Village of the damned
Swayimane, where two aged women were raped within a week, is just another rural village in South Africa.
Lying in the beautiful KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the village represents the worst of the rural life - dire poverty, uneducated and unemployed young people, water and sanitation slow in arriving and cemeteries overflowing with villagers who died of Aids.
Last week, the villagers woke up to fear in their midst when they learned that a 94-year-old woman had been raped in front of her two great-grandchildren in her dilapidated hut, allegedly by a convict released as part of President Jacob Zuma's special remission programme announced on Freedom Day.
Within days, the village was rocked by another brutal rape - this time, that of an 82-year-old grandmother.
No arrests have been made.
As fear curled itself around Swayimane, fearful old women moved into one house, hoping they would be protected against men who would brutalise them.
Yesterday, when hundreds of scared residents met in the town's community hall to discuss the crime level, it was to speak of their anger, pain and bewilderment about the defilement of two old people.
"It's painful when I look at the generation I will leave when I die. When I grew up in the area about 57 years ago I never thought that one day I would be fearful of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren like this," said one of the residents, Tholakele Vidima.
"People have lost respect for the elderly and for themselves. I am so ashamed to even tell people that I reside in this area. Crime is so high, and alcohol and drug abuse are the main causes," she said.
Vidima's view is echoed by ANC councillor and speaker of the Umshwathi council, Nonhlanhla Msomi, who points to serious unemployment in the town of about 120000 people.
She believes the government has not done enough to help the villagers.
"We should be blamed for what is happening because we have no programmes to cater for the young and they end up consuming alcohol as the only means to deal with the burden," explained Msomi.
Msomi said that, of the 120 000 people living in Umshwathi , the majority reside in Swayimane.
"We don't build halls and soccer grounds, resulting in the mushrooming of taverns. The unemployment rate is so high and generally people are frustrated.
"The majority of them live below the poverty line and it's alarming," said Msomi.
An Umshwathi spatial development report from 2008-2009 said there was a dire need for development programmes for young people.
The figures, albeit four years old, describe life in the municipality - low employment, low literacy levels and a stutteringly slow delivery of basic services such as sanitation and water.
Local councillor Mduduzi Goba said: "The biggest challenge is water. We have to rely on water tankers provided by the municipality to get clean water, otherwise the area is dry. This also affects some small farmers who plant sugar cane for a living.
"At the moment, the municipality is busy constructing a water tank so that people can get water at any time."
Shebeens are mushrooming in the area and stay open for 24 hours. About 70% of the people in the area are youths, and less than 5% are working.
At least half of young people under the age of 35 have no matric and those who reached Grade 12 could not further their studies at tertiary level because of poverty.
Professor Joan van Niekerk, national coordinator of Childline, which often works in rural areas, said rape and sexual abuse have become so common in South Africa that the organisation's staff seldom come across a girl who has not suffered some kind of sexual abuse in rural areas.
"We approach children for other things and discover there is also a history of child abuse. This is of enormous concern."
Van Niekerk believes that rape is on the increase in South Africa and that people have become desensitised to it.
The number of sexual offences reported at the Wartburg police station - which covers Swayimane - went up from 25 in 2009-2010 to 34 the following year.
But the police's Colonel Vincent Mdunge downplayed the contention that crime levels were high.
"People must not create unnecessary tensions. According to our records, crime levels have remained as they were some time ago. Swayimane is a very quiet rural area. As police, we treat the two rapes as crimes committed by notorious individuals. These are just two isolated incidents," Mdunge said.
Goba said on Monday, however, that a 16-year-old girl was raped and beheaded three weeks ago, and a human head was found in the area.
Another grandmother was raped and stabbed to death last year. She was living with a toddler, who was found alive next to the woman's corpse the next morning.
Msomi said most people survived on government grants or by working on local farms where they earn only R800 a month.
"They use the money to support about nine family members. Even the farms are retrenching [workers]. It's a serious challenge," she said.
Goba said people resorted to selling alcohol because they had no other means of economic survival.
"Nearly in every 10 households there's a tavern and that should not be. It's really beyond control."
Twenty-three-year-old Mbali Sokhela completed her matric three years ago but was forced to stay at home to look after her grandmother.
"I don't have money to further my studies and I can't go to Pietermaritzburg or Durban to look for employment because I don't want to risk leaving my granny alone. With the R1200 grant she manages to buy food."
And, like the rural poor who remain steadfast in their religious zeal, local mayor Bizokwakhe Gwala has called for prayers to help the villagers of Swayimane.
"The majority of the people live in poverty. Some have to survive on R20 a day. Unemployment is high and conditions for the elderly are bad, which is why we have decided to have a prayer.
"We have called on the community to fast so that God and our ancestors can hear us."