No-one knows what turns a man into a rapist, although there is no shortage of theories. Some criminologists believe that men with exaggerated or even mildly accentuated sex drives become either Don Juans or rapists. In other words, intelligent, virile men satisfy their needs through guile and persuasion, while others resort to prostitutes, pornography or force. Some rapists commit the crime because the opportunity presents itself, while others carefully plan and premeditate their actions. The worst sex criminals are those where rape is accompanied by sadistic murder. In these cases, rape does not flow primarily from a physiological sexual basis but is motivated by other causes. For some rapists, the act is motivated by a desire to dominate.

William Frederich van der Merwe fell into this latter category. He raped women because he enjoyed the feeling of power that it gave him. His desire was to take revenge upon society and women in particular - in the end he would resort to murder.

Van der Merwe was born in Kew, Johannesburg, in December 1951. Mary, his mother, was a devout Catholic. Thomas, his father, worked as a driver for the Johannesburg tramways. When William was fifteen months old, his father was killed in a motorcycle accident. Seven weeks later, his mother gave birth to John, her tenth child,

The death of Thomas van der Merwe was a catastrophe of untold proportions. Money had always been short for the family, but now they were destitute. In desperation, Mary turned to the authorities for help. She received some assistance from the Society of Vincent de Paul, a local charity, but the money was never enough. Worse still for William was the fact that his mother, apparently acting out of a misguided sense of guilt that her youngest son had never known a father, lavished more affection on John than on him. Not only did William grow up in abject poverty, but his situation was exacerbated by the fact that he felt unloved and utterly rejected.

When William was two years old, the family was split up William and John were sent to a children's home in Pretoria. Four of their brothers and sisters went to a Johannesburg children's home, and the four eldest stayed with their mother. William was devastated by the move, but worse was still to come. When his sixteen year-old sister married, she came to collect John to take him to live with her and her husband.

William then knew that he had finally been abandoned. Anger and resentment took hold of his soul. At the age of six, William went to live with his mother who had moved into a council house in Bertrams, Johannesburg, and attended Bertram's Junior School. It was quickly realised that he had a severe learning handicap and behavioural problems. After the principal had noted that there was something radically wrong with William, he was examined by a psychiatrist. Although he was judged to have an IQ of 90, he was still unable to read or write. This failing had a negative effect on him and he became cheeky, aggressive and noisy. He was eventually diagnosed as dyslexic and sent for special classes at a nearby clinic. It was later discovered that he was using the bus-fare he had been given to go to the cinema. He was seven years of age.

As van der Merwe grew older, things got worse not better. He was ridiculed by his classmates for his inability to read or write and gave vent to his anger by turning to crime. He would later admit to committing his first robbery - the theft of a teacher's purse - while still in Standard 1. “I can't read the words,” he once told his mother. “The teacher just ignores me. The other children laugh at me. I'm not interested. I don't want to go to school.” Not long afterwards, van der Merwe began breaking into houses on a regular basis. He was eventually caught, and in August 1965, he was sentenced to three cuts with a cane for housebreaking and theft. At 13 he was a registered thief. Two years later, he was caught stealing again, but this time the court sentenced him to reform school and he was sent to Tokai Reformatory in the Cape.

After being at reform school for about eighteen months, van der Merwe ran away and went to live with his sister, Flora, and her husband. They gave him a job in their carpet-laying business, and for a while he lived a fairly normal life. He was during this period that he also met a girl at the church guild and fell in love for the first time. Although the girl was pregnant when they first met, they became very close and for some time virtually lived together. Unfortunately, van der Merwe regarded the relationship as much more serious than she did. He later learnt that the girl was seeing other boyfriends and the affair ended after a violent argument. For van der Merwe it was the final humiliation: a horrible, pathetic ending to a hopeless relationship.

According to van der Merwe, the urge to rape first occurred in Vereeniging when one day he saw a pretty girl in the street and tried to chat to her. She was unresponsive. At that moment, he claimed, all the anger and resentment he felt against society came bubbling to the surface. Almost without thinking, he pulled out a knife and flashed it under the girl's nose. He saw a terrible look of fear come her eyes. He had never known such power before. After that incident, he approached other girls. He would follow them and in lifts and other secluded Places, would either expose himself, make indecent suggestions to them or actively touch them. At first, he did not wish to hurt any of the girls, but merely overawe and impress them with a sense of masculinity and power.

Eventually, he was spotted in the street by one of his victims and taken to the police. In May 1971, van der Merwe, then aged 19, was convicted on two counts of attempted assault and one of attempted rape. He was given a suspended prison sentence, placed in the custody of his sister, and ordered to undergo treatment for dyslexia. Rape gave van der Merwe a sense of power he had never experienced before. His self-esteem was very low, partly because he was ridiculed for neither being able to read nor write. In treating his dyslexia, it was hoped that his self-esteem would improve and his desire to rape diminish.

It was only a few months later that van der Merwe finally went over the edge. Between September and November 1971, he raped at least nine women. It was also during this period that he exchanged the knife that he habitually carried for a screwdriver. The press quickly labelled him the 'Screwdriver Rapist'. Van der Merwe often used the same modus operandi: he would dress in white overalls and visit women's homes, claiming to be an electrician. In one case, when he raped a young mother after threatening her and her child, he lured her into the bedroom by asking her where the plug in that room was. In another, he tried to rape a student whom he gagged and tied to her bed. He tried to stop her screaming by breaking an empty wine bottle over her head but when she carried on shouting, he ran away. He also raped a pretty 14-year-old schoolgirl after gagging her and threatening her with a screwdriver. Regarding this particular case, Mr Justice Steyn, the man who would preside over van der Merwe's subsequent trial would say: “This is one of the grimmest cases of rape I have known in 15 years on the Bench. It is difficult to be objective in this case. A young and very attractive girl - a virgin until she was ravaged by van der Merwe... This is the kind of person I am going to protect.”

Van der Merwe eventually gave himself up to the police after being confronted by his sister and her husband. She had read that the rapist had been seen in a blue kombi - the some type of vehicle, which Van der Merwe drove. Once in police custody, van der Merwe co-operated fully with the authorities and was sent to Sterkfontein Mental Hospital for 28 days observation, after which he was pronounced fit to stand trial.

On 28 February, 1972,he appeared at a summary trial at the Rand Supreme Court. He was charged with five counts of rape and four of attempted rape, theft and crimen injuria.

On 22 March, 1972, he was sentenced to death by Mr Justice Steyn. “I knew I was going to get the death penalty,” van der Merwe would later claim. “I saw it in his face.” Van der Merwe's legal counsel immediately appealed against the sentence and on 2 June 1973, an Appeal Court sitting in Bloemfontein handed down its judgment. By a vote of two to one, Van der Merwe's death sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison. The dissenting judge, Mr Chief Justice Ogilvie Thompson, disagreed with the decision. He said at the time: “Having regard to the number and the premediated nature of these crimes, and to the degree of criminality consistently exhibited over a considerable period, I remain unpersuaded that the sentence imposed by the court is inappropriate.” Fortunately for van der Merwe, the other two appeal judges did not share Mr Chief Justice Ogilvie Thompson's point of view. Mr Justice Holmes, one of the other judges maintained: “What this youth needs imperatively is a good spell of discipline and training. Society does not require his extermination.”

For the next fifteen years, William van der Merwe was locked away in prison, where he underwent a rehabilitation programme and received drug therapy. On 1 March 1987, he was granted parole and released from the Zonderwater Prison in Pretoria. The first knowledge the general public would have of his release would be early in 1989.

At about 5 p.m. on the evening of 4 January, 1989, Christine Lennon (27) and Theresa Mizen (19) were hitch-hiking to Tamboerskloof after a day at Muizenberg beach. They were picked up outside Burger Fair on Main Road, Tokai, by van der Merwe, who was driving a white Mazda bakkie. (it would later turn out that van der Merwe carried in his bakkie (pick-up truck) three sets of handcuffs, rope, rubber gloves, several varieties of exotic condoms, various 'sexual aids' and 29 screwdrivers in a toolbox.) According to Theresa, “The driver was a white male. He spoke fluent English and appeared to be a respectable person. I sat in the middle. We said we were going to Cape Town. He said he was too, but had to go to Constantia to pick up some papers first.”

Van der Merwe drove to a house in Constantia and went around the back. Moments later, he came around to the passenger-side door and pointed a gun at his two victims. He ordered them to climb into the back of the truck, where he handcuffed them and tied their feet. He said that if they did exactly as he told them, they would still be alive when he had finished. Fifteen minutes later, he stopped in a deserted part of Constantia forest.

When he unlocked the back of the bakkie, he said to Theresa, “If you scream, I'll cut off her [Christine'sl breasts in front of you. Yours too, He took off all his clothes, commented upon their 'pretty breasts', and then raped Theresa. Afterwards, he gave both girls a cigarette, chatted with them, and promised not to do either of them any harm. “He said he just wanted some fun with us then he'd drop us off somewhere and we could get home on our own.” However, he forced the two girls back into the bakkie and drove around 'for what seemed like hours'.

Their final destination was Grabouw forest about forty kilometres out of the Cape Town. Eventually, van der Merwe stopped the bakkie and raped Miss Lennon in front of her friend and then he made her walk with him into the bushes. At first Miss Mizen thought of trying to run away but with her feet tied together and her hands cuffed behind her back she knew that escape was impossible. Then she saw his trousers... “I grabbed them and got the pistol. The moment I felt the metal in my hand I prayed, ‘God, please let there be bullets in it.’”

Although she had never handled a gun before in her life she managed to cock the pistol. She lay in wait until some time later when she heard van der Merwe approaching. “I heard his footsteps,” she said. “He was alone. I saw the knife in his hand and I knew I'd never see Christine again.” (When the police arrived later, they found Christine Lennon lying among some pine needles nearby in a pool of her own blood. She had been stabbed to death.)

As van der Merwe came around the back of the vehicle, she rolled on to her side and pulled the trigger. She heard van der Merwe give a sigh and saw him fall. The bullet had hit him in the head. She wriggled to the back of the bakkie and fired another shot, this time hitting him in the shoulder. When she tried to shoot him for a third time, the gun jammed. Shaking with terror, she managed to find a knife in the van, cut the ropes around her ankles, and make her way to a nearby road. A passing motorist took her to the police station. Van der Merwe was taken to hospital where he died a few hours later without regaining consciousness.

The reign of terror of the Screwdriver Rapist had finally ended.

Miss Mizen will have to live with the horror of that afternoon for the rest of her life, but for Van der Merwe she feels no sorrow. Her words are perhaps a filling epitaph for a brutal psychopath. “There was nothing. There is nothing. It was as if it had nothing to do with me. I did not even feel he got his just deserts...”

The author comments:


The case of William van der Merwe raises a number of alarming issues, not least of which is how a dangerous maniac, a habitual criminal who is an acknowledged menace to society, can gain release from prison fifteen years after being sentenced to death for a series of horrendous crimes. The authorities maintain that van der Merwe's parole was supervised in a 'professional and competent' manner. This is no doubt true, yet van der Merwe raped and murdered an innocent young woman after his release from prison. Surely this is a clear indication that there is something wrong with the system of assessing the mental health of a convicted rapist. Unfortunately, psychiatry is not on exact science, and society has the right to be protected from individuals such as William van der Merwe. Until a more effective method of assessment to determine the success or failure of an individual's rehabilitation programme is devised, it is widely felt that the public has every right to demand that such individuals be kept out of circulation - permanently if necessary.




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