A February double murder in the South African city of Soweto illustrates a quiet rise in demon worship among teenagers, influenced in part by American pop culture icons.
SOWETO —In a Soweto stadium, men and women wearing vicar collars are praying to drive away the devil. They conclude with a religious hymn, chanted by a few hundred teenagers who have come to attend the funeral of 15-year-old Thandeka Moganetsi and 16-year-old Chwayita Rathazwayo, friends who were stabbed to death Feb. 18 by two classmates who practice Satanism.
Thiko and Tumelo were arrested the following day and are detained in a youth center in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg. Thiko, nicknamed “Big Boy,” received a Bible and some candy from visiting family members. The two boys recount without emotion the chain of events of that fatal afternoon. “At school, we were the leaders of Satanism,” Thiko says. “Thandeka and Chwayita wanted to be initiated to become celebrities like Beyoncé.”
After school, the four teenagers met up. “We placed red and black candles in a triangle on the ground, and the girls cut themselves on the arm,” Thiko continues. “With their blood, they were to sign a pact with Satan. But Chwayita got scared and refused. So we became angry. After that, we don’t remember. We were possessed by the devil. When we came back to our senses, there was blood everywhere. We were overcome by panic. We burned our T-shirts and went back home. I felt like a demon.”
The boys left a candle and blades on site. Big Boy buried Chwayita’s skirt behind his house, and police found a satanic bible under his mattress.
South Africa is second only to the United States for harboring practitioners of Satanism. “They have in common a high level of violence, very powerful fundamentalist Christian churches, huge social inequalities and a society that sanctifies material,” explains Nicky Falkof, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“Satanism first started spreading in the 1980s among Afrikaners, who were anxious about the end of the apartheid. In the past few years, it has begun flourishing again, but now it is no longer limited to white South Africans,” she says.
Why worship the devil?
Though there is no organized church, Satanism is combined with occult African beliefs in townships, Falkof explains, and it is largely a teenage practice, “often a resistance strategy to face an unhappy situation,” she says.
Videos by Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Kesha have popularized symbols sometimes associated with the Illuminati, a supposedly secret organization said to seek world domination, according to vague theories by American evangelists. Gestures, jewelry and tattoos reproducing occult symbols, triangles, eyes, red and black colors associated with the devil — all of these are popular among South African teenagers
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Thandeka, one of the victims, was wearing one. According to police inspector Hennie de Jager, who has registered 48 satanic cases over three months in Johannesburg and Pretoria, “People are making young girls and boys believe that they will become rich and famous.”
Sordid cases regularly make newspaper headlines. There was, for example, the case of 18-year-old Kirsty Theologo, who was burned alive in 2011 by six of her friends in southern Johannesburg. And last year in Soweto, a teenager killed four members of his famiy.
Tumelo discovered “Seth” (Satan) during a concert. “I was told he gave powers, and I did research on the Internet,” he says. With his almond-shaped eyes and smiling face, he looks not like a killer, but instead like an angel. “I wanted to get revenge on my father, who beats us when he gets back from the mine. I was hoping the devil would push him to drink until he dies of it.”
The boy shows a black mark on his palm, similar to a Christian Stigmata. “Every time I did something good, it started itching,” he says. Tumelo initiated Big Boy. “We smoked weed, we read the satanic bible and drank blood,” Big Boy says with a sometimes tragic, sometimes frightening look. “We sacrificed rats and a chicken. The spirit spoke to us in a deep voice. It even ordered us to kill our parents, but we refused.”
Since his father died of AIDS in 2008, Big Boy has been depressed. “He was taciturn and had fits of anger,” his mother explains. Also ill and appallingly thin, she claims she knew nothing about her son’s misconduct.
“We wanted to build a kingdom and get rich, but we went too far,” Big Boy says. “The vicar told me to pray to God when I feel depressed. I would now like to become an altar boy to be able to identify the good spirits.”