In 1981 Colonel Kobus Jonker joined a charismatic church and became a born-again Christian. At the time, he was a respected senior detective with the South African police.
A few months after his conversion, he investigated the case of a woman who was killed when she walked in front of a car late one night.
The dead woman had “Jesus” tattooed on the sole of one foot, “Christ” on the other and “666” on her arm. It turned out that she was a witch, symbolically trampling Jesus into the ground with her every step, Jonker explains. She had apparently killed herself as a gift to Satan.
If the story sounds like the imaginings of the unhinged, it is recounted to me in calm, measured tones. Jonker is utterly convinced of the reality of a dark underbelly of Satanic activity in the Christian world: this woman’s death changed his life.
He stopped investigating murder and robberies and began to devote himself to fighting Satanism full-time. In the course of his work, he says, he helped people possessed by demons to find Jesus. He interviewed a woman whose voice turned into a growl deeper than anything he had heard before.
He describes watching as a pentagram inexplicably appeared in blood on a suspect’s arm. He tells how he thwarted a female assassin working for a Satanic coven who turned up at his office clutching a pistol inside her handbag. She left still clutching the gun, her hand seemingly paralysed by his prayers.
Jonker’s bosses remained steadfastly cynical; they rolled their eyes at his stories. But when he raided a house in 1991 and found a Bible bound in chains, the walls smeared with blood and a Chinese woman’s head in a cupboard, his commanding officers were finally persuaded to start the Occult Related Crime Unit (ORCU), with Colonel Jonker at its helm. Last year, the unit claims, it made 70 successful prosecutions under the 1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act.
I first heard of South Africa’s occult unit while reading about the case of “Adam”, the name given to a young, black boy whose torso was found floating in the Thames in London in 2001.
Detectives from Scotland Yard had flown to South Africa to meet Jonker and his occult-crime-fighting team in the hope of coming up with some leads on Adam’s death. It seemed incongruous that police work, usually based on the rational and empirical, could be coloured by reborn Christians and their worryingly literal, some would say ludicrous, take on the Bible. So, I went to South Africa to spend time with the occult unit and, I hoped, gain some insight into the apparently fervent activity of Satanic groups and the police officers who try to outwit them.
First I met Colonel Jonker, who left the police in 2001 after a heart attack and now practises as a “pastoral psychologist”: a therapist who treats patients with a mixture of traditional psychology and the Bible’s teaching. He explains why the ORCU was made up entirely of devout Christians: “The ordinary guy cannot investigate occult crimes. There are things you see and experiences you have as a result of the supernatural. You must be strong in faith to be in the occult unit.”
Occult practices have been around for centuries, but modern Satanism was organised into a formal church during the 1960s when Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Satanism draws on voodoo and ritualism, but goes beyond dabbling in the supernatural. It is a rebellion against what LaVey saw as a Christian culture of mediocrity and hypocrisy.
LaVey explored his ideas in The Satanic Bible, a book that set out his loathing of Christians. He argued that sex and religion were incompatible, he mocked the notion of an after-life and ridiculed equality, arguing that no one should be protected from the effects of their own stupidity.
LaVey died in 1997 but his church continues to give free rein to his followers to live instinctive lives, driven by the mundane and the carnal and free from the notion of morality. In the early 1970s, says Jonker, Satanism arrived in South Africa and quickly gained a foothold among the white, and especially Afrikaner, community. LaVey always rebutted claims that the Church of Satan condoned criminality but, according to the detective, South African Satanists are very different, some of them criminal to the core.
It was Jonker who led the team that convicted Morris Smith of beheading a man in the woods. Smith, who converted to Christianity in prison and claimed to have been a high priest of a Satanic coven, blamed his actions on the devil. Speaking from Middledrift prison near Port Elizabeth on the eastern Cape coast, where he is serving 30 years for murder, Smith told me how Satanism fundamentally altered his mind. “Over time you get a strong belief that Satanism is the truth and everything else is a fantasy.” To him, morality was phoney and by trampling on the boundaries of morality he could fulfil the potential of his existence.
In non-Christian terms, Smith would be viewed as a psychopath who is using a “Satan made me do it” justification, but to evangelical Christians such as Jonker he was a man in the clutches of the devil. “These guys aren’t mentally ill,” says Jonker. “They’re just evil.”
To see this evil, and those enlisted to counter it, I joined nine Christian volunteers, six women and three men, at a counselling centre in Kempton Park, a sprawling dusty suburb to the east of Johannesburg. It is Halloween, when the volunteers believe that former Satanists, or “survivors”, are especially at risk of being possessed, and the centre is being used as a hide-out. Carrying board games, sleeping bags and Kentucky Fried Chicken, we take our seats in the centre’s small, brightly painted entrance hall.
Everyone is cheerful as we are briefed by the pastor, Colin, who has a handgun tucked into his belt. Inspector Dievald Grobbler and police reservist F.H. Havinger are here to protect the survivors from threats of violence, while the volunteers are present to ensure that the demons don’t win. “There must be constant prayer going,” Colin tells the volunteers.
The only thing that can make a Satanic demon wither in its tracks is the word of God and the blood of Jesus Christ. A prayer rota has been drawn up, a prayer supervisor will be appointed and thick booklets entitled Effective Prayers are handed out.
Then we are told that a coven has contacted one of its estranged members by spirit message and threatened to kill a baby if she doesn’t return. We climb into the car to find the coven. The police map out a radius where the ritual might be taking place. With headlights switched off, we comb a section of Johannesburg famous for its car hijackings. The area looks like a cheap film set: prostitutes blow kisses as we drive by, a man shuffles home from a late-night bar, dogs bark, neon lights flash. Eventually an erratic driver falls under suspicion and the officers pull him over. It turns out that he is drunk and prowling around looking for a prostitute. This is not a matter for the occult unit, so he avoids arrest.
Meanwhile, another call has come through. A survivor has been possessed by a demon and the volunteers at the centre have been unable to snap her out of it. We rush back, blue police light flashing. As we enter, the woman is on the floor shaking and convulsing in a condition described as “possession by an incoming astral spirit”. Havinger pushes past the volunteers and kneels at her side to pray: “In the name of Jesus, we break the spirit tie.” In under a minute, the woman comes round and woozily gets to her feet.
The woman, whom I will call Belinda, later tells me she was introduced to Satanism by her schoolteacher when she was 14. The teacher showed her what Satan could do. “It was nice,” explains Belinda, now 32. “I could move things and levitate. It gave me a feeling of power. I was having fun.” For two years, the fun continued and the bond between Belinda and the teacher grew stronger. But when the teacher took her to a party, Belinda remembers it as the evening that changed her life: “There was a lot of blood. I could feel strange powers. People screaming, running, eating and grabbing flesh. It was basically an orgy.”
Belinda says that she then spent 13 drug-fuelled years in a coven. During that time she claims to have seen four human sacrifices. One, a woman, was fatally sexually assaulted with a dagger. Another, a 30-year-old man, was tortured to death on an altar. As he screamed, the onlookers whooped and hollered, excited by the sight of flowing blood. Belinda says that she was raped on an altar as a spectacle more times than she can remember. But for accepting punishments she would be rewarded with greater supernatural powers, and her need for power grew so strong that it overshadowed any other emotion. She says that she even ended up giving her own baby, conceived through rape by another member, up for sacrifice. Seconds after the birth, she says she watched as the high priest slit the child’s throat.
Outwardly, however, Belinda appeared to lead a normal life. She married an army officer and, although she says it was a union intended to help her recruit highly placed members of the military to Satanism, they had three children together. Her husband never suspected a thing. But all the time she says she was fulfilling obligations to her coven. With the birth of each child she gave some of its blood to the high priest to bind its will to Satan and on high days she made her excuses and disappeared off to rituals. But when the coven began to get too close to her children, who she had sent to Christian schools, she finally left the movement with the help of a Christian “pastoral psychologist”.
Some mainstream psychologists have heard stories like Belinda’s many times. “The prevailing opinion about so-called ‘survivors’ is that these memories were implanted by therapists, a number of whom have been formally charged,” says David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, who specialises in modern religions. “They use satanic myth and ritual as a means of generating and maintaining their own power. When this issue first came to prominence in the 1980s, ritual abuse was a new discipline that only they could understand and for which there was a substantial clientele.” So for him, satanic abuse is nothing more than cynical attempts by certain therapists to get rich and famous.
In the early 1990s there was a lot of public concern in both Britain and the US about Satanism. So seriously was the problem taken that in 1994 the British government commissioned a study by Jean La Fontaine, a professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her report, Speak of the Devil, concluded that in Britain there was not a single piece of evidence to suggest that Satan worshippers were involved in any macabre and violent rituals. Similarly, she concluded that survivors’ testimonies were implanted by fanatical therapists.
Evangelical Christians say that there is never any evidence because Satanists either eat the flesh of their victims or dissolve bodies in baths of hydrochloric acid. La Fontaine says: “I am very wary about looking for witches and looking for Satanists because so much damage is done in the hunt. But you can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove that no evidence exists.”
Professor Christopher Szabo is a Johannesburg-based psychiatrist who has treated patients claiming an interest in the occult. He sees such claims as an attention-seeking device and, rather than give them great significance, tries to defuse their importance. “As soon as you mention the word ‘Satan’ everyone jumps up. That is the reaction a patient is looking for,” he says.
He argues that a survivor’s testimony is the symptom of a disorder in which a patient disconnects from reality to such an extent that they will even admit to committing serious crimes. Satanism becomes a symbolic system through which a very unhappy and disturbed person can express the level of emotional pain they are experiencing.
But Erika Terburgh, a clinical psychologist and evangelical Christian, says that psychiatrists who dismiss survivors’ claims “work from their own perceptions and they totally invalidate their patients”.
She says that she has a constant flow of patients linked to Satanism at her private practice in Johannesburg and although, she says, many of them do lie in therapy, she carefully picks through their stories to discard lies and find the truth. For her, Belinda’s story could be entirely plausible and is part of a wider pattern of women and children being abused in Satanic cults. She says it is important that these victims have somewhere to go where people will believe them.
Jonker, similarly, rebuffs claims that there is no evidence. As a senior detective, his approach was rational, empirical and scientific: “You can’t believe everything everyone tells you, especially in this line. If it is religion you must have a cool head. I always want proof.
I want to know what time it happened, where it happened and then we go to the scene. If there is no scene I can’t help them. We have had stories of child sacrifice and then we find a child on the scene but other times I have worked for days to find evidence and I find nothing and then I tell them I can’t help them.”
Jonker believes that the situation in South Africa is unique. He agrees that Satanists in Britain and the US are not criminals but says that during his 23 years investigating Satanism in South Africa he has found plenty of evidence – a difference that he puts down to his country’s violent culture and troubled recent history.
On the final leg of my South African tour, I met a man who put my understanding of Satanism in South Africa into a broader context. While Jonker’s cool-headed, intelligent approach to his work led me, a semi-sceptic, to agree that there must be something “out there”, James Lottering left me with a very different impression. It seemed that in this instance God was giving a cast-iron justification for resisting the democratisation of South Africa.
Lottering was a member of the notorious security police until he became a “born-again” Christian in 1991, just a few years before apartheid gave way to democracy. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, with which the old Afrikaner government was negotiating at the time, had long been regarded by the fanatical supporters of apartheid as the embodiment of atheistic communism, devoted to sweeping aside their “Christian civilisation”.
In such unsettling times the “charismatic” church gave its followers a sense of meaning and of hope in the face of these looming forces of darkness. After his conversion, Lottering joined the ORCU, a move he thought could help ensure that Christians would win the war against the devil.
With the arrival of democracy in 1994 came a new constitution, conferring on everyone in South Africa the right to freedom of religion, including Satanists. The police could no longer use God’s laws to raid and break up Satanic covens: they could only investigate statutory crimes committed in the name of the supernatural.
Lottering resigned in 1997. “You can’t fight the devil with the devil,” he says. He wanted to fight the devil his own way and became an exorcist, shaking off the manacles of political correctness he felt the new South Africa wanted to impose on him. When I put it to him that perhaps his desire to believe in these “dark forces” was constructed by a mind that was seeking self-justification for a dislike of non-Christians and non-whites, he grew very angry and snapped that I should “stop taking things so seriously”. Like the officers in the unit, he says it has nothing to do with race or politics and everything to do with God.
“When you are dealing with the devil there are certain dos and don’ts,” says Lottering. It took him time to learn them but now he describes himself as South Africa’s top exorcist. He believes all personal difficulties are caused by demons. To find out which demons are to blame he asks the client several standard questions: “Is there anyone in your life you can’t forgive?” (spirit of unforgiveness); “Have you ever had a homosexual experience?” (spirit of perversion); “Have you ever been inside a church where you have had to take your shoes off before entering?” (potential opening for demons); and so on.
I spend the day with Lottering, who practises in a small office within the Word of Faith charismatic church in Port Elizabeth. His telephone has been ringing all day. Calls come from parents with problem children who want appointments, a newly opened beauty parlour that has been robbed (the staff want him to come and pray for them – he spots a small statue of Buddha and hastily smashes it), and the owner of a factory that makes cakes for a large supermarket chain, who calls to ask for help.
The owner believes that one of her clients is waging a dirty-tricks campaign intended to bankrupt her. The factory is empty, her staff have been threatened and all but one have not turned up to work. When the proprietor reveals that her suspected adversary is Muslim, the penny drops for Lottering. He’s got a fight with the devil on his hands.
When Lottering prays over the owner she becomes nauseous and rushes out of the room to vomit. Lottering says a demon had been dropped in her tea by one of her Muslim foe’s lackeys, but that by vomiting she has purged it. Next, he prays over the remaining factory worker.
As she lies on the grimy factory floor, surrounded by crates of cakes and bags of flour, Lottering asks the demons to reveal who they are. Her arms flail, her eyes roll back and her feet kick against the floor.
She starts screaming. “This business is going down,” she says. “No, this business is going to Jesus Christ,” Lottering retaliates. The exchange continues for about five minutes while the rest of us hover awkwardly in the background. Finally the woman becomes calm, the demon has gone and Lottering says he has broken the curse cast on her.
The factory owner had been trying for some time to get a pastor from her local mainstream church to pray for her, to no avail. Lottering says traditional Christians are doing people a disservice when they dismiss the evangelical church’s literal interpretation of Satan.
Because of their scepticism, innocent people end up in the clutches of the devil. Lottering believes that so far the devil is winning the war for control of the world, but he won’t win for long. It is a painstaking process but Lottering says he is “making major structural damage to the kingdom of Satan” and has no doubt that in time this evil will crumble at his feet.