DURBAN: Sunday, September 9, 2007. The day started like any other for the residents of Shayamoya in Umzinto on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. That is, until a dog carried the decomposing head of a woman into the township.
The trail would lead the shaken residents to the nearby sugar cane fields where the headless body was found. As word spread and a crowd quickly grew, a second body was soon discovered, sending terror through the close-knit community.
In the weeks to come, the sugar cane plantations, where many of the Shayamoya kids played and which employed many of its residents, turned into a grisly killing field where the bodies of 11 women would be unearthed.
Just days after the first two bodies were found, the badly decomposing bodies and skeletal remains of other women were discovered by cane workers.
The Port Shepstone Organised Crime Unit, with the help of the KZN provincial office pulled together a task team to probe the murders.
Thirty police officers, along with sniffer dogs, scoured the sugar cane plantations while a team of forensics experts flew in from Pretoria to assist.
At first, police did not want to link the discovery of the bodies to the work of a serial killer but, as the bodies kept piling up, they could no longer deny it.
A serial killer was on the loose.
As detectives began profiling the victims, it soon emerged that the women were all between 18 and 25 years old and all of them were looking for jobs when they disappeared.
Some of them had been strangled.
Many of the bodies were burnt and badly decomposed and some of the bodies were found just 15m apart from one another.
The first clues detectives would find were at the bodies.
IDs, welfare cards and CVs were found nearby.
The bodies were so badly decomposed that detectives were unable to identify the bodies. The clues the killer left became vital in tracing the family of the victims.
When interviewed, detectives discovered that all the families had opened missing person cases with the police. They would tell detectives that the last contact they had with their loved ones was when they were told they were going to meet a man who had promised them a job.
Detectives would make a major breakthrough when a woman provided them with an identikit of the man. She had sat next to the “job recruiter” on a minibus taxi bound for Shayamoya but, at the last minute, had decided not to go with him.
Detectives would also discover that before they were killed and dumped in the sugar cane fields, the women were stripped of their clothes and robbed of their cash and cellphones.
Ultimately, stealing his victim’s cellphones would be serial killer Thozamile Taki’s undoing.
Police, using cellphone expert analysis, were able to trace one of the victim’s cellphones to Taki’s sister-in-law in Stanger on the KZN north coast. She would lead them to him.
At 2am on the morning of September 24, 2007, heavily armed police descended on the warren of low-cost homes in Weldebacht in Chatsworth and burst through a door where Taki and his girlfriend, Hlengiwe Nene, were living.
Inside the home, police found cellphones and clothing belonging to some of the victims.
Taki and Nene, who police charged with being an accessory after the fact, were arrested.
Three other people arrested in connection with the murders were later released.
And even though Taki was behind bars, the body count in the sugar cane fields kept piling up.
By the time he made his second court appearance in October, the body count had risen to eight.
By November 14, police would find a total of 11 bodies in the sugar cane fields near Shayamoya.
Two other victims, who were found in the tea plantations in KwaMajola in the Eastern Cape, were also linked to Taki, bringing the total number of murders linked to him to 13.
Taki’s marathon trial began in the high court, sitting in Ramsgate, in 2008 and ended in January 2011 in the Durban High Court where it was moved for sentencing and judgment.
A total of 103 witnesses were called to testify at the trial which had to be translated from isiXhosa to isiZulu and then to English.
The State alleged that Taki lured the women, with the promise of high-paying jobs before taking them to the sugar cane fields where they were strangled and killed in the early part of 2007.
He would allegedly ask them for money to pay their rent at their new jobs, or would ask them to bring money for a bribe to secure the employment.
The amount he asked for ranged from R300 to R3 000.
He was charged on 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of robbery with aggravating circumstances. While it was suspected that the women were raped, the State could not prove the allegation as the bodies of the women were either burnt or badly decomposed.
The State, lead by advocate Noxolo Tokwana, pleaded for the court to have no leniency on Taki, arguing that he had taken advantage of the country’s high unemployment rate to prey on the defenceless young women.
Some of the victims has even borrowed money from their families, so that they could start their new lives with the jobs Taki had promised.
Tokwana noted he had shown no remorse for his actions and had even laughed during the testimony of the State witnesses.
Taki was no first-time offender either. He had been convicted for housebreaking in 1997 and robbery in 1999.
On January 19, 2011, Taki was handed 13 life sentences and 208 years in prison by Judge King Ndlovu after he was found guilty of all the crimes he was accused of.
Nene was found not guilty of being an accessory after the fact, and released.
Ndlovu, however, gave Taki a life sentence for each murder and 16 years for each count of armed robbery, with all sentences to run concurrently.
He said Taki could not be rehabilitated and should spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“His presence outside prison would pose a danger to any woman and I believe that if he had not been caught in 2007, he would have continued with his killing spree. Therefore, it is my intention with this sentence that he spends the rest of his life in prison. I hope that the Correctional Services Department takes cognisance of my intention and refrains from ever letting him out on parole.”
And in a final rebuttal of his character, Judge Ndlovu added: “When he lured these women, he was charming and kind, a real jackal in sheep’s clothing. But, in court, I watched as he smiled when State witnesses cried. He was callous and insensitive, and demonstrated no remorse for his wicked acts.”
Not far from where Taki’s victims were found near the Shayamoya township, a memorial plaque has been erected, in remembrance of the 13 women who went in search of a job but fell prey to one of KwaZulu-Natal’s worst serial killers.
Makhosi Mgobhozi of Efolweni, Noxolo Mpande of Bhizana, Nosisa Nozozo of Libode, Charity Mthethwa of Tongaat, Rose Mjoli of Bhizana, Khanyisile Ncayiyana of Bhizana, Thandeka Mthebeni of Matatiyela, Nonjabulo Mpanza of Efolweni, Philisiwe Mpanza of Efolweni, Nombali Ngcobo of uMzinyathi, Thandazile Bhokoda of Lusikisiki, Siziwe Tshongaye of Lusikisiki and Cherity Khumalo of KwaMashu.