South African sports minister calls political opponents Witches

Heather Greene —  April 16, 2014 — 15 Comments

SOUTH AFRICA – On April 6 South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) held a 35th anniversary event to commemorate the death of freedom fighter Solomon Malanghu. Several national politicians spoke including President Jacob Zuma. The event turned “surreal,” as described by The Cape Times, when the National Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labeled opposition party members “witches.”

The ANC is currently the controlling party of South Africa’s national government. However the country’s provinces are independently run. While the ANC maintains control over most of these provinces, its opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is the controlling force in the West Cape. The two parties regularly engage in heated political debates, street conflicts, marches and rallies.

Minister Mbalula at CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014 [Photo Credit: Government ZA Flickr]

Minister Mbalula at CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014 [Photo Credit: GCIS]

The anniversary event was held in a community center in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town which is located in the DA-controlled West Cape. Speaking to ANC supporters, Minister Mbalula took a direct shot at the opposing party when he said:

This thing of witchcraft is when a witch does nothing for the people but they still get re-elected. This is what we find ourselves in here in the Western Cape. We are being governed by witches. (As quoted by The Cape Times)

Later in the speech Mbalula adds:

These witches are oppressing us, they are trampling on us. Where are the tokoloshes and the (sangomas) so that we can chase these witches away? It is witchcraft to let people live with feces inside their own homes and have no proper toilets. This is the same province where farmworkers are not paid with money but in the dop system … It is the same place where our people are called refugees. What do you call that? Witchcraft … (as quoted in the Citizen Daily)

Witchcraft accusations are a serious business in sub-Sahara Africa. As described in this Daily news report, a lost grandmother can be accused of witchcraft and consequently in danger of being physically assaulted. Through his words Mbalula called up a deep-seated cultural fear surrounding occult practice.

In the weeks prior to Mbalula’s speech, the DA had publicly challenged President’s Zuma’s fiscal policies and accused him of corruption. In response the ANC demanded a legal retraction. Mbalula’s witchcraft accusations may have been a direct response to the DA’s claims.  All of this is happening only a month prior to general elections.

As explained in an opinion piece published by mainstream media site eNCA, a South African 24 hour television news station:

The ruling party seems to have deployed the Minister of Sports and Recreation to bring inflammatory and incendiary ideas and practices from the fringes into mainstream political debate… This was a role played by the party’s Youth League leaders not so long ago: making statements so provocative that the party elite could maintain a safe distance from any fallout yet benefit without necessarily disavowing or disciplining the errant figures. 

Mbalula’s speech may not have been completely a party play. He has a history of publicly lashing out. In a recent interview he called the South African media “losers” for criticizing his plans to shape South African athletics. In a tweet he likened his dreams to that of Hitler’s.


When soccer fans booed President Zuma, Mbalula called these fans “wolves and hooligans” whose “plans, infused in Satanism at best, will never succeed in the future because their plans are nothing else but filled with evil.”

Minister Mbalula appears to have a propensity for using inflammatory language. However in the case of his witchcraft accusations, the words are more than just offensive.They are illegal as defined in the Witchcraft Supression Act of 1957 & 1970. Making this point is South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) director Damon Leff,

We remind the Minister and the ANC provincial secretary that according to Act 3 of 1957, accusations of witchcraft are punishable by a fine of up to R400,000 or imprisonment for up to 10 years. Accusations of witchcraft amount to incitement to violence in South Africa. ANC members therefore contravene the electoral act by inciting violence (as quoted in the Citizen Daily)

Leff was interviewed about this subject by Talk Radio Host Kieno Kammies:

SAPRA has called on the ANC and the national government to apologize and condemn the ongoing, dangerous witch accusations. Since this call-to-action there has been no response from either party.  

These recent political events happen to coincide with SAPRA’s yearly “30 Days of Advocacy” campaign to raise awareness for and end the notorious witch-hunts in the country. SAPRA and other similar organizations have been regularly engaged in a cultural struggle and daily conversation with media, law enforcement and government.

30daysIn early 2014 the South African Police Occult Crime Unit revealed that “occult” related crimes were rising. In reaction:

[Unit] investigators [will be] doing awareness workshops that are being presented at various schools, churches, police stations …  A network of prayer groups from different church denominations where establish to assist with the problems.

In a press release SAPRA noted that the Unit has designated the warning signs of Occult “dabblers” as:

Personality changes including rebelliousness, boredom, low self-worthiness, difficulty relating to peers, a change in friends, secretiveness, a drop in academic performance, loss of interest in extra-curricular activities, avoidance of their family, drug and alcohol use, and withdrawal from their family religious heritage and a lack of church attendance … an unusual interest in books, films and videos with an occult theme…body markings, including the Pentagram 

In February SAPRA protested by lodging “a formal charge of hate speech against the SAPS Occult Crime Unit and its members, with the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, and the South African Human Rights Commission.”

Fortunately all of SAPRA’s work isn’t defensive. Just today Leff announced that SAPRA is being consulted in the amending of the country’s Witchcraft Suppression Act. The final paper will be submitted directly to the Law Reform Commission by May 30. It is SAPRA’s hope that the Commission will make some distinctions in Witchcraft practices that will support South African Pagans and curb the destructive witch-hunts.

In the meantime charges of witchcraft continue even at the highest level of public politics. The eNCA’s opinion piece concludes:

We can ill afford to either tolerate or entrench vilifying political speechifying which deploys tropes designed to provoke communities into moral panics. In March it was Satanism; in April it was witchcraft. What will May bring? …As for the appropriateness of calling people witches at a memorial for Solomon Mahlangu, one recalls the words of Joseph Welch from the United States’ anti-communist ‘witch-hunts’ during the 1950s: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?

While SAPRA will continue to wait for an apology from Mbalula and the ANC, it is not expecting to receive one.  The organization will be focusing its energy on the Commission’s reform work. A full article and update on that effort will be published in Penton Media’s Minority Review blog near the end of April.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    If it weren’t so serious I’d be laughing: The signs of the “occult dabbler” have a huge overlap with signs circulated to US parents in the Sixties that their kids were on drugs, later repurposed as signs your kids were involved with gang activity, and later still — sure enough — occult-involved. Whatever the fear flavor of the moment, the same list of sure-fire signs of adolescence gets posted as a warning of specific juvenile misbehavior. A hybrid of no clue with no imagination.

  • He must be desperate to be demonizing his opponents in such a way. Unfortunately, others in his society will view his behavior and copy it, leading to more accusations of witchcraft and more real victims like the lost grandmother and others.

    Having a law against making an accusation of witchcraft I think is a good idea, if it is enforced. He should have to pay the fine for breaking that law. I almost wish we had a law like that in the US.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Actually, you don’t. Think of the silencing campaigns the Christian Right would mount once a rule like that had a precedent.

      • I do not care what the Christian Right thinks or does. I care about what is right and just.

        • Charles Cosimano

          Considering their propensity to collect firearms it would be highly rational to care. Right and just does not keep people alive.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          OK. A rule like this is neither right nor just because it silences the free exchange of ideas (wrong) and will inevitably be used against the marginalized (unjust).

          • I do not believe the freedom of speech is an absolute. I believe any action (speech included) that incites violence is a crime. Inciting violence is not a “free exchange of ideas”. It is still illegal to yell fire in a crowded theatre and no one has lost any liberties because of this.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I was too succinct. Calling someone a Witch is already actionable in the US if it breaks libel/slander or incitement-to-riot laws. Any further restriction in the US begins to fringe on suppression of ideas, and I’m a slippery-slope guy on that subject. It may not be such a bad idea in South Africa, which has a different social climate, just as we have hate-crime specifications reflecting our social climate. (As you can see, I’m not an absolutist in this area.)

          • How many people in the United States have had burning tires thrown around their neck because someone called them “witches?” Once you get back to me with a figure on that, we can talk about why America needs to enact our version of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 and 1970.

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        It is the Christian right in South Africa that is encouraging the Satanic Panic, and charges of Witchcraft. The South African Police Services has a special unit just to investigate occult crime, made up of only evangelical Christians. No one else is allowed to be a member of the unit. Their book on Occult crimes is by a former member and now alleged minister by the name of Jonker.

        This book claims anything occult related leads to Satanism, violent crime, drug use and so forth. The book includes Neo Pagan religions as well and is used by the education department, the police departments and by the government.

        So they have government education ministers encouraging calling anything kind of crime in school as being Satanic and bringing in religious people to do exorcisms. There are ministers that make big money fighting Satan or allegedly getting witches out of people, sometimes for the victim’s full years earnings.

        So this is very much a religious war going on not only in South Africa but much of the rest of Africa, India , Southern Asia and the South Seas. Much of this is by Evangelical Christians, some with financial ties to such groups here in the United States.

        I have been following this since I was alerted to the situation in South Africa since 2007. I have interview Damon Leff and other modern day Pagans in South Africa as well as keep in daily contact with a couple of groups there. the problem is made worse by a combination of corrupt government tied with some corrupt Christian ministers.

        If any here are old enough to remember our own Satanic Panic in the late seventies, eighties, and early nineties then you understand what it is getting like in South Africa. This in fact is the second time in South Africa, now by black misters, but in the nineties it was Afrikaans [conservative white Dutch African ministers]

        So far the white Pagans have not been hurt, but it is reason for them to be a bit nervous. So some of them have been actively fighting the Witch Hunts, the Satanic Panic.

        I was reading a Swedish study on Witch Hunts and it stated more people have died accused of witchcraft since 1950 to present then died in the whole of what we refer to as the burning times. Back then it was 50,000 1400 into 1700s, but since 1950 more than 70,000 people. are estimate to have been killed world wide. In just Africa alone we are talking of hundreds a year. And we American Wiccans have said “Never again the burning.” Who are we kidding?

    • Charles Cosimano

      The courts would kill it before the ink was dry.

  • TPW
  • One note: “Witch” and “Evangelical Christian” mean very different things to black South Africans and white American Pagans. Witch scares in subsaharan Africa invariably involve marginalized members of society who are believed to possess supernatural powers through the aid of evil forces. These forces come from a “Second world” parallel to our own, an idea seen throughout Bantu and Kongo-influenced traditions in the New World. (In Haitian Vodou the lwa come from “behind the mirror.” In Brazil Capoiera involves a lot of handstands because the dead are said to walk on their hands upside down. In Jamaica and the Anglophone Caribbean “hags” shed their skin so they can suck the vitality from their victims: they’re called lougawou in Haiti and ndoki in Kongo traditions).

    The “Evangelical Christians” who specialize in exorcising demons and witches are practicing a melange of Christianity and traditional African practices. They have gained some support from American Christians who thought they were supporting their fellow Soldiers for Jesus: most of them would run screaming if they ever actually saw one of those “exorcisms.” But ultimately these practices are to Evangelical Christianity what Haitian Vodou is to Roman Catholicism.

    • damonleff

      And still, no-one accused of alleged bewitchment deserves to be murdered!

      • Nobody (at least nobody sane) disputes that torturing and murdering children is a Bad Thing. Co-opting someone else’s very real problem to whine about the Eeevil Christians and the NEW BURNING TIMES is not nearly as bad, but it’s still distasteful and offensive. These witch hunts have as much to do with American Neopaganism, or any alleged persecution thereof, as the Holocaust has to do with six million Witches going to the gas chambers singing “we all come from the Goddess.”