Witch-hunts in South Africa
Advocacy against human rights abuses committed as a result of accusations of witchcraft and violent 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, we 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.
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 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.
Accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts 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 we 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.
The ’30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts campaign’ was launched by SAPRA in March 2008 under the banner of Touchstone Advocacy, in response to ongoing accusations of witchcraft and brutal witch-hunts in South Africa.
SAPRA is a participating member of the Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network coalition.