JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Last weekend, the men of Diepsloot township, north of Johannesburg, searched the community's shacks for two missing toddlers. They looked around the shops and combed the river. They spread out and searched the bush near the township.
The two girls, cousins ages 2 and 3, were last seen Saturday walking with a man wearing a yellow shirt, according to media reports, which said he was carrying one of the girls and holding the other's hand.
The last time Zandile's mother, Sisanda Mali, saw her daughter, the child was playing, she told the Star newspaper.
Last month, the body of a strangled 5-year-old girl, Anelise Mkhondo, was dumped in the same part of the sprawling township. Her body was found about 100 yards from the toilet where the toddlers were discovered.
It was believed that she too was raped, according to police spokesman, Lungelo Dlamini. Oswald Reddy, the police commander responsible for the district, said investigators believe that the same person killed all three children.
Three suspects were taken into custody Wednesday, police said. A fourth, believed to be the man in the yellow shirt with whom the toddlers were reportedly last seen, had fled, according to local news reports. The suspects reportedly shared one small shack, just yards from the crime scene.
The killings of the toddlers highlight the security problems in neighborhoods such as Diepsloot, where women and children face frequent violence. Many residents live in shacks, with communal toilets. The two toddlers lived in a one-room shack shared by 11 family members, news reports said.
On Tuesday, men and women from Diepsloot, furious about the killings and lack of security, marched in protest, threatening to lynch the suspected killers and attacking journalists. As rumors spread that the killers were foreigners, shops owned by foreigners quickly closed their doors, also fearing attack, but some of them were looted.
South Africa’s Eyewitness News confirmed Wednesday that the main suspect in the case was a foreigner, information likely to harden xenophobic feelings that sometimes boil over in struggling communities where people live in crowded, often squalid conditions, and competition for scarce jobs is tough.
South Africa’s national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, said Wednesday that police were working hard to bring the killer to justice.
“I am very sad about what is happening in Diepsloot. We need a South Africa and an environment where our children can play in the street and not be afraid of people,” she said. Phiyega called on Diepsloot residents not to take the law into their own hands. Mob killings of suspects in South African townships are relatively common.
President Jacob Zuma also condemned the killings.
"These gruesome incidents of extreme torture and murder of our children do not belong to the society that we are continuously striving to build together. We condemn these murders in the strongest possible terms," he said Tuesday.
Killings of South African children occur with alarming frequency, often at the hands of their own parents or caregivers. On Wednesday, police reported that the bodies of two toddlers were found in an open field near another township, Katlehong. The two were found next to their critically injured mother.
Meanwhile, in Cape Town, a man appeared in court Tuesday on charges of killing his 2-year-old son, Theophulus Groepies. John Hendricks, who pleaded guilty to the crime, told the court he grew enraged after the child soiled his diaper.
Diepsloot mothers told local media they were afraid to let their children out of their sight.
“That’s why I’m crying, this is not the right place to bring up a child. I’m a single parent. I’m very scared,” Masechaba Tsimo, who has two children, told the Star.
"I can’t even leave my children with a neighbor. To be honest, I don't trust anyone anymore," Nelly Motshwene, with two children ages 3 and 12, told the Mail and Guardian newspaper.
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