Arrests over the decapitation murder of a South African sex worker has sparked fears of further killings due to news that a traditional healer was among the six arrestees. The body of 39-year old Desiree Murugan was discovered two weeks ago by municipal maintenance staff at a sports complex near the suburb of Chatsworth in the city of Durban. Her head was later recovered by police in the coastal town of Imfume. Though no specific motive for the killing has been revealed to date, Murugan's status as a sex worker as well as the arrest of a traditional healer as one of the suspects in the killing has generated a panic among Durban sex workers.
According to Thuli Khoza, provincial coordinator for the sex workers advocacy group, Sisonke, their helpline has been flooded by calls from other sex workers seeking information on the case. Though numerous "muti murders" in which body parts are removed from victims to be used in traditional medicine have been reported across southern Africa, sex workers are alarmed over the possiblity of Murugan's death targetomg sex workers. "This kind of killing has been happening but it’s the first time we have heard of a sex worker being killed for muti,” said Khoza, in an interview with local media. She is calling on the South African government to pass legislation regulating the sex trade to provide better protections for workers.
In talking about Desiree Murugan's murder, Durban University of Technology professor Nceba Gqaleni stated that "“Our society is gullible. Some people believe that body-part rituals will bring them riches and power. That is not part of healing; trading in body parts can never be considered a part of our culture, religion or healing." While he agrees that Murugan was targeted , it is still uncertain why. Professor Gqaleni compared such murders to "hijacking a car. Criminals hijack cars, which have been ordered. They are told the particular body part is needed and the victim is targeted that way. Such murders are part of organised crime and should be treated as such." Magical rituals using stolen body parts are usually intended to curse people or ome other form of black magic.
The public fear over the killings has also led to a renewed crackdown by police. National police commissioner General Riah Phiyega referred to the deaths as "crimes against humanity." He also added that, "We need to be deliberate in detail on the truthfulness of what research on ritual murders depicts on issues such as the beliefs that particular body parts harvested through a particular process and from selected victims could enhance health, strength, wealth or power. These matters can no longer be swept under the carpet and kept secret. Only when we start engaging with one another can we, as society, feel free to talk about these issues and even feel free to report these incidents to the police at the nearest police stations.”
The South African government is working with traditional healers to identify those involved in the illicit trade of body parts. Still, there has been little progress to date due to the ingrained belief in the power of these black magic rituals.