Witch-hunts in South Africa
Advocacy against human rights abuses committed as a result of accusations of witchcraft and violent witch-hunts
The ’30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts campaign’ was launched in March 2008 under the banner of Touchstone Advocacy, in response to ongoing accusations of witchcraft and brutal witch-hunts in South Africa.
Download a copy of SAPRA’s 2016 Submission on the National Action Plan to combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, concerning accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts.
Download a copy of ‘Witch-hunts in South Africa 2014‘
Contemporary witch-hunts in South Africa
Refugees of witchcraft accusation and Traditional Courts
Muthi murderers are not Witches
South African Police Services approach to witch-hunts problematic
Written media on witch-hunts and this campaign
Visual media on historical and contemporary witch-hunts
The test of Nelson Mandela’s legacy will be marked by how and to what extent South Africans will eventually treat those whom it despises and fears. To paraphrase Tata Madiba’s profound statement on eliminating poverty, overcoming one’s fear and hatred of ‘witches’ “is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice… It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” This fear and hatred, I would argue, are symptoms of a deeply rooted spiritual insecurity; one born from false imaginings and paranoid fantasy not easily lifted from the hearts and minds of thousands of South Africans who still firmly believe that all misfortunes must find their cause in ‘witchcraft’.
In ‘Reflections on Spiritual Insecurity in a Modern African City (Soweto)’, Adam Ashforth superbly examines this question of spiritual insecurity amongst people who sincerely believe that ‘witches’ really are responsible for misfortune. He does so within the context of poverty and violence. Ashforth echo’s many earlier academics in searching for the sociological causes of accusations of witchcraft and the inevitable human rights violations which accompany them. Unfortunately a multitude of such studies have failed to resolve the underlying motivations for often brutal hate crimes against completely innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of paranoid fantasy and delusion.
Whilst material poverty may certainly add to one’s sense of insecurity about one’s survival, accusations of witchcraft are not limited to the poor and destitute, any more than irrational beliefs about witches are held only by the uneducated. As a human rights activist, a purely academic understanding of the perceived mechanism of accusation does not even begin to address the real causes of witch-hunts – the irrational beliefs people hold about ‘witchcraft’. In some sense, the search for purely sociological causes for witch-hunts past and present has avoided challenging these beliefs directly as irrational, indefensible, scientifically implausible, and dangerous.
In ‘AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Problem of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa’ Ashforth writes “Witchcraft in the South African context typically means the manipulation by malicious individuals or powers inherent in persons, spiritual entities, and substances to cause harm to others… the motive of witchcraft is typically said to be jealousy.” In the 1995 Report of the Ralushai Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murder in the Northern Province, Professor N. V. Ralushai records “All kinds of misfortune, including matters as varied as financial problems, illness, drought or lightening strikes, are blamed on witchcraft.” The Ralushai Commission’s report defined the term ‘witch’ to mean a person who “…through sheer malice, either consciously or subconsciously, employs magical means to inflict all manner of evil on their fellow human beings. They destroy property, bring disease or misfortune and cause death, often entirely without provocation to satisfy their inherent craving for evil doing.” Testifying before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Amnesty Hearing in 1999, Ralushai confirmed his Commission’s definition of a witch when he was asked by attorney Patrick Ndou to define what a witch was. Ralushai stated “A witch is supposed to be a person who is endowed with powers of causing illness or ill luck or death to the person that he wants to destroy.”
Such wholly false and prejudicial beliefs about a mythical witchcraft and imaginary witches, left unchallenged or unchecked by rational fact and demonstrable evidence, only serve to feed hysteria and paranoia and encourage further accusations and witch-hunts.
Every citizen of the Republic is constitutionally and legally entitled to:
2. Human dignity
4. Freedom and security
5. Freedom from slavery, servitude and forced labour
6. Freedom of movement and residence
7. Freedom of trade, occupation and profession
8. Freedom to own a home and maintain property
9. The right to access to justice
10 The right to health care, food, water and social security
11. The right to just administrative action
12. The right to access to courts
13. The right not to be unfairly arrested, detained and accused
14. The right to citizenship.
The vast majority of victims of accusation of witchcraft, both deceased and still living, in South Africa have been and are being denied their legal right to all of these constitutional rights. Accusations of witchcraft are not condoned under the constitutional rights to freedom of religion, belief and opinion, or expression, as incitement to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, that constitutes incitement to cause harm, is not protected under South African law. Accusations of witchcraft and resulting witch-hunts constitute a series of clearly identified crimes under both international and national law.
In almost all cases of accusation of witchcraft, the accused will:
a. not be offered access to legal defense against the accusations,
b. not be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,
c. be driven from their communities,
d. lose their homes as a result of arson,
e. be forcibly separated from their families, loved ones and friends,
f. be placed in custody by the South African Police Services, ostensibly for their own safety, spending at least one night in a prison cell to avoid being attacked by members of their own community,
g. may never return to their homes and communities of birth, and
h. be forced into unwilling exile in unofficial and unacknowledged refugee camps.
By being denied access to counseling and restorative justice, the living victims of accusation – refugees of incitement, hatred and violence – are currently not afforded any assistance or protection by the South African government.
Throughout this paper I use the common noun ‘witchcraft’ because Witchcraft, as a twentieth century religious belief system, is not of direct issue where violent witch-hunts are of concern. The victims of accusation are not real Witches, do not practice Witchcraft as a religion or way of life, and do not identify traditional African beliefs as ‘Witchcraft’. Most of the accused are Christians. This does not mean that Witchcraft or modern Witches are irrelevant to international discussions of alleged witchcraft or resulting witch-hunts. On the contrary, our advocacy against witch-hunts in South Africa is firmly rooted in our being Witches, not in the denial of our self-identified religious identity. Naturally, what our fellow countrymen believe about the mythical ‘witch’ and imaginary ‘witchcraft’ does affect real Witches and the way in which society generally perceives Witches and Witchcraft.
Contemporary witch-hunts in South Africa
Witch-hunts have become epidemic throughout Africa. Although witch-hunts have historically been viewed as gender specific, with a large percentage of victims still identified as elderly and solitary women, recent reports show that victims of witch-hunts include both women and men of all ages. 
 Witch Hunts In Modern South Africa: An Under-Represented Facet Of Gender-Based Violence (June 2009)
by Yaseen Ally – http://www.mrc.ac.za/crime/witchhunts.pdf
Published media reports  highlight tragic human rights abuses arising as a result of witchcraft accusations. The true extent of witch-hunts in Africa (and elsewhere in the world) however has yet to be determined. Many incidences of witch-hunts go unreported and very few governments actually keep detailed statistics of such incidents.
 Remember their Names – Victims of witch-hunts in South Africa 2000 to 2013
compiled by SAPRA – http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/remember-their-names/
Witch-hunts are largely perpetrated by individuals and groups who believe that misfortune is enabled through the agency of ‘a witch’. Such accusations are sometimes motivated through localized forms of religious extremism by practitioners of traditional African religions who believe that witchcraft is always the cause of misfortune, traditional healers (including diviners, herbalists, ‘witch-doctors’) who use various forms of divination to point out suspected witches, and charismatic revivalist Christian religious leaders (pastors and prophets) who use their prejudicial notions of witchcraft as a manifest form of satanic evil to encourage their followers to find (accuse) and convert suspected witches.
The victims do not identify themselves as Witches
The words ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ are used predominantly as an accusation throughout Africa, either to describe a number of clearly defined traditional religious practices that do not self-define as witchcraft, as well as a number of variable urban legends perpetuated by religious leaders and traditional healers to identify women, children and men who are not actual Witches.
In rare instances where alleged confessions of being a witch or practicing witchcraft are made by the accused, reported testimony is either irrational or coerced through torture or threat.
Belief is not evidence and accusation is not proof
The ‘witchcraft’ most often referred to through accusation, allegation and harmful superstition, exists only in the minds of those who believe that witchcraft is the embodiment of evil and that witches are responsible for misfortune, disease, accident, natural disaster and death.
Victims have the right to be presumed innocent
Since 2008 the South African Pagan Rights Alliance has repeatedly appealed to the South African Commission for Human Rights to encourage the South African government to:
a. halt the persecution of suspected or accused witches,
b. uphold and strengthen a culture of human rights for all equally,
c. respond appropriately and humanely to incidences of accusations of witchcraft,
d. make the eradication of violence against suspected witches an international priority,
e. train local police to manage witchcraft accusations and violent witch-hunts in a way that affirms the dignity and humanity of those accused of practising witchcraft,
f. create victim support units to facilitate reintegration and conciliation of those accused,
g. adopt comprehensive public education and awareness programmes aimed at eradicating the real causes of witchcraft accusations, and
h. reform legislation that currently seeks to suppress witchcraft or criminalize accused witches.
There can be no human culture without human rights for all
The South African Human Rights Commission has declined to engage with the South African Pagan Rights Alliance and has refused to undertake any formal investigation into ongoing human rights abuses committed as a result of accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts in South Africa. 
 Concerns raised by witchcraft accusations and witch-hunts in South Africa
Stakeholder Submission prepared by the South African Pagan Rights Alliance for the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. (February 2013)
Refugees of witchcraft accusation and Traditional Courts
South Africa faces a growing refugee crisis as victims of witchcraft accusation who either survive assault or are expelled from their communities by community leaders, traditional leaders and traditional healers, after being tried in traditional courts and found guilty through divination, of alleged but still unproven accusations of witchcraft activity.
Under existing traditional customary law, Traditional Courts currently adjudicate on matters relating to accusations of witchcraft. Existing customary laws and beliefs concerning witchcraft however, remain prejudicial to citizens who may actually identify as Witches and who practice Witchcraft as a religion. 
 SAPRA Objections against Traditional Courts Bill
SAPRA submission to National Council of Provinces on the Traditional Courts Bill (June 2012)
Traditional Courts within sub-Saharan Africa share a commonly held belief that witchcraft is not a faith that people openly profess, and do not recognize Witchcraft as a constitutionally protected religion.
Customary beliefs about witchcraft remain wholly prejudicial to actual Witches, where witches are viewed as being responsible for misfortune, illness or untimely death. Traditional beliefs do not assume that a witch may be innocent of such accusation because it is believed that such criminal acts are in keeping with the nature of the practice of witchcraft.
Within traditional courts, witchcraft is viewed as a malevolent magical act, one punishable under customary African laws. Accusations of Witchcraft, though illegal under the 1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act, are frequently heard by traditional courts.  Accusations are always based on suspicion, rumor, or gossip.
 South African Law Reform Commission Review of Witchcraft Suppression Act
Citizens accused of witchcraft and tried within traditional courts are not provided with legal counsel and evidence presented in such courts, including formal consultations with diviners in determining or alleging guilt, does not qualify as proper evidence in any other court of law. Accusations of witchcraft discriminate against those accused, and marginalize an already existing religious minority that identifies Witchcraft as its religion.
The South African government will not acknowledge the existence of these refugee villages or refugees, and seeks to increase the authority and influence of traditional leaders and traditional courts.
Refugees of witchcraft accusation cannot remain an unspoken secret or unchallenged opportunity. Victims of accusation deserve true restorative justice. They deserve to live with dignity, without shame, guilt or fear.
Listen To News Internet Radio Stations with Pagan Musings Podcast Channel on BlogTalkRadio – We will be joined live by Damon Leff. Our main focus for the show will be SAPRA (South African Pagan Rights Alliance), the 30 Days of Advocacy Against Witch Hunts in South Africa and the state of religious and cultural conflicts in S. Africa and else where around the globe.
Muti murderers are not Witches
In South Africa witches are incorrectly believed to be responsible for human mutilations, often referred to by the media as ‘muti murders’. 
 Muti murderers are not Witches!
African traditions ascribe supernatural properties to medicines (muti / muthi) derived from both plant and animal sources. In extreme circumstances, unethical traditional healers (nyangas and sangomas) resort to using so-called “muti” made from human body parts harvested from the victim whilst he or she is still alive, a practice widely eschewed by both ethical healers and actual Witches.
Despite accusations to the contrary, evidence will show that the muti murderers themselves are not Witches, but are most often paid by unscrupulous so-called “traditional healers” to harvest human body parts and tissue for sale, for use in alleged magic. Those found guilty in courts of law have not identified themselves as Witches, but as traditional healers.
Despite this, even ethical traditional healers have and do incorrectly identify those responsible for such criminal acts as witches or witchdoctors, in order to disassociate themselves and traditional healing from such acts.
Scapegoating witchcraft and witches for the crimes committed by criminals, not Witches who practice Witchcraft, contributes to general prejudice and fear of witchcraft and witches. Traditional healers are often responsible for inciting violent witch-hunts by identifying other traditional healers as responsible for muti murders and other misfortune.
Baseless accusations of muti murders repeatedly published in the media against witches and witchcraft in general have and will continue to incite witchcraft accusations and further defame real Witches.
South African Police Services approach to witch-hunts problematic
The investigation of accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts falls under the ambit of the Occult-related Crime Unit, a poorly constituted special branch of the South African Police Services staffed by evangelical Christians who believe that ‘witchcraft’ constitutes evidence of Satanic activity.
Despite attempts by this Alliance to engage with members of this unit in order to constructively cooperate with and assist said unit to manage witchcraft accusations and violent witch-hunts in a way that affirms the dignity and humanity of those accused of practicing witchcraft, to create victim support units to facilitate reintegration and conciliation of those accused, and adopt comprehensive public education and awareness programmes aimed at eradicating the real causes of witchcraft accusations, members of this investigative unit has refused to engage with this Alliance or acknowledge this advocacy against accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts.
Formal submission submitted to the SAPS ORC unit in 2012 was responded to by the national head of this unit, Attie Lamprecht, through an online evangelical Christian magazine. No formal SAPS response has ever been received by this Alliance.  
 Occult Crime Unit to investigate the supernatural
 SAPS targets Occultists, Esoterics and Pagans
Dawn’s Diorama – South African Witch Hunts with Damon Leff.
Darkcity Radio Sun 17th March 2013.
Media on witch-hunts
Damon Leff | 23 March 2012 | Mail & Guardian
Witch-hunts are common in Africa. Historically, they have been viewed as gender specific because a large number of the victims have been elderly, solitary women, although recent reports show that victims include both women and men of all ages. The frequent result of witchcraft accusations is tragic human rights abuses, because the victims are presumed guilty without undergoing a legal inquiry. In South Africa it is illegal to accuse anyone of witchcraft. During the 30-day campaign, which runs from March 29 to April 27, the alliance will be appealing to everyone to condemn witch-hunts. Human rights are for all, including the victims of witch-hunts.
Damon Leff | 03 February 2013 | SAPRA
Stakeholder Submission prepared by the South African Pagan Rights Alliance for the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.The vast majority of victims of accusation of witchcraft, both deceased and still living, in South Africa are essentially being denied their legal right to all constitutional rights.
Jason Pitzl-Waters | 07 February 2013 | The Wild Hunt
I fear that some of us living in the developed “first” world have developed a tendency to romanticize the European witch persecutions of the early modern period, a time where between 35 to 65 thousand men and women were killed for crimes of sorcery and witchcraft.It was so long ago that we have taken to fictionalizing the witch-hunts in films like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “Black Death,” and “Season of the Witch.” Blurring the line beyond mere romanticization into utter fantasy, a fantasy fed by the very lies used to initially convict those men and women. This fantasy is problematic not only for the way it warps history in the minds of the uncurious, but because witch-hunting has never stopped. The witch-hunts in Europe may have ended generations ago, but in other parts of the world they are still burning innocents.
Jo Chandler | 15 February 2013 | The Global Mail
Belief in black magic persists in Papua New Guinea, where communities are warping under the pressure of the mining boom’s unfulfilled expectations. Women are blamed, accused of sorcery and branded as witches — with horrific consequences.Despite a lack of data and the suspicion that only a fraction of incidents are ever reported, the 2012 Law Reform Commission examination of sorcery-related attacks concluded that they have been rising since the 1980s. It estimated about 150 cases of violence and killings are occurring each year in just one volatile province, Simbu — wild, prime coffee country deep in the nation’s rugged spine.Figures vary enormously but volumes of published reports by UN agencies, Amnesty International, Oxfam and anthropologists provide unequivocal evidence that attacks on accused sorcerers and witches — sometimes men, but most commonly women — are frequent, ferocious and often fatal.
Morgause Fonteleve | 15 March 2013 | Off the Cuff | Penton Independent Pagan Media
On 15 March 2013, Morgause Fonteleve, Convener for the SAPC and CEO for SAPRA, addressed the CRL Commission and a body of UNISA students, at the NG Church Hall, and invited the community to attend the opening of the ‘The Advocacy’ exhibition the following day at Caster Bridge, White River. She highlighted that the focus of the month long exhibit was on the violation of Human Rights, in particular the violation of the same in our country and in the province of Mpumalanga. The aim at promoting Justice and equity in our Country. She asked them to put aside the discussion of personal religious rights, culture and language and to delve deeper into a pressing matter, that of witchcraft accusations, which has reached epidemic proportions in our country and which is rife in the Province of Mpumalanga. ‘The Advocacy’ was a collaboration of several South African Artists, united against the violation of Human Rights in particular the brutality of witch hunts.
Heather Freysdottir | 17 September 2013 | Loki’s Bruid
In South Africa and other African countries generally, accusations of witchcraft and violent witch-hunts are an almost daily occurrence. The victims of accusation are however not actual or real Witches at all, and none of the victims have ever self-identified as Pagan or pagan. The victims of accusation and human rights abuses who survive have never self-identified as Witches. This holds true for every country in Africa. Actual Pagan Witches in South Africa, the majority of whom are still Caucasian, have not to my knowledge ever experienced witch-hunts and are not subjected to the same level of hysterical accusation we find amongst largely black communities. But the underlying mechanisms that fuel witch-hunts do result in prejudice against self-identifying Witches. This kind of prejudice manifests in non-violent ways as discrimination in the work-place, bias against parties in custody battles who identify as Pagans, hostility and suspicion against children who identify as Pagans in public schools.
Damon Leff | 23 January 2014 | Media for Justice
Republished 04 February 2014 | Minority Review | Penton Independent Pagan Media
South African media, with very few exceptions, has paid scant attention to ongoing witch-hunts and even less to advocacy against witchcraft accusations in this country. Mainstream media’s refusal to focus attention on both accusations and campaigns to end witch-hunts reflects our government’s own denial of ongoing human rights abuses that result from false accusations of bewitchment. Any attempt to end accusations of witchcraft must begin with challenging the actual beliefs that continue to motivate such accusations. This cannot happen if media continues to ignore the issues or chooses instead to promote only prejudicial stereotypes and unproven allegations.
Visual media on historical & contemporary witch-hunts
The following visual media is not owned by SAPRA. All copyright remains with the original copyright holders.
Pendle Witch Documentary – Simon Armitage presents the story of the most disturbing witch trial in British history and the key role played in it by one nine-year-old girl, Jennet Device, a beggar from Pendle in Lancashire, the star witness in the trial in 1612 that resulted in the hanging of her own mother, brother, sister and many of her neighbours.
Witch Hunt – Period documents and discussion by historians reveal the factors, superstition, hardship, stress, mass hysteria and personal revenge that may have been responsible fo the execution of twenty people found guilty of witchcraft in Puritan New England.
History of Thought: Witchcraft and Witch-hunts – A witch-hunt is a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic, mass hysteria and lynching, but in historical instances also legally sanctioned and involving official witchcraft trials.
The Terror of History: The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe
Lecturer: Professor Teofilo Ruiz
Punished for witchcraft in Kenya
People & Power- witch trials
Ghana – The witches of Gambaga
Dispatches – Return to Africa’s witch-children
In January 2009 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a working report on human rights abuses committed as a result of witchcraft accusations.”An extensive literature review of journal articles, UNHCR internal documents and newspapers has shown that witchcraft accusations lead to violence and persecution in locations throughout the world. Protection concerns from witchcraft allegations can occur at home and also impact individuals throughout the cycle of displacement. Witchcraft-related violence may manifest as domestic violence, child abuse, or mob justice. […] UNHCR and governments need to be prepared to apply refugee law to claims that are based on witchcraft. By being aware that the phenomenon of witch persecution is still very much alive, those in the refugee field may be better prepared to pre-empt or respond to the associated violence and provide protection as needed.” 
 New Issues In Refugee Research Research Paper No. 169
Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence. (January 2009)
Jill Schnoebelen. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
In April 2009 Gary Foxcroft, Programme Director of Stepping Stones Nigeria, appealed to the UNHCR to address increasing accusations of witchcraft against children in Nigeria.”At the international level, Stepping Stones Nigeria, along with numerous other civil society organisations around the world, is witnessing a dramatic rise in witchcraft accusations and subsequent gross violations of human rights that take place due to them. However, to date, this phenomenon has received little in the way of concerted attention from the wider humanitarian community. Stepping Stones Nigeria believes that, left unchallenged and inadequately understood, witchcraft accusations will increasingly become an issue of pressing concern for the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations working with refugees, asylum seekers and traf?cking victims in the years to come.” 
 Witchcraft Accusations: A Protection Concern for UNHCR and the Wider Humanitarian Community? (April 2009)
Paper Presented by Gary Foxcroft, Programme Director, Stepping Stones Nigeria to UNHCR
In April 2010 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) published evidence of an increase in accusations of witchcraft against children  “…including orphans, street-children, albinos, those with physical disabilities or abnormalities such as autism, those with aggressive or solitary temperaments, children who are unusually gifted; those who were born prematurely or in unusual positions, and twins”  in sub-Saharan Africa, including specifically Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria. According to this report a majority of the victims are males between the ages of 8 and 14.
 Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa (April 2010) Aleksandra Cimpric – UNICEF WCARO, Dakar
 Children in Benin who were branded as witches for their “abnormal” births (16 July 2010)
Among UNICEF ‘s recommendations, the report details 1) the regulation of both traditional healers, who traditionally act as Witch-finders and Pentecostal revivalist churches who advocate Witch-sniffing as a means to spiritual salvation, 2) strengthening of evidence and understanding of Witchcraft accusations against children, 3) promoting social change through dialogue on Witchcraft accusations, 4) access to child and family welfare services for child victims, 5) promoting the role of health professionals in protecting children accused of Witchcraft and 6) access to the legal system for children accused of Witchcraft, including legal reform to decriminalize Witchcraft.In March 2011 the South African ‘Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities’ (CRLRC) publicly announced its support for this annual campaign. 
 Murders of people accused of witchcraft – Issued by Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (29 Mar 2011)
In January 2012 the CRLRC publicly condemned “the ongoing violent victimization and the killing of elderly persons labelled as witches” and called on Traditional leaders, community councils and government departments to “assist in deepening peace, friendship, tolerance and respect for human dignity and communal cohesion among all the people of South Africa in pursuit of social justice and equality, irrespective of suspicions that would not be proven in the court of law.” 
 The CRL Rights Commission condemns the killings of alleged witches in Ntuzuma, KwaZulu-Natal (13 Jan 2012)