A man suspected of being South Africa’s worst serial rapist has been found dead in his prison cell hours before the start of his trial.
Sifiso Makhubo, 42, was due to face charges including the sexual assault of 34 children.
He was accused of 122 charges in total – covering murder, rape, kidnap, robbery and attempted murder by infecting his victims with HIV.
Makhubo is believed to have hanged himself with a blanket in his prison cell. The authorities are investigating the circumstances of his death.
He had appeared in court on Monday when his lawyer Advocate Livingstone Makuna said he had appeared “confident”.
Prisons spokesman Ofentse Morwane told the news agency AFP: “According to our preliminary investigation, he committed suicide at night using a piece of blanket.”
Local television station ENCA said some victims had already arrived at court and were waiting for the trial to begin, unaware that he had committed suicide.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Phindi Louw told reporters she was disappointed the victims of a “monstrous perpetrator” would not get closure.
“A lot of effort has gone into preparing the case. I feel extremely sad for the victims,” she said.
However, campaigners said there would be relief that no-one would now have to give evidence at the trial.
South Africa is inured to some of the world’s highest levels of sexual violence but the horrific nature and breadth of Makhubo’s crimes had shocked the country.
The 42-year-old allegedly committed the crimes in the Kathorus, a township east of Johannesburg, from 2006 until 2011 when he was captured.
He was arrested after a victim recognised him and notified police.
Prosecutors confirmed Makhubo had previously been convicted, but did not give further details.
With nearly 65,000 attacks a year, South Africa has one of the highest incidences of reported rape in the world. In 2012, more than 25,000 were assaults on children.
In 2010, the country recorded 132.4 cases of reported rape per 100,000 people – compared to 27.3 in the US or 2.1 in Uganda, although reporting rates and definitions of rape vary by country.