Is South Africa a nation of budding psychopaths?

Mandy Wiener investigates whether the high rate of violent crime in our country is due to a higher level of psychopathy among the population

20 August 2017 - 00:00 By Mandy Wiener
Image: Thabiso Monare

Seventeen-year-old Aljar Swartz had a plan, but he needed a human head to make it work.

The Ravensmead, Cape Town, teenager had heard he could get thousands of rands for body parts in the lucrative muti industry.

An albino head was the most valuable. He tried to coax his friends to help him. Many of them feared Swartz, a self-proclaimed Satanist and a manipulative guy. Some half-committed to his plan, but none fully bought into it.

But Swartz was determined.

On the evening of October 13 2013, he lured a 15-year-old acquaintance, Lee Adams, to an abandoned school in Ravensmead under the pretext of smoking dagga. There, he pulled out a knife and beheaded the boy.

He returned home with the head and buried it in his yard.

The next morning Swartz went to school and bragged about what he had done. He began to seek out a buyer for the head, but before he could make a sale, police swooped.  

Aljar Swartz beheaded a boy with a knife.
Aljar Swartz beheaded a boy with a knife.
Image: Supplied

In 2008, 20-year-old Lester Abrahams shot and killed his father at their home in Thokoza in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, then beat his mother to death with a metal pipe in front of his younger brother and his little niece.

He killed his parents for the R3.7-million he inherited from them, which he spent in less than four years.

In 2011, 20-year-old Chané van Heerden and her boyfriend, 24-year-old Maartens van der Merwe, lured electrician Michael van Eck to a graveyard in Welkom, where they killed, dismembered and skinned him.

They buried Van Eck's severed arm and foot, his head and the remains of several cats in the garden of a flat in town. Van Eck's face was stripped and stored in a refrigerator, with two ears in a bottle of water.

Chané van Heerden and her boyfriend murdered a man and kept his face in the fridge.
Chané van Heerden and her boyfriend murdered a man and kept his face in the fridge.
Image: Supplied

This year the High Court in Cape Town heard sentencing arguments in the case against 20-year-old Cameron Wilson, who killed five people - including 18-year-old Lekita Moore in Valhalla Park - apparently because they irritated him.

In each case the killers were in their twenties and were found to display psychopathic tendencies.

Their murders and mutilations are by no means a full record of such crimes in South Africa, begging the question: is South Africa a nation of budding psychopaths?


"We are not a nation of psychopaths, although we have become a nation desensitised to high levels of violence, which most people feel powerless to change," says forensic psychiatrist Dr Larissa Panieri-Peter, who regularly testifies in South African courts.

"It is unlikely that the high rate of violent crime is due to a higher level of psychopathy in South Africa than elsewhere in the world.

"The violent-crime rate is more likely to do with a complex interplay between many factors such as poverty, hopelessness, inequality, trauma in childhood, witnessing and being a victim of violence, substance abuse, broken families, complex roles of patriarchal value systems, societies in rapid transition, complex historical problems rooted in injustice and inequality."

Not all killers are psychopaths. Nor are all psychopaths necessarily killers.

It is estimated that 1% of all children display "callous and unemotional" traits indicative of psychopathy. That's about as many as those who have autism or bipolar disorder.

The signs include a lack of empathy, remorse or guilt, shallow emotions and aggression or cruelty. Such kids can be manipulative and charming.

But if your child displays these signs, it may not necessarily mean he or she will be the next Ted Bundy.


Certain psychopathic traits are also evident in small doses in high-achieving individuals such as Olympic athletes, politicians, surgeons and CEOs - vocations in which it pays to be dispassionate and ambitiously narcissistic.

Most recently, North Korea labelled US President Donald Trump a psychopath, a suggestion supported by some experts.

Dr Robert Hare, considered the world's leading expert in psychopathy, developed the gold standard test to determine whether an individual is a psychopath. (Take the test below.)

He believes that only a small fraction of psychopaths are violent criminals. The rest walk among us.

In his book Snakes in Suits, Hare unmasks corporate psychos, showing the world that being a psychopath does not necessarily mean channelling your inner Hannibal Lecter.

"A high-scoring psychopath views the world in a very different way," Hare told the Daily Telegraph. "It's like colour-blind people trying to understand the colour red, but in this case 'red' is other people's emotions."

Reinforcing Hare's decades-long beliefs, a 2016 study by experts in Australia found that one in five CEOs are psychopaths, roughly the same rate as among prisoners.

While some might suggest Trump and President Jacob Zuma may display psychopathic tendencies, Panieri-Peter insists it is not quite so simple.

"There is a global disillusionment with politicians in many countries. People love to give psychiatric labels to people they dislike or disagree with, and we can speculate.

In reality, though, we need to be cautious in using labels, without considerable information and informed assessment," she says.


Professor Gerard Labuschagne headed up the police's specialised investigative psychology section for 14 years and is considered a world leader in criminal profiling.

He has sat down with hundreds of violent killers during his career, some of whom he has classed as psychopaths.

He concurs that not all violent killers are psychopaths.

"Most aren't these vicious criminals. In fact I would be hard-pressed to say that even most of our serial murderers are psychopaths. The condition is regarded as being lifelong with certain features burning out in older age.

The close cousin to the psychopath is the antisocial personality disorder. There is a large overlap...
Professor Gerard Labuschagne

"Most features are noticeable early on in life. The close cousin to the psychopath is the antisocial personality disorder. There is a large overlap, but while most people meeting the criteria for psychopathy also meet the ASPD criteria, not all people with ASPD will reach the threshold for psychopathy."

He points to several cases in which the perpetrator displayed psychopathic tendencies.

These include two serial rapists - Navy Able Seaman Tsediso Letsoenya, who was accused of 39 rapes and 33 acts of indecent assault, and Andre Mohamed, who was convicted of a string of rapes in Durban and Pretoria in 1996 and 1997.

Tsediso Letsoenya was accused of 39 rapes and 33 acts of indecent assault.
Tsediso Letsoenya was accused of 39 rapes and 33 acts of indecent assault.
Image: Supplied

Labuschagne says that in criminal cases, being a psychopath is an aggravating factor at sentencing. It also does not rob one of having criminal capacity, as is the case with

"The larger problem is that probably many more criminals in our prisons are psychopaths but they don't get assessed.

"During a trial the only assessment undertaken is the competency-to-stand-trial assessment and the criminal-responsibility assessment.

Neither of these is affected by being a psychopath, so even if the person was one, and the observation team made such a diagnosis, it might not make it onto the court report."


There is a widely held view that psychopathy is a life sentence - that there is no remedy, no cure.

The condition is indeed considered untreatable, but a new clinical approach is offering hope, particularly to parents of children as young as three or four who are thought to have psychopathic traits.

At the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Centre in Madison, Wisconsin, doctors have been able to tame psychopathy, if not cure it.

Instead of placing young offenders in a juvenile prison until they're released to commit further crimes, they are sent to the Mendota facility where they receive treatment. The results have been promising.

In South Africa, the belief is that there is no potential for rehabilitation.

"We typically say that a diagnosis of psychopathy is the greatest risk factor a person could have. Mainly because they can't change. You can't fix them," says Labuschagne.

"Some aspects may calm down as they get older but they will always have the mindset of a psychopath.

"In the old days, Zonderwater Prison used to be for psychopaths, but nowadays they are kept in the general prison population. All except those in government."


The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is a diagnostic tool used to rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies.

Developed in the early 1990s, the test was designed to identify the degree of a person’s psychopathic tendencies. Originally designed and used to assess people accused or convicted of crimes.

The checklist PCL-R consists of a 20-item symptom-rating scale that allows qualified examiners to gaugecompare a subject’s degree of psychopathy. Developed in the early 1990s, the test was originally designed to identify the degree of a person's psychopathic tendencies.

The Hare checklist PCL-R contains two parts, a semi-structured interview and a review of the subject’s file records and history. During the evaluation, the clinician scores 20 items that measure central elements of the psychopathic character.

The 20 traits assessed by the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-RevisedPCL-R score are:• Glib and superficial charm;• Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self;• Need for stimulation;• Pathological lying;• Cunning and manipulativeness;• Lack of remorse or guilt;• Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness);• Callousness and lack of empathy;• Parasitic lifestyle;• Poor behavioural controls;• Sexual promiscuity;• Early behavioural problems;• Lack of realistic long-term goals;• Impulsivity;• Irresponsibility;• Failure to accept responsibility for own actions;• Many short-term marital relationships;• Juvenile delinquency;• Revocation of conditional release; and• Criminal versatility.

Each of the 20 traits is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 based on how well it applies to the subject being tested. 

A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero.

A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy.

People with no criminal background normally score around 5.

Many nonpsychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.

Source: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Read more about the checklist here.