Police believe that a series of child rapes, which occurred over 16 months, was the work of a single suspect.
But it was only after the Khayelitsha community rallied that police were able to track a suspect to an informal settlement in Philippi.
A 25-year-old man was arrested and initially charged with the failed abduction of a six-year-old girl, but police say investigations have linked the suspect to a string of other cases.
He has now been charged with 22 counts of abduction, 21 of rape and one murder, all involving girls aged between two and nine.
Police are investigating whether the suspect was involved in more crimes.
It is alleged that the suspect conducted a 16-month reign of terror in the area around Monwabisi Park, Harare and Lingelethu West in Khayelitsha, but it was only after a four-year-old girl was murdered and a six-year-old girl managed to escape after allegedly being abducted that residents and police realised they had a serial rapist on their hands.
Provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Arno Lamoer said police were continuing to investigate, scanning reported cases to find out whether the suspect was involved.
Meanwhile, Monwabisi Park residents say the horrific spate of crimes has reminded them how important it is to be vigilant and to look after one another’s children.
Community leader Moses Mbuwako said the six-year-old girl went missing from Endlovini in Harare at about 3pm on September 19.
Her disappearance panicked residents because it came less than a week after four-year-old Aviwe Speelman’s body was found in the same area.
Police discovered Aviwe had been raped before she was murdered.
On September 12, Aviwe was playing with her two-year-old brother in the yard of her parents’ home in Endlovini. Her parents were inside at the time.
After 20 minutes they realised Aviwe was gone and were told by her tearful brother that a man had taken his sister to the shop to buy chips, but he had been ordered to stay behind.
Her family, neighbours and police searched through the night for the little girl. The next day residents brought their dogs to join the search and later that day dogs sniffing in the bushes that border Monwabisi Park found Aviwe’s body.
Police Warrant Officer November Filander said Aviwe had been raped and strangled.
Her body had been covered with twigs and leaves, and her clothing lay next to her, Mbuwako said.
Just days later, the six-year-old disappeared.
Mbuwako said that at 4pm that day, the girl was seen with a man. She was holding chips. When residents chased the pair, the man let go of the girl’s hand and fled.
Mbuwako said that after this incident, residents had held a meeting during which some said they knew the man.
Residents had speculated that the man could be responsible for a spate of rapes in Harare and Lingelethu West.
He said there had been many rapes in those areas, but residentshad no way of knowing whether the same person was involved.
Three girls had been raped in one week, he said.
Police had been investigating the six-year-old’s abduction and this had led them to an informal settlement in Philippi, Filander said.
A man was arrested on the night of September 20 and initially charged only with the girl’s abduction.
At the time, police said the abduction and Aviwe’s death were unrelated.
When the man was arrested, forensic evidence had not yet been finalised, Lamoer said.
“Last week, thanks to forensic evidence, we started putting the picture together,” he added.
DNA evidence had linked one suspect to both crimes, along with 20 other abductions and rapes.
It was clear from the sheer number of rapes that police were dealing with a serial rapist, Lamoer said.
The crimes for which the man has been charged date from April last year to last month. All the victims were girls aged between two and nine, he said.
“We will continue investigations and see if other reported cases can be linked,” said the commissioner.
Bongikhaya Qhama, spokesman for the Khayelitsha Safety and Security Forum, said crimes against children had been rife as far back as 2000. “These things have been happening, but behind closed doors,” he said.
These “tendencies” had been brought into the open, awareness had been raised and people were looking out for them and reporting incidents to the police, said Qhama.
He said it was important for residents to be even more vigilant when they saw children walking alone or with strangers.
“It’s all of our responsibility to take charge of our children’s safety, even if we are not their biological parents,” said Qhama.
The suspect appeared in the Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Court on Friday. The case was postponed to November 1.
Kathleen Dey, who heads Rape Crisis in Cape Town, said serial rapists’ crimes often went undetected. It was often found in these cases that the perpetrator was known to his victims.
Dey said residents in areas like Khayelitsha took crimes against children very seriously and authorities often had to step in to calm angry residents down.
When children were raped in Khayelitsha, some residents threatened to take matters into their own hands, Dey said, because these crimes were “not an accepted thing”