They were first tied up with rope and then stabbed five times each on their chests before they had their ears cut off for a traditional healer. Echoes of the screams of Lwandle (4), Simphiwe (8), Lwandile (10) and Bandile Mbhele (12) rang in my mind as their aunt Phakamile Mbhele retold the grisly details of their murders. It is chilling incidents of muthi killings like these that have captured the country’s attention, raising the question of how prevalent the instances are involving the theft of human body parts, often even from people who are still alive. The siblings from the South Coast were killed by their uncle, Ben Mbhele, last year in September, after he had met a man who spoke about a plan to kill the children for a lot of money. In a 2004 research article, former SAPS section head of the Investigative Psychology Section (IPS) and clinical psychologist Gerard Labuschagne said the reasons for muthi killings differ, but economic prosperity comes out on top. Referencing several experts and academic papers, he said the reason for using human body parts is that they are considered to be more powerful than the usual ingredients used by traditional healers as they contain a person’s “life essence”. The article titled “Features and Investigative Implications of Muti Murder in South Africa”, said that the choice of which body parts to use is guided by the aims of the “client” who approaches the traditional healer. According to the report, “traditionally, the victim must be alive when the body parts are removed as this increases the ‘power’ of the muthi because the body parts then retain the person’s life essence”. Phakamile Mbhele said the unsuspecting siblings were in the house watching TV, while others were sleeping, when their uncle, in a carefully planned ambush, turned up the volume on the TV and performed his macabre act. After briefly regaining consciousness, Lwandile seemed to have tried to flee the uncle, before collapsing and dying outside the house.Ben Mbhele was given four life sentences for killing his nephews and nieces last year in September.The aunt said she was at work when she received a call informing her about the incident. “I rushed home and was traumatised when I arrived and saw their bodies covered in blood,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. “I was told Bandile had gone to a neighbour’s house and complained that an uncle was tying their hands. The neighbour told him to go home and fetch a blanket and go back to sleep there, but he never went back.” Ben Mbhele was sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment in March after pleading guilty to the heinous act. While Ben Mbhele conducted the act alone, Labuschagne states that in muthi murders, there are at least three people involved in perpetuating the crime. These include the client, the traditional healer and the murderer. “The client who approaches the traditional healer is usually someone who wants to achieve a measure of personal gain. This may include financial gain for a business person, power for a politician, or protection for a criminal,” the report said. He said often, the victims in muthi killings may be known to the murderer, “perhaps a friend or relative”. The report said that targets can range from a new-born infant to an adult. “The elderly are perhaps the only age group that is not targeted in muthi murders, presumably because any muthi made from an older person is considered weak and ineffective.” This week, The Witness reported that a 34-year-old man was arrested in Margate after being caught with human body parts. Roger Thusi (left) was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for the murder of 18-year-old Loyisa Jokweni whose head was found in a freezer. Thusi is pictured with the late inyanga Mduduzi Manqele. Charges against Manqele were withdrawn in the case. He was later killed in a shooting incident with police.According to police, the man was arrested in Marine Drive after police received information about someone selling human body parts. Police approached the man, who was clad in a traditional outfit, and asked to search the vehicle. During the search police said they discovered a bucket with a human skull, hand, torso and other body parts that were cut into small pieces. The man confirmed to police that they were indeed human body parts and he told them he used the items to heal people. It is alleged that the man was looking for buyers and approached a number of traditional healers around the Emanguzi area. The suspect allegedly identified himself as a traditional healer from Margate. The police said they were approached by traditional healers after the man told them that he was in possession of human body parts which were on sale for as little as R4 000. Police spokesperson Thembeka Mbele said it is unknown where the body parts come from. A DNA analysis will be conducted to confirm if the body parts belong to more than one person. The man now faces charges of illegal possession of suspected human body parts. Last January, Zodwa Madlala (34) from eMadwaleni in Sweetwaters was found with her body badly mutilated and some parts missing. Family members said they believe she was murdered for her body parts. Speaking to Weekend Witness, her sister Nelisiwe said the family was shocked by the gruesome manner in which Madlala was killed.“It is extremely painful for the family because we were with her just hours before the incident.” Madlala and her family had attended a traditional ceremony hours before she was killed. “When I left she was with a group of other relatives, who were planning to go to a tavern in the area, but none of them remembers how or when she separated from the group as everyone had been drinking.” Nelisiwe said she was shocked when a relative called the following morning to inform her that they found her sister badly hurt. “When she didn’t return home I thought her boyfriend, who lives nearby, may have fetched her. Around 5 am on Sunday, I was awoken with the news. “I rushed to the scene where she was found. She was still alive but could barely utter a word. She had blood coming out of her mouth; her tongue had been cut out.” The victim’s left breast, genitals and other body parts were mutilated. The family said the clothes she was wearing were found next to her. Although no one has been arrested since the gruesome murder, Nelisiwe pointed fingers at traditional healers who use human body parts to boost muthi. In 2015, a little albino girl from Elandskop survived an attempt to trade her off to a traditional healer in Johannesburg for muthi. Speaking to Weekend Witness, the girl’s father, who cannot be named to protect the minor’s identity, said the child’s mother and grandmother devised a plan to have the 12-year-old peddled in Johannesburg. “Fortunately, my daughter heard the entire conversation and alerted me. I opened a case with the police,” said the father. The worried father said: “Even though my daughter may not fully understand, we no longer allow her to go anywhere without supervision. As a father with a child living with albinism, it is my responsibility always to make sure she is always sheltered and protected from these rituals.” He said the court also granted him a protection order against the mother and grandmother. People with albinism are often targeted for their body parts which are sold for various reasons. ‘Not enough police focus’ Mary de Haas, a KZN violence monitor, said muthi killings have been prevalent for years and not a lot is being done to deal with them. “It’s a massive problem and my frustration is that the police don’t seem to be treating them seriously enough. “There should be a dedicated police team looking at this. When people are arrested, that is when you start tracking down the networks. It’s not rocket science; the people who they do arrest should be a stepping stone for finding the networks,” said De Haas. She said it is difficult to stop those who engage in this practice because they believe in muthi derived from human remains. “It’s a belief system that is very difficult to eradicate until you get people uplifted and out of poverty and educated.” De Haas, who is also the spokesperson for the Medical Rights Advocacy Network, said state mortuaries are becoming a playground for the thriving trade in body parts. “There is a thriving trade in body parts in this province and, in the past, allegations have been made against mortuary staff and, some years ago, cases were opened.” In June, the body of a seven-month-old baby disappeared from the Pinetown mortuary, and it has not been found. Police say the investigation is ongoing. What are human body parts used for in muthi practices? According to Gerard Labuschagne’s article, the following are beliefs associated with the different body parts. • Breasts — A source of “mother luck”. If you want to attract women for your business, you will use breasts. Breasts contain fat, which is considered very lucky. • Genitals — “Luck” resides in the genitals of a man and woman. Often used for virility purposes. • Throat — Blood is an important ingredient and may be collected by cutting the throat. • Hands — used to attract business, hands symbolically beckon customers and take money. • Limbs — May be stolen from a hospital after an amputation. A leg can be sold for more than R7 000 in Lesotho. • Tongue — Used to smooth the path into a woman’s heart. • Eyes — Supposed to give far-sightedness. Witches and charlatansThe KwaZulu-Natal Traditional Healers’ Association, a body tasked with controlling and regulating the practice of traditional healing in the province, has labelled traditional healers who use human body parts for their practices as “witches”. The association’s president, Sazi Mhlongo, lambasted such traditional healers, saying they are out to blemish the indigenous healing profession. He said true indigenous healers do not use human parts at all. “People who use body parts for muthi concoctions are not healers but witches and charlatans who deserve to be hanged,” said Mhlongo. The association has distanced itself from what it calls “inhumane and criminal acts perpetrated by witches”.Mhlongo said the organisation is perturbed by the incidents because they “stigmatise and discredit” the profession at a crucial time when it is beginning to gain recognition from the Department of Health. He said if the perpetrators are found to be registered with the association, their membership will be terminated and they will be banned from handling medicine. Mhlongo said they are working with the police to ensure that the culprits are brought to book. A muthi expert who wanted to remain unnamed, said muthi killings have been taking place for decades, but are seldom reported. “These crimes are usually covered up or registered as murders. It’s difficult to keep statistics on these crimes as most of them are never reported. However, there is definitely a lot more awareness now about muthi-related crimes than before,” he said. Culturist and South African Traditional Healers Institute (Sathi) president Bathini Mbatha said: “This is a bad thing which should not be accepted. As far as I am concerned, such practices have nothing to do with indigenous healing but are the works of witchcraft.” Mbatha said it is concerning that muthi killings are often prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal. “These killings taint the image of traditional healers in the province. It’s concerning that our province has become a hot spot for these killings,” said Mbatha.