POLICE have cracked what is believed to be South Africa's biggest child pornography ring – with links to Canada, the UK, the US, western Europe and Australasia – after the arrest of six people.
A school principal, who is also an award-winning author, two teachers, a lawyer, a dermatologist and businessmen from across the country were arrested in a multi-pronged operation coinciding with arrests overseas.
Police are investigating a further 26 people and more arrests are imminent.
Laid bare in police investigations is the alleged sordid sexual exploitation of what is thought to be hundreds of children.
In what experienced detectives have described as "sickening", children as young as five are believed to have been groomed to have sex with each other and adults.
The images are believed to have been generated overseas and the police, with the help of their international counterparts, are now investigating whether any children from South Africa are involved in the ring's operations.
Some of the details of the alleged pornography are too graphic to publish, with many of the children suffering extreme forms of violence. Overseas police are investigating whether any of the children were murdered.
Those close to the investigation said the South African police were tipped off by a foreign policing agency, through Interpol, after dozens of computers were seized in raids.
International police discovered the addresses of hundreds of alleged paedophiles from around the world.
Experienced South African officers from various units were last week pulled off their cases to form a high-profile task team.
Overseen by national detective head Lieutenant-General Vinesh Munoo, the team secured warrants to search homes, schools, legal and medical practices, and businesses.
On Thursday, police arrested the principal of an elite private primary school in Nelspruit, a teacher in Florida, a Pretoria dermatologist and a senior legal officer in North West.
In follow-up raids at the weekend, officers stormed dozens of homes in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Free State, seizing computers, DVDs, books, magazines, computer memory sticks, cameras, video cameras and other digital recording devices.
A source with insight into the investigation said the first to be arrested was the school principal at his White River home.
In a recent letter from the school, parents were informed that the principal has been dismissed with immediate effect. "The agreement follows his arrest for allegedly being in possession of child pornography," it says.
The 43-year-old man, who was released on R1000 bail after appearing in court, was found in possession of DVDs containing alleged images of child pornography.
Electronic devices including laptops belonging to the man, who won a national literature prize for a murder mystery novel involving a 16-year-old boy, were seized.
A Nelspruit court official said the man was due to appear in court again next month on charges of possession of child pornography.
Police spokesman Lieutenant-General Solomon Makgale said all those arrested were men.
"The arrested include two teachers from Florida and Carletonville, a headmaster from Nelspruit and a legal officer from Lichtenburg.
"Police raided 15 properties and seized 672 DVDs, 22 memory sticks, eight laptops, two computer tablets, 39 external hard drives, 25 books."