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Rolling in the Deep — unlucky relatives and friends with posthumous benefits


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Taking out a life insurance policy on some unsuspecting victim is far too easy to accomplish.

How come it has to take five or six gruesome deaths of next of kin – including husbands, wives and children – coinciding with a sudden personal financial windfall before anyone’s suspicions are roused?

Imagine a colleague. First their cousin dies, then a sister, followed shortly afterwards by a niece, their partner and finally a nephew. The lot of them poisoned, beaten or stabbed to death. Best wear that evil-eye talisman at all times around the office and this specific colleague, you might reckon.

Even more puzzling is how insurance companies issuing consecutive policies, some with premiums as low as R50 a month in the case of a funeral plan and with the same repeat beneficiary, could for one moment think “all’s good, business is business”.

It took six gruesome murders and seven long, unlucky years for anyone to notice killer Rosemary Ndlovu, serial mourner and funeral attendee now serving several life terms for multiple murders.

Look, it wasn’t exactly as if she was dressed as Hannibal Lecter or Daisy de Melker when she applied for the policies. She was a uniformed member of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

A Rosemary by any other name

In De Melker’s case, no one appears to have suspected the Johannesburg wife and mother of poisoning two husbands and a son to facilitate an insurance inheritance. Her life and times have been vividly captured in Ted Botha’s highly readable 2023 Daisy de Melker: Hiding among the Killers in the City of Gold (Jonathan Ball).

De Melker was suspected of seven murders in all but convicted of only one – that of her 20-year-old son, Rhodes Cowle. The judge at the time had been unable to pin the double husband murder on her. She was hanged in 1932.

Wherever she moved – from the then Rhodesia to Cape Town, Durban and finally Joburg – sudden deaths followed. These included De Melker’s first fiancé, Bert Fuller, and four children from her first husband, William Cowle, a plumber in Johannesburg who also died after taking Epsom salts prepared by his wife.

Closer in time, in 2015, three years into Sergeant Rosemary Ndlovu’s killing spree, her colleague Sergeant Keshi Mabunda, now decorated for his work, clocked the diabolical scam. He dusted off some old dockets and began the long slog.

In 2015, Ndlovu popped into the SAPS offices in Tembisa, where she was stationed, to ask another colleague to sign off on a “bunch of insurance papers”. This was after her partner, Maurice Mabasa, her fourth victim, was found dead, having suffered an inexplicable violent assault.

By 2021 Ndlovu was in the dock, dubbed the “worst serial killer ever in South Africa”.

Since then it has emerged that there are entire syndicates operating locally, including one in Nelson Mandela Bay that targeted 11 ordinary people who were going about their lives until they were murdered between August 2021 and 2022. Seven accused were arrested on charges of murder and fraud amounting to R3-million in this instance. Anyone could be a target in this scheme, even a homeless person.

Too easy a crime to commit

In 1693, when Edmond Halley (the mathematician and astronomer after whom Halley’s Comet is named) studied the birth and death records in the city of Breslau, he was able to calculate the price of life annuities. This sparked the use of “mortality tables” in the industry. (By the way, life expectancy in South Africa has dropped to 64.)

Ever since then, people have tried to fiddle and fraudulently bend the rules as Halley’s work has strongly influenced actuarial science and its application. Professor Peter Havenga, then of Unisa’s Department of Private Law, noted in a 2006 article for Fundamina: A Journal of Legal History that “murder for insurance is an old crime”. But what was rather surprising, he added, is that “it is still so common”.

This was because, he reminded us, it remains fairly easy to become a beneficiary of a life insurance contract. In most instances, in close relationships an “insurable interest” is presumed and does not have to be proved to exist. 

This is a claim that an individual or entity would experience financial hardship as a result of damage or loss of an item or a person.

“It is claimed that the purpose of an insurable interest is to prevent or deter a beneficiary from murdering the life insured,” wrote Havenga.

However, in these instances it seemed the existence of a putative insurable interest often induced the murder of the life insured rather than acting as a deterrent.

“The conclusion is that if the purpose of an insurable interest is to prevent or deter a beneficiary from murdering the life insured, it often fails to do so,” Havenga wrote. Insurable interest, he argued, might well serve “as prima facie evidence that the insurance contract is not a wager on the life insured”.

How to stop it

So, how can the law assist in making the crime less prevalent? A few “tentative” suggestions may be made, noted Havenga.

First, the wider principle which held that no one should be allowed to benefit from his or her own wrongdoing had to be firmly established.

“Also, the role of the insurer in this context must be clarified,” said the professor.

In American law, an insurer may be held liable for issuing a policy in which the insured or the beneficiary had no insurable interest.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Five outrageous examples of insurance fraud

The desirability of such a rule for South African law needs to be considered, he said. We agree.

However, opined Havenga, “it is clear that no number of legal rules will prevent the commission of murder for insurance. The avarice and greed of individuals is too great for that. But it makes no sense to retain legal rules and requirements which do not fulfil their purpose.”

It seems like such a simple solution that could help prevent the killer in your home or office from targeting family members, friends or even you for murder as a source of income. Other than that, watch your back. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Iota Jot says:

    “The desirability of such a rule for South African law needs to be considered, he said. We agree.”
    Would that be the royal “we”, Marianne?

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