Two years later, it was 16.1 percent. And by the time that the murders started in 1999, a third of all new mothers in Swaziland were HIV positive. It was that year that King Mswati III finally declared AIDS a “national disaster,” but by then the country had already been brought to its knees.
Five years earlier, in 1994, an economist named Alan Whiteside and a clinical psychologist named Greg Wood wrote a report predicting what the AIDS epidemic would do to Swaziland over the following ten-plus years. It was one of the first reports to study the non-health-related effects of HIV on an entire country in Africa. They predicted that the population in 2006 would be at least 15 percent lower than it would have been had HIV not arrived. They said that life expectancy would drop from the low sixties to the high forties, and long before that, half the hospital beds in the country would be occupied by AIDS cases. They also predicted that the death sentence that an HIV-positive test was back then would bring enormous psychological harm to the population, destroying interpersonal relationships and disrupting the family unit in Swaziland.
They said that the HIV-positive percentage of the population would grow to 27.5 percent, overall, by 2006, and that AIDS-related deaths would reach 18,000 per year. The economy would be rocked by the virus, which would first damage the health sector by overwhelming the hospitals. And then—when thousands of young and strong adults had died, the teachers and nurses and government leaders—it would hit all sectors. And of course thousands of children would lose their role models, their caretakers, and their means of survival. An army of orphans would swarm over Swaziland, and they would have no income, fewer teachers, no parents, and nowhere to go.
Most of the authors’ predictions came true, though in some cases the real numbers were even worse than the estimates.
By 1999—the year that David started killing people, and the year the King called the nation together to fight HIV—Swaziland was in a deep hole. By one account, nearly 50,000 people had died of AIDS at that point, nearly one out of every twenty Swazis, most of them in the prime of their lives. Whiteside told me that there was a cemetery at the bottom of the hill by his school, and it served as an indicator of the epidemic for him. “Every time I went past,” he said, “it just grew, the red mounds of earth scarring the veld.”
In February 1999, Derek von Wissell, who would become the head of Swaziland’s HIV response council, wrote a column in the local paper titled “The AIDS war is now upon us!” In it, he compared the virus to an enemy attack. “What would happen if we in Swaziland became aware of the fact that a huge army was on our borders and about to invade?” he asked. Von Wissell wrote that more than 290,000 out of a population of one million were living with HIV. And there was no cure, no medicine in the country, and no hope for them. “AIDS is killing our people in a massive way and although at this point it is too late to save 30% of our population all stops should now be pulled out to save the next generation.”
THE HIV EPIDEMIC IN SWAZILAND IS DRIVEN by many factors, not least of which are the practice of polygamy (which increases the size of sexual networks), a patriarchal society that pushes women into marriage at an early age, and a culture driven by tradition and high child mortality rates to promote procreation at all costs.
Because of their relative powerlessness when negotiating sexual relationships, women in Swaziland are particularly vulnerable to getting HIV. Today, more than half of all women between the ages of 30 and 34 are HIV positive. Half. Fifty-four percent. These are not drug abusers or prostitutes or outliers. If you were a Swazi woman in your twenties in 1997, there is a 30 percent chance that you didn’t make it to 2007. HIV, very much like David Simelane, has been an unprecedented killer of young women.
Despite the country’s nominal dual monarchy, in which the queen mother rules alongside the king, women do not share equal rights with men. Women generally cannot own or inherit land, hold few political positions, and are burdened by traditions that accord them lesser status. A 2013 Chatham House report on Swaziland said that “girls below marriageable age still continue to be forcibly married under customary law, which recognizes no consent on the part of the woman in marital issues.” Swazi women are smart and strong—see what they carry on their heads and backs as you drive by them on the highways, see the children they take in when their sisters and brothers die—but they do not live in an environment that can be described as safe. A 2007 survey in Swaziland found that “Approximately one in three females experienced some form of sexual violence as a child.”
Cebile Manzini-Henwood, the former head of Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, an organization that is fighting for equal rights for women, told me that the reputation that Swaziland has built as a peaceful country is superficial at best. “I don’t think Swaziland is peaceful,” she said. “If we are saying that peace is about the riots and the protests then you could say, ‘Okay, sure, we’re relatively peaceful.’ But if you define ‘peaceful’ as you should, looking at peace in the homesteads, looking at peace in the workplace, looking at peace in the schools, in the churches, where people are, where people congregate, where people associate and relate to each other on a daily basis, then you’ll find there’s no peace here.”
In December 2012, the Times of Swaziland published a particularly loathsome column by a writer named Qalakaliboli Dlamini, who wrote that the root cause of most spousal abuse was women themselves. “In fact, when a woman is battered,” he wrote, “she may have caused more internal damage to the male who will have caused her external harm. Let us be honest with each other, women are the biggest abusers in the world.” Towards the end of his column, he even defended David Simelane: Since he had attributed his killing spree to revenge for a false rape charge, the author said, David too was a victim of women and justified in his actions.
A society where people read the words of a hatemonger like Qalakaliboli Dlamini and nod their heads may be one in which dozens of women can be killed before anyone catches on, where a killer like David can go undetected for two years. “Is this who we want to claim we are as a people? As a Swazi people?” said Manzini-Henwood. “On one hand we are prioritizing HIV/AIDS as a national disaster, and yet we are not looking at the main driver or catalyst of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland….It all stems from a systemic form of violence in the country.”
The sexual violence that has fueled HIV in Swaziland has affected every person in the country. The families of David’s victims have been hit immeasurably harder by HIV than by the murders that targeted their sisters, and mothers, and children. Throughout my interviews, family members told me that their homesteads had shrunk in recent years due to illness. Children and grandchildren had died. Thembi Kunene was twenty-eight when David killed her. She had thirteen siblings, but there are only four now, her sister told me; the others “fell sick.” Even the aunt who helped raise David had had four adult children die from AIDS-related illnesses. “They had the same sickness,” she said.
BY THE TIME THE JUDGMENT on David Simelane came down, five of the eleven original police investigators were dead, including both lead detectives. When I spoke to the mother of one of the policemen who had died, she told me that two of his five kids, teenagers, had passed away before him, along with three more of her grandchildren. “People told me that I would follow the other officers who passed away,” said the policeman who took the place of his boss as a witness in court. He told me that everyone believed the officers died because of muti—because an enemy was trying to harm them from afar. “But I don’t believe in muti,” he said.
Two of David’s young girlfriends died before they could act as witnesses. The magistrate who took David’s second confession passed away in 2007 at age forty. His wife died three months later. Reporters, relatives, and, most importantly, witnesses—dozens of them died during the trial, leaving people to wonder if it wasn’t just coincidence. So many of the people involved with the case died between the time he was arrested and the end of his trial that it seemed David had a hit squad taking out witnesses, cops and court officials, and victims’ family members. And that is precisely what the nation believed.
What originally fascinated me about this case was that Swazis were in a way correct. Another killer was indeed out there, continuing the job even as David languished in his cell. While Swazis following the case saw people dying and cried conspiracy, what they were really seeing, based on all the available evidence, was the work of AIDS.
The HIV rates today are even worse than when David began killing, but that is because people are living longer. The expansion of HIV prevention, care, and treatment programs in Swaziland, including the availability of free antiretroviral drugs, have made an enormous impact. Testing positive is no longer a death sentence, and adult prevalence has plateaued since 2006. Even if many still ignore the threat, everyone in Swaziland is aware of HIV. Of course, just because a woman knows that condoms will prevent HIV doesn’t mean she can convince her husband to wear them or get tested, or even to allow her to leave the homestead to get tested herself. Still, the virus has forced Swazis to rethink a culture in which procreation is king and polygamy is common practice.
RUDOLPH MAZIYA HAS BEEN INVOLVED in the fight against HIV since the mid-’90s, when he worked for the Swaziland National AIDS/STI Programme. I spoke with him at his office in Manzini in 2013, and he told me that there was another major reason that HIV was able to take such a hold of Swaziland. At the very basic level, he said, Swazis see disease in a different way.
“The idea of germs, the idea of microorganisms, is not part of our belief system. Our sociology has more of the abstract, spiritual kind of explanation for diseases,” he told me. “So when we came in and started talking to people about something that was being passed on from one person to another, it seemed unbelievable.”
Swazis did not see HIV as the real killer. Rather than germs, they saw revenge. Rather than a virus, they saw muti. “When people were starting to get sick, some people would think that they’ve been bewitched, and not that there’s a virus destroying their immune system,” Maziya said. So in the many deaths that followed David’s arrest, they perceived that David had the advantage of witchcraft, and possibly influential people paying for that witchcraft. Otherwise, what was killing all these people involved with the trial?
Even today people are scared to talk about the case, not wanting to be the next victim. A relative of a prominent member of the court who died during the investigation told me, “I’m scared of talking about this. All the people that were in touch with this matter are dead.” A man who lived in the Malkerns area, where I was looking for potential witnesses to interview, told me, “The people here, they may know something, but they won’t say anything. They don’t want to get involved. Even if they saw something, they won’t tell you.”
It didn’t help that toward the end of the trial, the chief prosecutor publicly announced that 50 percent of the witnesses in the case had died. While that number was likely an exaggeration, the many people who have died have contributed to the belief that David is favored by a higher power. One woman I spoke with before the trial ended told me, “When he gets out he’s gonna kill everybody….This is Swaziland; he’s gonna come back.”
But when I look again at what’s occurred in the fourteen years since David was arrested, sixteen since he began killing, these views seem less primitive naivete and more the beliefs of a slightly paranoid and sick population, closely watching a trial that paralleled the timeline of HIV. What people thought was conspiracy, and muti, was really just the combination of HIV and time. When life expectancy is half as long, time moves twice as fast, and people die.
“THE NATION CANNOT STAND BY and watch as the virus kills our country,” King Mswati III declared in his memorable speech of 1999. But by then, HIV had spread so deeply into Swazi society that its effects had hit everyone in the country. And since the king is the lifeblood of the nation, it is appropriate that his reign began in 1986, the same year HIV arrived. He was only eighteen years old at the time, and he had a lot to live up to.
Mswati III’s father, King Sobhuza II, had been the longest reigning world leader at the time of his death in 1982. He had ruled Swaziland for more than sixty years, taking it from an unstable group of clans getting tossed around by colonial powers to a modern, independent nation in 1968. He was generally a man of his people. He was also an educated man. One elderly Swazi I spoke with told me that Swaziland is what it is because of Sobhuza. “He shaped Swaziland. He said you shouldn’t give up Swazi traditions, but also should not shy away from the Western. And Swazis have done that.”
Indeed by most accounts, Sobhuza II was a strong and clever king. Historian Alan R. Booth wrote that “in an age when kings everywhere came toppling down, Sobhuza not only endured but reigned supreme—not so much by the force of arms or money as by the genuine love of his people. His skills as a politician, a diplomat, an entrepreneur, and a humanitarian are already legendary.” At the same time, Sobhuza II made sure that the royal family maintained and grew its power during his reign, keeping the money flowing to his relatives and the absolute monarchy in place—until it was the last one left in Africa.
Mswati III had to live up to his father’s memory, which was difficult. What’s more, his right to the throne was questioned from the start, according to Booth, because his mother, now the queen mother, had been rumored to have got her start as a housemaid. He was constantly in fear of assassination.
Part of the invaluable trove released in 2010 by WikiLeaks included cables from the U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland. The cables summarized private conversations with a former king’s advisor, who indicated that Mswati III is “essentially a bastard outsider to the royal family.” The informant said Mswati III “is not a reader, and will not review documents left for him.” He called the king “not intellectually well-developed,” in contrast to his father.
Now forty-six, Mswati III has grown into a controversial monarch. He has had fifteen wives, although three have left him, another was accused of poisoning him, and a fifth was caught having an affair with the justice minister. None of these embarrassments were reported in Swazi newspapers. He does nothing to discourage polygamy, which has come to endanger his people.
Royal family trips to Vegas, exorbitant shopping sprees for his wives and more than twenty children, the purchase of a $500,000 Maybach luxury car, and a recent “gift” of a private jet have brought the leader of this country, where running water is a luxury for most citizens, much mockery in the foreign press. A report by Freedom House declared that Swazis’ “desperate circumstances” and horrid rankings on health, economy, and life indicators were underlined by “the king’s overwhelming and unchecked corruption of government power.”
The king has crushed pro-democracy movements. He encourages monopolies, stifles communication and commerce, and takes a cut of foreign investment and business—money that is supposedly in trust for the nation. Even with a high GDP per capita by sub-Saharan standards, the majority of the country lives in abject poverty. In other words, most Swazis do not benefit from the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of emalangeni that are funneled through their king.
But he was the king the country had in 1999, and Swazis generally respect, or at least fear, their monarch despite his flaws. “The king embodies the vitality of the nation,” wrote Booth. “His medicines and powers protect his people from danger and provide for their well-being. His rainmaking powers bring them prosperity. The strength and virility of the king therefore command the constant attention of the nation.”
If the king’s vitality reflects that of the nation, then what happens when the king falls ill, and what does it say about his health when the entire country is affected by HIV? At the peak of AIDS, and the peak of David’s murders, in April 2001, King Mswati III got sick with an “undisclosed illness.” His birthday, a national holiday, was approaching, but it was announced in the newspaper that for “the first time in the history of such celebrations…they have been postponed.” A month earlier, one of his wives, known as Inkhosikati LaMagwaza, had spent five days in the Mbabane Clinic with the same “undisclosed illness,” one of the many euphemisms for AIDS used in Swaziland. The same queen later ran away from Swaziland after being sick for two years. After weeks of speculation, it was announced in the papers that the king’s mystery illness was only gastritis.
In a society with a high HIV prevalence, it can be deadly to change sexual partners within a short period of time, to have what is called “multiple concurrent partners.” During the first month after contracting HIV, you are highly infectious, and yet often unaware of the virus’s presence. If you have sex with more than one person in the span of days or weeks, common in Swaziland among polygamists and others, then you are not only doubly or triply exposed yourself, but are also exposing all the people in your “sexual network” to the possibility of HIV infection. All the people you are having sex with, plus all the people they are having sex with, are at risk.
As for the king, who had first been married as a teenager, before HIV was even a known entity in Swaziland, by 2001 he had eight wives, a large sexual network by almost any standards. In a society where HIV meant death, as it did when the king got sick, polygamy was a tradition worth celebrating only as a historical artifact. If Mswati III is HIV positive, and it is of course only speculation, he has not told his people. Meanwhile, leadership by example in the kingdom has been sorely lacking.
In early 2001, Swaziland was suffering from the worst HIV crisis ever seen in any country, the “vitality of the nation” was deeply reduced, a murderer was stealing women from their families, and a once-promising nation was seeing all its economic progress reversing.
The mother of one of David’s victims put Swaziland’s hard times in perspective: “I don’t know what’s really gone wrong,” she said. “Maybe it’s the end of the world.”
WHEN SINDI WENT MISSING, it seemed to then-constable Vusi Dlamini that indeed it was the end of the world. “I was depressed. I did not have a life,” Vusi told me. When weeks went by with no word of her whereabouts, he tried but failed to prepare himself for life without her. Thinking she had left him, he put away her photos and clothes, but he could not bring himself to throw them away. He contemplated suicide. “Whenever I was working, I was using a firearm,” he said. “Many times—more than ten times—I thought ‘in three seconds this misery can just…’” At this point in my conversation with Vusi, I saw, for the first and last time, a Swazi man crying.
As the search for Sindi proved futile, and Vusi became increasingly desperate, his father suggested he consult a sangoma, one of the traditional prophets of the kind that Lydia Makhubu had studied. Vusi was skeptical, but agreed. “For we Swazis, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “But you do these things, anything which could bring her back, lead me to her.” It was convincing, he told me, when the prophet said, “‘You are looking for your wife, who got lost.’” Still, Vusi knew that, as the son of a famous prince, his identity and his motive for being there would be easy for the sangoma to guess.
After giving Vusi a potion to drink, the sangoma took him to a small room with a white curtain hanging from the wall. “Then he said, ‘Just look at that curtain and don’t blink. Don’t look anywhere else,’” Vusi told me. “‘Look at the curtain. Look at the curtain.’ I started doubting. He said ‘No, don’t doubt. Look at the curtain. Look at the curtain.’” Vusi looked at the curtain for twenty to thirty minutes, until something changed. Sindi appeared.
“I could see my wife there. A picture, like a real picture, like a film, like a TV, like a video but not quite as good, but I could see that it was her.” She was in a bedroom that he didn’t recognize. She looked comfortable, like she was living there. Clothes were scattered on the bed, and she was folding them. She had wrapped a large towel across her breasts. Sindi was there with him. “I can tell you that I don’t believe in that,” Vusi said with misty eyes, as if he was again seeing his wife. While his father was the great traditionalist, his mother was a staunch Christian. “I never believed in that. I’d rather believe in God,” he said. “But that day I believed.”
The sangoma interpreted Vusi’s vision as a sign that Sindi was alive, living with another man. He said she was near a sugar-producing town in the north. Hard as the thought was, the vision gave Vusi a very temporary reprieve from the pain of not knowing. “Just for a moment, to not have that stress and depression,” he told me. “To somehow know she was staying with someone. Why was I killing myself? It meant it’s over.”
Vusi didn’t tell his family or Sindi’s about the vision on the white curtain. Not even his father. He didn’t want to depress them further. And he was glad he didn’t, because it soon came out that the sangoma was gravely mistaken. “It was false. Everything was false,” Vusi said. “Nothing like that happened.
“My wife died,” he said, “the very same day she left the house.”
AFTER HIS 1994 REPORT predicting the harsh consequences of HIV was ignored by Swazi leaders, the economist Alan Whiteside was not surprised, but neither did he think it a thoughtless blunder. “I don’t blame people for tossing it aside,” he told me. “I wish they hadn’t, but there was no way to get one’s head around something that wasn’t visible.”
In fact, the way that Swazis dealt with the invisible at the turn of the millennium was to see traditional healers, as Vusi did. When times got especially difficult, they would turn to them with greater frequency. And some would go to more extreme measures to try to fix their problems.
Belief in healers, and in muti and traditional medicine, is widespread in the kingdom and is not relegated to the rural poor and uneducated. The former advisor to the king was quoted in WikiLeaks as saying that Mswati III believes in traditional healing and “attempts to use muti to attack the king are taken seriously.” So when HIV, the invisible virus, began to strike so many Swazis, the need for healers rose.
“It is hard to imagine a disease, or complex of symptoms, better suited to interpretation within the witchcraft paradigm than HIV/AIDS,” wrote Adam Ashforth, the Australian social scientist. “One might almost say that if AIDS didn’t exist, the witches would have to invent it. Thus, as the number of cases increases, so must the number and power of the witches. And as the number and power of the witches increases, so grows the need for protection and the desire for justice.”
Most westerners who hear that people still believe in witchcraft or in some form of traditional medicine find it to be a remnant of a society that is shirking modern practices. But Ashforth has posited that beliefs in witchcraft (a term he uses in a non-condescending manner) are simply a different type of thought, an alternate path for modernity. For those Africans who struggle because they believe in the supernatural, says Ashforth, “denying the possibility of witchcraft is akin to denying the existence of God. It is easier to do when life is good.”
Confusion itself has been a major source of the problem: The AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa has created a massive “spiritual insecurity,” with conflicting ideas on how to deal with the disease coming from Christian and Islamic leaders, medical authorities, and traditional healers. The epidemic brought mixed messages of abstinence and condoms; medical science and health policy imported from faraway lands; and, eventually, news of antiretroviral drugs that could heal symptoms but not stop the virus from spreading.
The number of young people dying in Swaziland reached epic proportions in the 2000s, transforming—per what Ashforth has called “the witchcraft hypothesis”—“a sense of injustice into a certitude of malice.” The suffering produced by HIV was perceived by many Swazis as being caused by people, witches, with agendas against them.
By the time David Simelane struck Swaziland, HIV had become not a disease of random bad luck or poor choices, but a weapon to be guarded against and an enemy stockpiling evil spirits in order to kill you. An arms race of muti began, and those who had the means would seek out the most potent protection they could find.
AS SOON AS THE INVESTIGATORS ARRESTED DAVID, or perhaps even before they had their man, they suspected he was killing for body parts to be sold and used for muti.
Several of the skeletons were missing bones when they were found. But more prominent in the detectives’ minds than physical evidence was motive: Why would David have gone to such lengths to kill if not to be paid, and where did he get the money to lure his victims in the first place?
The bodies were found in four distinct areas: Mankayane, Malkerns, Macetjeni, and Sidvokodvo. These areas are as little as fifteen miles apart and as much as fifty. David had led the cops to the top of a remote mountain to retrieve some of the final bodies. The cops walked through thick, pathless bush and climbed intimidating boulders to get there. There was no way David was bringing women there simply on foot. So he must have had income.
And yet it seems he did not have a job. In Swaziland, even the fare for a kombi (collective taxi, the main form of public transport) is a serious matter for those in the subsistence class. If you earn less than a dollar a day, or don’t participate in the formal economy at all, it is a very big deal to buy groceries or to pay for kombi rides for yourself, much less others.
That is why the senior investigators, Jomo Mavuso and Khethokwakhe Ndlangamandla, appear certain, in a video taken on June 6, 2001—nearly a month after David had given his written confessions—that he was doing this with money and for money. At the time, the police clearly did not believe in the “revenge” motive David was claiming. Below is a sample of what they said to him, in very calm siSwati:
You want all these people, including police officers, to believe that you would give someone bus fare knowing that you would kill them? First and foremost, you are not employed. You struggle to get the money to give people for bus fares. Then they board the buses only for you to kill them and you get nothing in return?
You struggled through thorns, over trees, climbing rocks and valleys when killing these people, and you say you got nothing? You will never be trusted, there is something you gained by killing these people…
You were working; you knew that when you spent money on bus fare for a person, your refund was coming somehow. You knew very well that even if you went through thorns, even if you fell from the rocks, that you would get paid tomorrow.
You were used. You were getting paid by killing these people. There is someone or someones who were using you, paying you. Simelane, do not let anyone disturb your going to heaven.
There was a witch doctor behind this. There was a witch doctor who made promises to them if they got the body parts.
When we face the facts, Simelane, these people were killed by your hands, but realistically your hands would not have killed them if it were not for the people that were using you.
They should also be arrested like you have also been arrested. So many people should not die because of them.
David says very little as the police pour on the questions and accusations about his secret partners. In one of the few answers he gives during that day’s interrogation, David agrees with the incredulous officer who asks how he expects them to buy his story: “If I hadn’t done it,” he says, “I wouldn’t believe it.”
IN THE 1970S, RITUAL MURDERS IN SWAZILAND “reached epidemic proportions,” according to Booth. “To many, they were indicative of a widespread sense of desperation among those who saw archaic institutions as no defense against the new and bewildering forces confronting them.” When the former prime minister, Prince Makhosini Dlamini, died in 1978, human parts were found in his refrigerator. The last executions in Swaziland, in 1983, were for ritual murder. And these crimes continue to occur today.
But no known killer in Swazi history has ever been more prolific than David. If he was acting on behalf of a body parts syndicate, murdering for others who desired greater power, then what prompted a need for such an unprecedented number of victims?
Traditional treatment for everyday ills may include eating mixtures of natural powders or even certain parts of an animal. But according to the social anthropologist Harriet Ngubane, ritual murder of a human would be prescribed in extreme cases. “To put it more bluntly,” Ngubane wrote, “the popularity among the ambitious of ritual homicide is due primarily neither to the wickedness of inyangas nor to the overweening greed of those who employ such means to attain their goals, but rather to the sickness of the society which induces them to believe that there is no effective alternative.” The South African criminologist Gérard Labuschagne also noted that “times of political unrest, periods of competition for resources, and conditions of a power vacuum have all been associated with increased incidence of muti murder.”
And there were few times more debilitating, confusing, and deleterious to Swazi society than when the 20th and 21st centuries collided. Swaziland was sick and its people, rich and poor, were dying. Doctors told Swazis there was no cure for HIV, and Christian leaders told them that they shouldn’t procreate. Healers told them they could fix the problem with herbs, but Swazis still died in numbers never before seen. Old ways and new ways alike were failing them. Many believed that God was punishing Africa.
If ever there was a time and place for extreme measures, this was it.
SIX DAYS AFTER THE POLICE DEMANDED that David tell them whom he was working for, they turned on the camera again. Rumors of what he said that day have persisted ever since. Who did he name? Are the police covering up a conspiracy, are powerful people protecting David, or is David protecting them?
Labuschagne said that muti murder is a very sensitive topic among law enforcement officers in South Africa because traditional practices are a large part of some officers’ lives. As a result, they may be “unwilling to define a murder as being a muti murder for fear of retribution from the traditional healer involved. Also, since it is a rumor that certain high-ranking politicians, business people, and other civil servants have participated in such dealings, some police officers may be cautious about their involvement in such cases.” Perhaps the police in Swaziland were believers themselves, or didn’t want to get on the bad side of someone with access to strong muti.
Everyone I spoke to had a theory. But they all agreed on two things: David couldn’t have done this on his own, and someone was getting away with murder. The family of victim Samantha Kgasi-Ngobese was among the most doubtful. “There are not enough questions asked,” Samantha’s sister, Charmaine Kgasi-Munro, told me. “The people he killed didn’t have much money. These were people looking for jobs. We never heard of him housebreaking. So where was he getting his money from? Where was he getting his transport from? Who knew him? Who were his friends?”
“He brought them to some syndicate,” said Samantha’s mother, Mable. “To some people to do the job. He was bringing them, getting paid, and throwing them away.”
ACCORDING TO JUDGE ANNANDALE, Vusi Dlamini was the best witness in the trial of David Simelane. “Civil, reliable, credible, and persuasive are all suitable adjectives which adequately qualify him as a single witness in this count who carries the day,” wrote the judge. Yet when I spoke to Vusi, his recollection of his last phone call with Sindi still confused him.
The conversation had happened more than ten years earlier, but Vusi remembered thinking Sindi was traveling with more than one person. He also thought that they were going by car, two factors that could re-shape the story of the David Simelane murders.
“She did not say, ‘I am taking a coach or I am taking a bus to Bhunya.’ If she said that, it would have been clear,” Vusi told me. “The way I interpreted it, I thought they were driving a car…She came from a well-off family. I don’t think she would fall for a business partner who did not have resources like a car.”
In the written confession, David said that he promised to lend Sindi money. Then he said he strangled her to death. He misremembered the location, saying he took Sindi to Malkerns, when in fact her clothes were found in Sidvokodvo. There were so many victims, he must have mixed her up with another.
More generally, Vusi wondered how his wife could ever have been led to her death by somebody like David. Sindi’s father had lived all around the world and written, with Sindi’s help, textbooks for the Swazi curriculum. Her brother had a medical practice in town. She was intelligent and driven. It seemed impossible that she could fall for the lies of a simple man from the rural areas living in a shack the size of a closet. “Sindi wouldn’t be convinced by that man,” Vusi said. “He is way low of her class. Somebody who could convince Sindi that he could be her partner would be in designer suits maybe, driving a nice car, looking decent and literate. When you look at that man [David], maybe you can say he is literate, but you can see that he cannot be a good businessman. I don’t think she would fall for that trick.”
One theory Vusi came up with, that he kept returning to, was that David was just a middleman. “If you want to open a business, and then I claim I can connect you with people who are good in this particular field, you will be looking beyond me as a poor man in jeans and tackies. You will be anxious to meet the real business partner, not me. I’m just here to show you the next person.”
Vusi was quick to qualify his statements: “I trust the work done by the officers, by my colleagues. After everything had been revealed, nothing concrete could be proven that he was working with other people.” Throughout our talks, Vusi always showed nothing but the utmost respect for the officers who worked the case.
ON JUNE 12, 2001, seven weeks after his arrest and a month after the confession in which he listed his victims, David gave three additional names. All three were famous men in Swaziland: Peace Mfana “Boy” Motsa, a wealthy businessman who died in May 2014; Majahebutimba Dlamini, a member of Parliament who died in 2003; and a third man, still alive, a former member of Parliament.
These were the people, David said on camera, who hired him to kill.
In 2001, all three had been influential people in Swaziland, often in the newspaper headlines for their business dealings and work in government. Each of them has since been involved in multimillion-dollar personal or government investments. To say the least, they were part of the Swazi economic elite, wealthy by world standards. As Ngubane says, it is believed by Swazis that those who turn to ritual murder are primarily “well-placed people seeking promotion, power, etc., who engage in these acts—not ‘ordinary, poor people.’” These were well-placed people.
David rocked back and forth in his chair and stared at the ceiling as he told the cops his story. This is what he said happened:
Toward the end of the Swazi winter of 1999, he ran into Boy Motsa, who was already an acquaintance. Motsa told David that he had a job for him. David asked what the job was. Motsa then lowered his voice, and told David that he was looking for someone to kill people and take their body parts.
“He begged me to say yes,” David said, “because this was their way of making money. I then accepted the job offer so that I could also have money.” That evening, he met two of Motsa’s partners, both of whom worked in Parliament. They agreed that David would get E3,000 (about $370 US) a month, less than the salaries he’d promised to some of his victims. He would also get two kombis (communal taxis) and a Sprinter MiniBus worth a total of E300,000 ($37,000 US), an enormous amount of money in Swaziland. Motsa and his partners, David said, “are the ones who got me into this line of work.”
They set the routes he would take to find victims, chose a meeting place in Mahlanya—the area that Majahebutimba Dlamini represented in Parliament—and appointed Motsa as point man in case something went wrong. “Once we have reached a fifty target figure, none of us will be lacking money,” David said he was told. He was given E1,500 (about $200 US) from the start, and this man, whose rent in 2001 was the equivalent of seven dollars a month, took a taxi home.
In order to ensure that nobody betrayed the syndicate, “it was agreed that should anyone get arrested, that person should never expose the others,” he said. Those who had not been caught would then finance the arrested’s legal defense. Parts of the victims would be sold, including cuts from thighs, the liver, and the heart; brain tissue from children; and the unborn babies of pregnant women. David would get paid regardless of the body count.
The killing began in September 1999, and David claims he was not always alone on the job. He said his employers had personally participated in seven murders and that they used a Nissan one-ton pickup belonging to one of the partners to transport the victims to secluded places.
In Annandale’s judgment, based on witness testimony, he described the disappearance of Rose Nunn and her child Nothando as follows:
Rose Nunn and her thirteen-month-old baby Nothando Khumalo left home for the Social Welfare offices on the 20th February 2001. Later that day, her live-in lover, Mbongeni Mlotsa…again saw them, this time not at home but at the welfare offices…Little did he know when [sic] that when they again parted company, that it would be the last time he was ever to see them alive.
They did not come home as expected that afternoon. He reported their disappearance at her parental homestead, which was next to their home in Manzini, but nothing happened for a month. He was then contacted by the police at Matsapha police station, his worst suspicions were aroused when he heard the reaction to a photo which he had of Rose Nunn, the deceased person referred to in Count 11.
The judge further pointed out that in David’s confession, he said that, “When we got to the forest, I strangled her to death, with her child, with my own hands.” What was not in the judgment, nor ever presented in court, were the additional details that David gave in the video from June 12, 2001.
When he first met Nunn in February 2001, David said to his police interrogators, he asked her to meet him several days later at the park in Manzini. At 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, they took a kombi together to Mahlanya, where the partners showed up to offer them both a friendly lift. They drove to the woods at the Usutu forest in Malkerns. They held Nunn down while David pierced her in the neck with an undisclosed weapon. The child was also killed, and they took his brain tissue. From Nunn, the liver, heart, and cuts from the thighs were taken. They rolled the parts up in a plastic bag and got rid of the clothes so it would be more difficult to identify the victims.
“Are you telling the truth, David, when you say you were killing these people and taking parts from them?” asked Senior Superintendent Ndlangamandla.
“Yes, sir,” said David.
All three men David named in the video had been prominently featured in the newspapers that same month, so it is possible that he simply picked them because they were fresh in his mind. Boy Motsa had publicly offered to pay for the coffins of David’s victims. This gesture of apparent goodwill somehow prompted rumors that he was involved with the killings, and could have given David the idea of naming him as an accomplice.
And the police claim to have thoroughly investigated these men and found their connection to be a figment of David’s imagination. “If there was anything linking them with the offense, we would have charged them,” one of the few remaining officers involved told me. “But at the end of the day, there was nothing concrete that we got from the suspect.” The police concluded that he was working alone, with a motive of revenge for a rape conviction. In response to my detailed questions on the David Simelane investigation, a letter sent to me in June 2014 by a representative of the National Commissioner of Police stated: “We can with absolute certainty say that the accused acted alone, and this version remains uncontroverted.”
I spoke with Boy Motsa over the phone a few months before he died. It wasn’t the clearest conversation due to language difficulties on my part, but when I asked if the police had ever spoken with him about the David Simelane murders, he laughed and said that his only connection was the rumors brought on by his generous offer to purchase coffins. I’ve also spoken to, and emailed with, the only remaining man named by David that is still alive, the former member of Parliament: When I first asked him over email if he’d ever been questioned about the murders, his response came in thirteen minutes and consisted of an expression of complete surprise. If David was working with these powerful people, he never once mentioned them in court, and nor did the police.
In the end, David pleaded innocent and claimed the confessions had been forced through torture. If he is innocent, though, then that means he somehow acted out the video confessions as well as the footage in which he leads the investigators to several bodies.
But if he is a fall guy for a body-parts syndicate, as many still believe, then why did he not mention the syndicate member names in court, instead putting the blame on a conjured-up “Sipho Dlamini” at the eleventh hour? As in the case of Solinye, where a murder probably took place but not the murder as detailed, this one might be another example of a trial that circumscribed the facts while still bringing partial justice.
In his judgment, Annandale wrote that the police found “that nobody had any association with the accused in any of the crimes he came to be prosecuted for. The police thus concluded that there was no accomplice, and that it was merely a ruse that the accused employed to detract the attention away from himself.” Still, based on the little information the police have provided, it remains a mystery as to how the now-dead officers came to this conclusion.
WHEN VUSI HAD TO STEP OUT OF HIS CAR to cry during our conversation, it wasn’t only from the pain of remembering Sindi. His father, the great traditionalist prince, had died just two weeks earlier, and his second wife a few weeks before that. He had fallen in love again and remarried in 2006. She had a problem with her lungs, Vusi told me, and he had sold two taxis he owned in order to help pay for the medical care. But she died anyway. Now his father and second wife were dead, and here I was asking about his first dead wife, his great love.
“I always had a thing for being a detective,” he told me. When he was a kid, there was a lot of criminal spillage into Swaziland from South Africa and Mozambique. He idolized the Swazi crimebusters who he saw on television news, arresting thieves and murderers. They were tough, no-nonsense police officers. So when he grew up, Vusi decided to join them. By 2009, he had become a detective sergeant in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Royal Swaziland Police Service, and a protégé of the country’s top investigators, including the people who had arrested his wife’s killer.
But back in 2001, Vusi was just a constable with potential. He didn’t have the skills of detection that would later have him going undercover to take down criminal gangs in South Africa, or to take a ricocheted shot to the leg in the line of duty while bringing down murderers himself in Swaziland. Thinking about the case back then, “I needed to know the truth,” he told me. “But at the same time I couldn’t involve myself in the investigation. I’d spoil it.” He respected Mavuso and Ndlangamandla, the top cops, the men he wanted to become. So he had to wait and let them do their job and discover what had happened to Sindi. “After the arrest,” he said, “I waited and waited.”
Still, he has troubling memories. “She said, ‘They are proceeding to Bhunya,’” he told me, remembering that last phone call with his wife. “It meant there were more than one.”
Vusi racked his brain to remember the exact words, and if he had really heard “they,” and what it meant if he had. He told me maybe she had said, “‘I have met the people and now we are proceeding to Bhunya.’” He explained to me that in siSwati, “they” and “we” had several meanings. As in English, “they” could have meant two people or more than two. “I don’t remember how I got the impression that she was proceeding to Bhunya with more than one person,” Vusi said. “In my mind maybe I thought to myself ‘She can’t go to that place with just one person.’”
“I had the feeling it was more than two,” the best witness in the David Simelane trial told me. “In siSwati we are two,” he said, motioning to us as a pair. In siSwati, Siyahamba means “we are going.”
“We are going to Bhunya,” he said. “And we will come back.”
It would be difficult for Vusi to mention his confusion over the phone call to his colleagues. After all, David was convicted as a lone serial killer. At the time we first spoke in 2011, Vusi was sharing an office with a member of the original investigative team, Solomon “Solo” Mavuso, who spent more than a month on the stand testifying against David, and eventually sealed the guilty verdict. A younger version of Solo, then the least senior officer on the team, is handcuffed to David in the 2001 video, when they search the forest for bodies. Solo is Vusi’s friend and mentor, and now one of the top cops in the country. “Solo is a nice guy,” Vusi told me. “He understands that he needs not to talk about certain things that will bring bad memories for me. He always avoids talking about it unless I ask him. But you will see he is not comfortable talking about it.”
In the special commission’s 1960 report on Solinye, the boy who didn’t die, they wrote that as a rule, muti murder “is committed at the instigation of or on behalf of some person in authority…It is somewhat naturally most unusual for the principal benefactor from, or instigator of, the murder to come forward and state that he is ready to give evidence. It is usually one of the lesser fry who gives way and talks to save himself.” In David’s case, regardless of whether he is protecting others, it is hardly clear that he has even saved himself. Theoretically he will be in prison for life or, if the great King Mswati III demands it, David will hang.
I visited the village of KaMkhweli in 2013, trying to find Solinye and hear the story of his mystical return from his own lips. But he had died a few years earlier. His elderly sister couldn’t confirm the exact year, but Solinye had lived to be around seventy.
He had seen independence, outlived his king, and died in a very different world than the one in which he had “died” as a boy. He was a good man, his sister said. His brother, the chief who needed strengthening, however, was not well respected in life and died a drinker. KaMkhweli had become notorious in Swaziland for a chieftancy dispute that led to evictions, legal battles, and the burning down of several homes.
ABOUT FORTY-FIVE BODIES WERE FOUND IN ALL; thirty-four were charged to David and twenty-eight were used to convict him. But to this day, only three have been positively identified. Two of them were found by the farm worker at Eagle’s Nest, and were successfully identified as Fikile and Lindokuhle Motsa. Simon Motsa died in 2010 in his early fifties, and his brother Eric told me the wife and child had had a traditional funeral. “Every ritual was performed,” he said.
Until a few years ago, the rest of the bodies sat in a Swaziland police station awaiting identification. Since the DNA evidence never panned out, the police could not be certain which set of bones belonged to which victim. Samantha Kgasi-Ngobese’s bones were returned to her family in late 2011, and a funeral was held, more than a decade after she was killed. “I’m still not happy about the identification because it was just marked ‘Malkerns,’ and I know she was found in Sidvokodvo,” her sister Charmaine told me. “But I have decided to try my utmost best to ignore all that.”
Ten years of delay sowed a distrust in the victims’ families of the Swazi justice system and those who were meant to uphold it. Without real proof that the bodies found are their loved ones, and without solid evidence that the police have told all they know about the killings, it’s difficult to close the book. For the families, there might always be the nagging thought that their daughters and wives and mothers are like Solinye, living respectable lives just a few miles down the road, waiting until they feel like coming home again.
“The case will be over, but it will never be over over,” said Charmaine. “Because we know there’s more to it, and there’s nothing we can do.”
SINDI NTIWANE, OR A SET OF BONES THAT WAS LABELED Sindi Ntiwane, was also buried in 2011 in the mountains of Mdumezulu. In the winter, mountains in Swaziland are the victims of deliberate, if not necessarily controlled, burns by Swazis, who attempt to reset the land for agriculture each year. While the burning season can be dangerous—each year homes are destroyed when fires run out of control—nights in the mountains are filled with mesmerizing orange snakes of flame that slowly rise to the mountain peaks. By the end of winter, much of the country has been scorched, and the green grass pushes up once again from the charred earth. I wondered if the remains of Sindi Ntiwane would rise by smoke or by blade.
Speaking to me in his car, her husband also considered Sindi’s afterlife. “If she is the right person, there will be no problem at all. The people she will find there, the long-dead family members, will accept her,” Vusi told me a few months before her funeral. “But if not, I will not have rest. We have that belief, you know.”
Vusi attributed his string of bad luck—his dead father and second wife—partially to the fact that Sindi had not yet been properly buried. “I heard that if a person gets killed by a whale and the body is not recovered, they will pretend like the body is there, and bury the clothes,” he said. “That means the spirit gets to rest, because you’ve done your best. But if you haven’t done anything, like now, it is affecting me because I’ve got lots of misfortunes. I don’t know where they emanate from.”
When David confessed and Vusi saw with his own eyes the man who had killed Sindi, he felt some sense of relief at finally knowing for certain what had happened to her. But he was anxious for word from Sindi herself. “After discovering that she was killed, I was always wondering why she didn’t give me a sign that she was dead,” he told me. “Because I do believe that her spirit should have spoken to me as somebody who was close to her.” Then one day he had a dream. “I say a dream, but I literally woke up from the bed trying to touch her.”
“I’m literate, I’m educated, I’m an engineer,” Vusi reminded me. “Scientists will say I was psychologically anticipating meeting her. But I did meet her.
“I stood up. I moved around the room trying to touch her,” he said. “I tried to catch her but I couldn’t. She couldn’t talk to me. She was looking at me sadly. This is my belief. It is not motivated by any sangoma. It is my belief.”