'I couldn't believe it when I heard who had been arrested,' said Neil Dheunis, 12, one of Mr Simons' pupils. 'I always felt safe when he was around.' Since February, when six bodies were found in shallow graves near Mitchell's Plain, Neil and his friends had been ordered by their parents not to leave the street where they live, and not to go out after dark.
The Cape Strangler began terrorising Mitchell's Plain in the mid- Eighties. All but one of his victims was under 15, and all were sodomised and strangled. As the pace of the killing accelerated, hysteria grew in the township, built on the windswept sand dunes of the Cape Flats to house Coloureds ejected from areas of Cape Town they had occupied for generations. In less than 20 years, more than 1 million people have been decanted into its treeless streets.
'This has been a terrible time for Mitchell's Plain,' said Willie Simmers, a community worker. 'People felt the police weren't trying. The area has a lot of social problems and strains - we have the biggest psychiatric hospital in Africa on our doorstep. The bodies were found in the middle of a very hot summer, and there was a kind of frenzy afterwards. People were setting fire to the bush because they thought the Strangler was hiding in there, and squatters living nearby were assaulted.'
The Strangler even became an election issue. The National Party (NP), whose candidate for premier of the Western Cape is the hardline Law and Order Minister, Hernus Kriel, used a photofit picture of the suspect in an advertisement accusing its opponents of wanting to give the Strangler a vote. According to Mr Simmers, the NP minister was criticised at campaign meetings for his policemen's failure to catch the murderer, and he voiced a widely held suspicion when he said: 'It seems very strange that this man has been arrested and charged only a week before the election.'
Local newspapers, with little concern for due legal process, have been proclaiming that the Strangler is in the bag. The headlines can only bolster the NP, which is already riding high thanks to support from Coloured voters fearful of the African National Congress. The Western Cape, where Coloureds are in the majority, is the only region where Nelson Mandela's party may lose.
In Mitchell's Plain, a key election battleground, everyone who knew Mr Simons expressed disbelief yesterday. Two of Mr Simmers's colleagues, Dawn Adams and Faiekah Philander, met him on training courses. 'He was my group leader,' said Ms Philander. 'We would go to him with all our problems, and he would go out of his way to help.' Ms Adams saw him as 'very decent, very clever - he was always above us in class - but also very emotional'. 'Whether he is the Cape Strangler or not,' said Ms Philander, 'one thing is for sure: he can never live in Mitchell's Plain again.' Yesterday, his parents left home for an unknown address.
It will be some time before the township relaxes its guard completely. Yesterday, the first day of the new term, patrols of parents were still escorting pupils home from school. But Mr Simmers and others highlighted one ironic outcome of the long-running tragedy: it may have helped to create community feeling where there was previously only dislocation. 'This is a very dreary place,' said Mr Simmers, 'but consoling the families of victims and raising money for them did bring us together.'Reuse content