It was a gruesome find. Two weeks after she went missing, six-year- old Zanele Nongiza's torso-less body was discovered in undergrowth near her home in the sprawling Orange Farm township south of Johannesburg.
On Sunday, three days later, the skull and bones of another child were found in the township. At around the same time the body of a six-year- old girl was discovered in a neighbouring squatter camp.
Yesterday, as forensic tests were being conducted on the children, Orange Farm police said that the mutilations to Zanele's body suggested both children had been killed for their body parts by sangomas (witchdoctors) to strengthen their muti (magic).
Captain Letsema Tshoue, Orange Farm's police commissioner, said he feared muti killings were also responsible for the disappearance of another 16 children, aged 6 to18, from Orange Farm in the last five months, most of them over the festive season.
Orange Farm, which houses 300,000 people in poor, crowded and violent conditions, was gripped by hysteria yesterday. Residents, like the majority of South Africans, still believe in witchcraft.
Contradictory statements by senior police officers added to the confusion. Inspector Tinus Oosthuizen, the investigating officer, said the mutilation element had been exaggerated and that he was looking for a serial killer not a sangoma.
Dr Anthony Minnaar, South African Police researcher and an international expert on witchcraft-related violence, said yesterday that the Orange Farm case offered a rare glimpse of a crime which remained largely secret because victims' bodies were seldom recovered.
While it was impossible to say just how many missing people in South Africa had been murdered for their body parts Mr Minnaar believes a significant proportion of missing children - and adults - are killed in muti murders every year.
Belief in the power of body parts was widespread, he said. He pointed to police investigations last month into the digging up and mutilation of corpses in Acornhoek, Northern Province and a regular stream of related cases including the recent prosecution of a mortuary attendant for selling body parts and the survival of a two-year-old boy found half dead in fields near Soweto two years ago with his genitals cut off.
While all human body parts are powerful the genitals of young boys and virgin girls are regarded as particularly potent. Sometimes a severed hand, for instance, is often buried at the entrance to a shop to encourage customers to come in. But often parts are mixed with other ingredients and smeared on the body as medicine against disease and illness or simply thrown into the pot for eating.
During the violent conflict between the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress in the run up to the 1994 democratic election, Dr Minnaar claims IFP supporters ripped out the hearts and brains of their dead enemies in the belief that they make powerful war medicine.
"The remarkable thing is that ANC youths did the same despite their claims to be modernists," said Dr Minnaar. "Both sides hired sangomas.
"There is a real conviction that these parts make medicine stronger. And people who receive the parts don't care where they come from. It is a lucrative trade."
Mr Minnaar claims that the authorities play the phenomenon down, partly because the total number of witchcraft-related killings pales against the 68 murders a day currently committed in South Africa. There is also considerable political sensitivity around the issue.
"It raises all those images of Darkest Africa," Dr Minnaar said. "They are particularly embarrassing for a government stepping on to the international stage as a progressive force."
The same embarrassment led national government and police officials to oppose a decision two years ago by Northern Province to make witchcraft- related violence a priority; though during the 1990s rural communities burned to death hundreds of alleged witches. Witchpurging generally increases at times of political and social tension.
The Orange Farm murders also highlight police shortcomings. Until this week officers were apparently refusing to take the child disappearances seriously. Zanele's mother claims that when she reported her daughter missing the police did not even take down the child's name. Neither did they interview any of the witnesses who saw Zanele walk away with a man who had promised to buy her sweets.