Empangeni, 1983. I returned home from a holiday in the UK to find that all hell had broken loose. None of us knew quite what to make of it. A lunatic was breaking into homes at night, killing them and making off with their valuables.
The man was brutal. The weapon was basic. Man and weapon combined into the killing machine we knew locally as Hammerman. The Hammerman was probably the only thing about our town that made the international news at the time. There were other famous people in the country. The real heroes, though, were our friends and neighbours.
Residents locked doors and watched out for each other. My neighbour, Annette Gainsford and her family, kept an eye on myself and my toddler daughter and I don’t know how I would have coped without her love and care. Like many people in the town at the time, she never who how to be less than supportive.
We were all in the situation together. They were dark days made bearable only by the warm people around us. Annette’s husband often worked nights (on the trains), my husband worked days but slept like ex-able seaman do. Security and child safety was often left to the women because men worked shifts or worked away, or because they drank often at one of the clubs.
Annette’s had her own 3 children to care for and support as well as me, her 25-year-old neighbour. We locked doors, answered telephones on the first ring, leaped up to check when our dogs barked or growled. Some of us got used to handling firearms that had been locked away before. We sweated through the Zululand summer that year – Deprived of the breeze that tempted us to open our windows.
Today, so many years later, Annette reminded me that the Hammerman was finally caught in Melmoth. Soon after, we learnt that he had been prowling around near Dunne Road, right around the corner from us. Her daughter, Cherylann, was a child then. She remembers her family and friends talking (part jokingly) about wearing a motorbike helmet to bed to protect themselves in case of an attack.
Suburban South Africa was deceptively peaceful in the early 80’s. Empangeni was a small town with a big heart in that era of the calm before the storm. The population worked mostly on the railways, other government parastatal or the mining industry. We lived in subsidised company houses. Many women could afford to run their home and raise their children on one household income. We weren’t rich, but we had time for hobbies and funds to braai and take the kids to the Cactus Drive-In. We played tennis or Trivial Pursuit at one of the local clubs. We were low fliers in a small town. We liked our life between the city of Durban and the majesty of the Zululand hills. Serial killers were rare in South Africa, and unheard of in our area.
The Hammerman was the talk of town. He was a mystic thing. A legend, a myth – Like the Tokoloshe and other tales, except he was killing our friends and neighbours and the blood he splattered was real. During his reign of terror, the Hammerman,
- Broke into houses at night
- Murdered people in their homes
- Crushed people with a hammer
- Stole valuables that he could carry – Money & jewels
- Never touched the children of his victims
- 1982 : Peter Trollip : Violently attacked (with his wife & mother in law present)
- 1983 : Graham and Margaretha McCaskill (prison officers) : Murdered : December
- 1984 : Justin and Terri Smith : Murdered : February : Children left alone : .32 firearm was stolen
- Immobilise the male adult and steal at leisure
The most reliable pieces of information that we have about the Hammerman’s MO come from the attack on Mr. Peter Trollip. Peter’s story was well-known in the local community. He provided the following details about his attack to the local newspaper. His assailant
- Entered the house through the (unbarred) bathroom window
- Hit Peter (then 34) on the head repeatedly (around 10 times) with a hammer
- Rendered him unconscious with the first blow
- Was interrupted when Mrs Trollip woke up and turned on a light
- Caused Mrs Trollip to scream for her mother who was in another room
- Was further interrupted when Peter, likely alerted by his wife’s screams, sat up in bed
- Dodged a punch from the still concussed Peter who missed – his eyes were covered in his own blood
- Landed another blow to Peter’s chest before jumping back out through the bathroom window
The Hammerman uncharacteristically attacked Peter’s wife, breaking his general MO. She had woken up and therefore might have left him little choice. He would likely have been stressed and reacted without thinking.
1984 : November : Simon Mpungose’s trial started in the Empangeni Court shortly after his arrest
- The accused slept through most of the hearing
- The accused refused a defence
- Court heard that the accused had committed other violent robberies in addition to the ones he was charged with
- Court was told that Mpungose attacked many other people during violent robberies
- It was noted that the accused never harmed any of the children of his victims
- Mpungose stated that he wanted to die as he had a hard life, complicated by the actions of people who did not understand his plight
Mpungose stated that he was fulfilling a dream he had in prison 11 years earlier, in which he grew larger and stronger, broke out of jail and obliterated all the whites in his path (Rian Malan, author of ‘My Traitor’s Heart’) & ‘It (the murders) is because of what I have witnessed happening to my fellow black men and also to me because of all that was done to me by the white people.’
Verdict & Sentence
Mr. Justice Broome sentenced Mpungose to death by hanging. Mpungose had covered his hands with socks during the robberies to avoid leaving fingerprints. Mr. Justice Broome found there were no extenuating circumstances.
On hearing the verdict, Mpungose threw his blue track suit into the public gallery, shouted, and threatened to expose his penis to the court, until he was restrained with handcuffs. The defendant was a psychopath. This was not a mitigating factor in law (of the land, at the time)
November 29th, 1985. Simon Mpungose was hanged to death in Pretoria. It was a Friday, a year after he was sentenced. Media reports read,
The “Hammerman,” Simon Mpungose was executed on 29 November 1985 after committing a string of violent robberies and murders in the Empangeni area”
In 1994 : Cathy Powers (Mail & Guardian journalist) highlighted some of the country’s worst serial killing cases. Simon Mpungose’s case topped the list. Powers noted that Mpungose’s motive appeared to be racial. She referenced Rian Malan’s ‘My Traitor’s Heart’.
Malan (a South African journalist) released his book a few years after Simon Mpungose was executed. By 1990, the mood of the country had changed. The anti-apartheid movement was at its height. Reports and stories of government sanctioned acts of brutality and violence were making headlines. A book detailing South African on South African violence was right on the button. The manner in which Simon Mpungose murdered his victims, along with his seemingly psychotic behaviour grabbed the attention of the global media.
Malan followed Simon Mpungose’s case. He told how Mpungose was orphaned as a child. As an adult, he was drawn into a life of crime. This escalated to the murder spree. In Malan’s report of the court case, he links the cruelties of apartheid to the drivers that led Mpungose to commit his crimes. Malan later found Mpungose’s rural village – and discovered that Mpungose had not actually been orphaned. In fact, the killer was cast out of his community over tribal superstition around incest.
Further Reading / Sources