A number of the dead boys, most of whom have not yet been identified, apparently disappeared from a railway station, earning the killer the title 'the Station Strangler'.
Amid suspicions that the same man was responsible for the murder of nine other boys since 1986, parents in Mitchell's Plain, a Coloured (mixed race) community on Cape Town's south-western edge, were in a state of panic yesterday. Some were keeping their children away from school. Others armed themselves with clubs and baseball bats and formed neighbourhood vigilante teams.
In response to a request by local teachers, the government was reported to be contemplating closing down all the schools in the area until the police, who launched a manhunt yesterday afternoon, track down the killer. The Minister of Law and Order, Hernus Kriel, visited Mitchell's Plain yesterday and, announcing a reward of 250,000 rand ( pounds 50,000) for information leading to the maniac's arrest, warned people not to take the law into their own hands.
The police said that on Thursday afternoon a bystander who had nothing to do with the killings narrowly escaped death after the rumour spread among an angry crowd that he was the man responsible for the boys' deaths.
Recognising that scouring the sandy flats of Mitchell's Plain with hundreds of policemen would probably prove of only limited value, the police set up a task force of psychologists, criminologists and other experts yesterday to try to find the man they describe as a dangerous psychopath.
So far, the police are known to have hit upon two leads. One was a note on one of the two bodies with the message: 'One more, many more in store.' The other, found in a bush near the boys' graves, was a 60cm (2ft) orange nylon rope knotted to form a loop.
The pressure on the police to find the killer yesterday was intense. A woman who lives near the area where the bodies were found expressed a popular sentiment yesterday when she said the man would have been found already had the victims been white.
Maureen Arensen, a secretary who works in central Cape Town, has a 12-year-old son. Reached by telephone yesterday, she said she had forbidden her boy to leave the house. 'A neighbour who was there when they found six of the bodies on Thursday told me what she'd seen and I just couldn't sleep all night thinking about it. All the mothers here are hysterical. Those parents who are still allowing their boys to go to school are making sure they see them to the school gates in the morning and pick them up there in the afternoon. 'The people are so angry. They're saying that if they find the strangler they're going to kill him 12 times over. It's really dangerous because if people find someone suspicious they could kill him. I'm worried they might get an innocent man.'
Mrs Arensen said the suspicion among her neighbours was that the killer was someone respected, and superficially respectable in the community, such as a teacher, or a retired teacher, because no one had heard any reports of boys having been abducted by force. Information is sketchy, but the evidence suggests that the killer insinuated himself into the boys' confidences and lured them to their deaths.