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Medicine murder

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A Medicine murder is the killing of a human being in order to excise body parts to use as medicine. It is not human sacrifice in a religious sense. Its practice in the format described below occurs primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

Medicine murder in southern Africa has been documented in some small detail in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, although it is a difficult subject to investigate because of its controversial standing in customary practices and laws. Very few research and discussion documents have been devoted to this subject. Three concerning Lesotho were published in 1951, 2000 and 2005 regarding the same events in the 1940s and 1950s; one concerning Swaziland was published in 1993 covering the 1970s and 1980s; and a commission of enquiry held in South Africa in 1995 covering medicine murder and witchcraft in the 1980s and 1990s.

Purpose and frequency

Medicine murder is often termed ritual murder or muthi / muti murder, although there is evidence to suggest that the degree of ritual involved in the making of medicine is only a small element of the practice overall. The objective of medicine murder is to create traditional medicine based partly on human flesh. Social anthropological ethnographies have documented anecdotes of medicine murder in southern Africa since the 1800s, and research has shown that incidences of medicine murder increase in times of political and economic stress. The practice is commonly associated with witchcraft, although ethnographic evidence suggests that this has not always been the case, and that it may have been accorded local-level political sanction. Medicine murder is difficult to describe concisely, as it has changed over time, involving an ever-greater variety of perpetrator, victim, method and motive. Most detailed information about the minutiae of medicine murder is derived from state witnesses in trials, court records and third-party anecdote. The phenomenon is widely acknowledged to occur in southern Africa, although no country has issued an accurate and up to date record of the frequency with which it takes place. This is not only because of the secrecy of the practice, given its controversial status, but also because of difficulties in classifying subcategories of murder. Medicine murder has been a topic of urban legends in South Africa, but this does not diminish its status as a practice that has resulted in legal trials and convictions of perpetrators.


The perpetrators are usually men, although women have been convicted as well, most notably in Swaziland when Phillippa Mdluli was hanged in 1983 for commissioning a medicine murder. Perpetrators vary widely in age and social status.

An individual or group of individuals commissions a traditional healer or inyanga / nanga (a herbalist skilled in traditional medicine) to assist them by concocting medicine (or muti). The medicine supposedly strengthens the 'personality' or personal force of the person who commissions the medicine. This increased personal force enables the person to excel in business, politics, or other sphere of influence. A human victim is identified for murder in order to create the medicine.

Victims vary widely in age and social standing. They are often young children or elderly people, and are both male and female. In some instances, the victim is identified and 'purchased' via a transaction involving an often nominal amount of money. The victim is then abducted, often at night, and taken to an isolated place, often in the open countryside if the murder is being committed in a rural area. It is usually intended that the victim be mutilated while conscious, so that the medicine can be made more potent through the noises of the victim in agony. Mutilation does not take place in order to kill the victim, but it is expected that the victim will die of the wounds.

Body parts excised mostly include soft tissue - eyelids, lips, scrota, labia - although there have been instances where entire limbs have been severed. These body parts are removed to be mixed with medicinal plants to create a medicine through a cooking process. The resulting medicine is sometimes consumed, but is often made into a paste that is carried on the person of the perpetrator or rubbed onto scarifications.


Since the 1970s in particular, the manner in which medicine murder is practiced has become variable to the methods described above, although the continued practice of medicine murder demonstrates that belief in human flesh as a powerful medicinal component remains strong in some communities. It would appear that medicine murder in the 18th and 19th centuries may have been considered the legitimate domain of traditional chiefs and leaders, in order to improve agriculture and protect against war. Following industrialisation and growth of commerce, the range of purposes for which medicine was used to increase influence expanded significantly. In the early 1990s when South Africa was experiencing internal political strife between several political groupings, it became clear that some mutilations for medicine were opportunistic and incidental to the assassination of political opponents. There have also been occurrences of mutilation of corpses in medical facilities. In not all cases does the employment of a traditional healer seem to have been thought necessary to the process.

Notable cases

In 1994, a 14-year-old named Segametsi Mogomotsi was murdered in Mochudi, Botswana and body parts removed. The killing was widely believed to have been for muti, and the police even recovered some excised organs. However, these were destroyed before being tested to establish them as human, leading to accusations of police complicity with the murder. The killing led to riots as students in Mochudi protested about police inaction, and eventually Scotland Yard from Britain were asked to investigate, as neutral outsiders. Their report was given to the Botswana government, which did not release it to the public. These events inspired some of the events in the book The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

See also


  • "Council to request tribal leaders to find solution to ritual murders" Daily News Online (Botswana), 11 June 2001. Retrieved 28 February 2006.
  • "Court of Appeal orders govt to pay Sekobye for unlawful arrest" Daily News Online, 31 January 2006. Retrieved 28 February 2006.
  • G.I. Jones (1951). Basutoland Medicine Murder: A Report on the Recent Outbreak of 'Diretlo' Murders in Basutoland. HMSO, London.
  • J.P. Evans (1993). "Where Can We Get a Beast Without Hair?", Medicine Murder in Swaziland from 1970 to 1988. African Studies v 52(1): pp27–42, Johannesburg
  • H.J. Deacon (1992). "The Origin of Modern Humans and the Impact of Chronometric Dating", Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 337, No. 1280 pp. 177-183
  • Murray C and Sanders P (2005) Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho: The anatomy of a moral crisis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Sanders, T. 2001. Save Our Skins: Structural Adjustment, Morality and the Occult in Tanzania. In Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (eds) Moore, HL and T. Sanders. London & New York: Routledge.

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