South African Witches face obstacles in the public practice of magic

Heather Greene —  March 5, 2017 — 11 Comments

[The following article is a joint project between The Wild Hunt and Damon Leff, a human rights activist, Witch, and editor-in-chief of Penton Independent Alternative Media. Leff is also the director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, and owns his own pottery studio called Mnrva Pottery. He is currently studying Law at the University of South Africa, and lives in the Wilderness, Western Cape, South Africa.]

SOUTH AFRICA — Michael Hughes, the unofficial face of the recent February 24 mass binding ritual against the 45th President of the U.S. Donald Trump, described it as a tool for political resistance against “the Devil.” In the wake of the numerous international headlines around the world, South African Witches were left wondering whether such public magical resistance against a sitting head of state will in any way influence, or reinforce their own government’s existing negative perception of Witches.

South African Witches live in a country that is still hostile to any notion of “witchcraft” as a valid spiritual pursuit. For most South Africans, including influential Traditional Healers and Traditional Leaders, Witchcraft is viewed as a wholly negative practice.

Proudly Pagan PFD KZN 2009

Pagan Freedom Day in South Africa 2009 [Photo Credit: Ginney May / Wikimedia]

Most forms of magic of this type remain taboo in communities around the country, and even beyond in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. This bias often finds expression in unexpected places, and the response by authorities to allegations of Witchcraft remain largely reactive.

In 2012, a leaked South African Police memorandum revealed that provincial commissioners had been instructed to appoint detectives in every province tasked with investigating alleged harmful occult-related crimes. In addition to investigating actual cult related activity, newly appointed detectives are now required to also investigate spiritual intimidation and astral coercion, curses intended to cause harm, and alleged offences relating to Witchcraft (identified as “black magic” by the SAPS).

To date, no practicing Witches have been charged with any of these crimes, but the existing underlying bias permeates virtually every aspect of civil life. Therefore, when the call to bind Trump went out internationally, South African Pagans had to not only consider the ethics of such spellwork, but also had to weigh the situation within the context of South African law.

Politically and ethically speaking, the reactions found in the South African Pagan community varied just as in any other community. The responses ranged from active support for political magical activism to criticism of both the use of magic to bring harm and the assumed common intention of the participants.

Pierre Doubell, a Reiki Master and the High Priest of a small Wiccan coven in Port Elizabeth believes “magic can be harmful if used in the incorrect way.” Doubell said, ” If the intent is to change someone’s free will or to intentionally bring harm, then that act is classed as being negative or harmful, as we are imposing our idea of what should be on others or the world at large.

“The proposed binding of President Trump by Witches, both in America and around the world, is very wrong. I believe it is attention-seeking, irresponsible and very dangerous.”

Doubell also expressed concern for the impact such a public banning would have on individual Witches around the world and specifically those in South Africa. He said, ” The world is a small village with social media and satellite coverage. What happens anywhere in the world can positively or negatively affect people in other countries quite easily.

“This very public binding spell by American Witches will negatively influence the world’s view on Witchcraft practitioners as a whole, definitely in South Africa too. Remember that people are still burned in this country because they are “witches.” Imagine what a hornets’ nest this will stir. I for one would not like to see the Witch trials returned to any country.”

Doubell believes it would be more effective and better overall for unhappy Americans to go through the “proper channels and have him impeached.”

Adre Burger, who describes herself as an empathic anarchist, thinks using defensive magic may be acceptable in certain circumstances only. “I think in this specific instance the binding was done to protect a nation. For the greater good? Maybe. I am sure this was the intention. If my children are in danger, I will use defensive magic.”

She also noted that binding spells are not aimed at harming anyone, but rather stopping him or her from harming others or themselves. However, with that said, she questioned whether everyone participating in the event was unified toward a common intent. “Even though certain magical people saw this binding as more of a ‘Unity Prayer’ – to protect the nation and country- there was no proof that all participants used the same spell and that everybody’s intention was the same.”

“The creator of the original spell written for this wants to stay anonymous, and another person posted it online and as per reports on BBC,” she explained. “There were different versions of this spell. Immediately that bring doubts to my mind. I am questioning the unity and therefore the intention as well.

“I have serious issues with the way it was handled.”

Christina Engela, a non-theistic Witch, writer and human rights activist, has absolutely no doubt as to the value of this event as a valid form of political activism. She completely supports the initiative, saying, “As Witches we are part of this world and we should step up in times of crisis. Trump has to be stopped.”

Engela like Burger discussed the importance of intent. “A binding is a tool, and the intent of the user determines the nature of the working,” explains Engela. “Working against a dangerous harmful force as represented by Trump is more than just necessary, it is a duty, an obligation. Trump is overtly attacking and undermining democratic structure as well as all systems protecting human rights for all groups, not just minorities.”

However, this alleged “duty or obligation” must be treated very differently by South African Pagans than by those living in the U.S. or other similar communities Witchcraft practice does not carry the same weight and implications for practitioners in any of these cultures. And this is an important point.

Traditional Healers huddle prepare to pray to the Ancestors at Pagan Feedom Day 2004 [Courtesy Photo]

Traditional Healers huddle prepare to pray to the Ancestors at Pagan Feedom Day 2004 [Courtesy Photo]

In some African nations, witchcraft is reportedly used publicly on a regular basis to influence government work or elections. In western parts of Africa, such as in countries like Nigeria or Kenya, there are bans and laws specifically speaking to this issue.

In November 2016, The Star, a Kenyan news outlet, reported that “Embu clergymen say wizards are set to make a killing in the polls, and [they] have pledged to excommunicate politicians who use witchcraft to win.” This demonstrates the very different dynamic between magical work, religion, and government in other nations. Witchcraft, whether part of indigenous religious practice or something else, is in direct opposition to the power structures of local Christian churches. And that creates friction within government structures.

In 2014, we reported on a story out of South Africa in which the National Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labeled members of the opposition party “witches” and accused them of practicing the Craft. This accusation had come shortly after members of his party had been accused of corruption.

The cultural relationship with magic or witchcraft is very deep in these countries. There are embedded fears, mostly a result of colonization as described best by Ghana Musician and Witch Azizaa in her most recent interviews.

There is also a very rich heritage of magical practice through indigenous spiritual beliefs and traditional religions. While the relationship between the people and Witchcraft varies from country to country, it is, as a whole, very different from that found in Europe, Australia, and the U.S.

For South African Pagans, this is their lived reality, and it colors whether or not they can or will participate in any international actions, whether it be a binding, a healing, or something else entirely.

In 2016, Tongaat Hulett Sugar Limited dismissed boiler panel operator Louis Mngomezulu, who had been accused of using Witchcraft to intimidate the company’s Human Resources manager Khanyo Nxele. In arbitration proceedings before the National Bargaining Council for the Sugar Manufacturing and Refining Industry, the sitting Commissioner confirmed that Mngomezulu’s dismissal was justified “due to his reprehensible behaviour in attempting to use a shared cultural belief system to intimidate a colleague.”

The Commissioner held:

That is unacceptable in any workplace and will most definitively break down a relationship of trust and cordiality that exists between an employer and an employee and between an employee and his colleagues. The act of witchcraft does not have to achieve its purpose […] for it to become an act of misconduct. […]The mere use of muti or traditional preparations to intimidate, scare or threaten another person is sufficient. The placement of the muti was an attempt to psychologically exploit [Ms Nxele] and create fear and panic in her, for herself and for her family and possessions. And it did cause her grief. This behaviour amounts to serious intimidation and cannot be tolerated in the workplace.” [1]

Although this 2016 arbitration finding will not directly form part of existing South African case law, it will hold persuasive influence in any future case with similar circumstances, and will only serve to bolster SAPS occult detectives in their investigations into allegations of harmful occult-related crimes. Intimidation, generally interpreted in common law as an unlawful threat of violence intended to coerce submission, is a statutory crime.

In terms of the provisions of the Intimidation Act, “a person who conducts him or herself in a manner or utters words which can be construed as being threatening to others is guilty of intimidation.”

(1) Any person who
a) without lawful reason and with intent to compel or induce any person or persons of a particular nature, class or kind or persons in general to do or to abstain from doing any act or to assume or to abandon a particular standpoint
(ii) In any manner threatens to kill, assault, injure or cause damage to any person or persons of a particular nature, class or kind, or
(b)  acts or conducts himself in such a manner or utters or publishes such words that it has or they have the effect, or that it might reasonably be expected that the natural and probable consequences thereof would be, that a person perceiving the act, conduct, utterance or publication
(iii) fears for his own safety or the safety of his property or the security of his livelihood, or for the safety of any other person or the safety of the property of any other person or the security of the livelihood of any person;
Shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding R40 000 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years. Or to both such a fine and such imprisonment. [2]

In 2016 the South African Law Reform Commission released a draft of the Prohibition of Harmful Practices associated with Witchcraft beliefs bill for public comment. In it, the commission argued for the definition of “harmful witchcraft” practices. It reads as follows:

“Harmful witchcraft’ means the intentional or purported use of non-natural or supernatural means (whether that involves the use of physical elements or not) to threaten, or to cause, (i) Death or injury to or disease or disability to any person; or (ii) Destruction or loss of or damage to property of any description; or (iii) Utilises belief and particular practices associated with harmful witchcraft to instil psychological distress or terror. “ [3]

It is an important point to note that South African legislators and courts continue to engage in genuine discussions on the practice and use of Witchcraft. While the 1980s may have seen formal occult investigations in the U.S. and U.K., conversations surrounding Witchcraft as a viable weapon are virtually non-existent within the American legal system. While it does happen on occasion, those cases are mostly anecdotal or brushed off as either silly or inconsequential. This alone demonstrates the powerful difference between the American and South African cultural relationship with the practice.

For South African Witches, the question still remains whether they would be contravening the law if they publicly curse another, whether it be a local or foreign leader? Similarly, would they be violating the law if they simply encourage others, within the country or outside, to perform an act of binding magic? According to the laws as they are currently written, it is very likely that they would.

 *    *    *

Notes:

[1]  [National Sugar Refining and Allied Industries Union obo Mngomezulu v Tongaat Hulett Sugar Limited (Darnall) (case no. NBCS5-15, 15 June 2016)]  Source: https://www.ensafrica.com/news/witchcraft-at-work-recent-case-confirms-using-muti-to-intimidate-a-colleague-is?Id=2249&STitle=employment%20ENSight
[2] Intimidation Act No. 72 of 1982 Source: https://www.acts.co.za/intimidation-act-1982/1__prohibition_of_and_penaltie
[3] Prohibition of Harmful Practices associated with witchcraft beliefs Bill. Source: http://www.paganrightsalliance.org/update-review-of-witchcraft-suppression-act/

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and journalist, living in the Deep South. Professionally, she has worked for Grey Advertising Global, Coca Cola Company and GCI. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League and has 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.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I am well aware of the Dangers of merely accused being a Witch in Africa, and with Damon Leff and Engela,having interviewed both and kept in touch with them through a couple of South African forums. I would say there it would wise to not discuss magic being done.

    However under the changing conditions here in the Unite States, it might also not be wise to discuss what work one is doing. What takes place in the circle should stay in the circle. It is not any business of outsiders what we do. Why provide ammunition for those that don’t believe in us having any religious right to practice, or even exist in this country who want to work against our rights. Silence was always part of the Witch’s triangle.

    I do not talk about any working that I am doing, and I rarely even talk about past workings, and even then, never in any detail. After my first years, I do not even record any workings.

    One never knows when it might become dangerous against be a Witch or a
    Wiccan. Why leave anything around that could be used against you if ever bad times were to happen again.

    • damonleff

      Hi Christopher. Thanks for commenting. I’m attempting to encourage SA Pagans and Witches to engage in dialogue about this issue. We stand at a crossroads in relation to the State at the moment, and we need to engage constructively with the issues.

  • Dale Wallace

    Sorry for over-long response but I’d like to add comment on this article as it raises issues that remain unresolved in the South African Pagan community. I have worked within Pagan Studies since 1997, shortly after the emergence of the PFSA in the country, but my academic teaching and research has, for over a decade, concentrated on traditional African Religions and on Religions in Africa.
    Firstly, the fact that there have been different opinions raised in the community relating to the February 24 mass binding ritual against the 45th President of the U.S. Donald Trump, is quite correct and understandable. What makes the article problematic is that the word w/Witchcraft is used as a blanket term with a singular meaning. It became vital to me in my work to capitalize ‘Witchcraft’ as a term of self-identity and use the lower case witchcraft in all other usages. This is important in nuking a statement such as “In 2016, Tongaat Hulett Sugar Limited dismissed boiler panel operator Louis Mngomezulu, who had been accused of using Witchcraft” as, for readers abroad, this could imply that Pagan Witchcraft is somehow being targeted. Where this problem could also bring confusion to readers can be seen in the statement “In 2014, we reported on a story out of South Africa in which the National Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labeled members of the opposition party “witches” and accused them of practicing the Craft.” In that Wild Hunt article of April 16, 2014 Mr Fikile never mentioned the word ‘Craft’ at all. In all probability it is not known to him. He was speaking of witchcraft in his own cultural context that in no way was associated with Pagan Witchcraft.
    There is an enormous body of multidisciplinary scholarship on ‘witchcraft’ in Africa and it is widely recognized that it is not possible to make a blanket application of the term, even within a single African community. What gets lost is that the word ‘witchcraft’ was a colonial misapplication of their own historical notions of witchcraft onto to the practices of African diviners and healers without consultation. Pagan Witchcraft and African notions of human malevolency have entirely different religious, social and cultural histories and what the term means in these different contexts can never be conflated.
    Paganism in South Africa is one of the smaller minority religions that have their full constitutional rights to religious freedom. It is important to add that members are – with only miniscule exception – white, and that the question of voice matters in a country still struggling to transcend our racist history. Whites number 4 515 800 out of a total of 55 908 900. Listening and dialogue aimed at reaching a greater understanding of why witchcraft is of such fear and concern in almost all African communities is both possible and an imperative. It is not Pagan Witchcraft and it has often distressed me to see the African belief in witchcraft written and spoken of by some Pagans as ‘a superstition’. This mirrors the colonial voice and only exacerbates tensions when coming from a white minority,
    This conversation goes back to the same issue covnered in The Wild Hunt War of Words in South Africa: March 2, 2010 where national coordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation Dr Phepsile Maseko was quoted as saying ““Let’s be honest here — a witch is a witch and everybody in the country knows that. Publicly calling yourself a witch in South Africa smacks of white privilege.”. This article concluded with the statement “Despite my sympathies towards the Pagans in South Africa, it is rather plain that Maseko and SAPRA are using the term “witch” in very different contexts, and that the two sides are talking past each other”. I agreed then and I agree now. That remains the status quo and it is regrettable as the potential for these two groups of magic practitioners to bring greater resolution to the much needed debate on the centrality of magic in African Religions was within reach. The great divide occurred only 3 years after the camaraderie shared in the 2004 event pictured in the current article.
    My apologies for straying off the topic of the public ritual in the US, but I found the discussion of what this could mean for South African Witches as possibly confusing for readers outside of Africa. No, witchcraft is not going to gain widespread public acceptance but the examples of where the word is used in the article are a world away from Pagan Witchcraft. An interesting project abroad was titled Decolonizing Witchcraft that spoke of how to make Pagan Witchcraft a safer notion within indigenous contexts. This is an essential starting point way ahead of South African Pagans undertaking a public ritual such as that in the US last month. These comments are in my opinion. With respect. Dale Wallace

    • Tauri1

      What’s going on in Africa is precisely the reason why, back in the 1970s, many US witches changed the name to “wicca”; it was to avoid the exact problem that SA witches are having. Yes, it’s true that in the US there were no deaths perpetrated from non-pagans regarding pagans (or none to my knowledge), but intimidation, threats etc. were common and, in some places like where I live in NE TN, you certainly cannot be “out” unless it’s a part of town that is very amenable to alternative religions.
      I agree with Christopher Blackwell that what goes on in a coven/group should remain within the coven/group. As a former Gardnerian High Priestess once told me, “we are the Goddess’ hidden children” and probably should remain so until *every religion on this planet has tolerance as their basic tenet.”

      • Dale Wallace

        I get your argument Tauri1. It seems that Pagans have faced varying degrees of intimidation and threats wherever they find themselves. We also have quite a number of Wiccan groups here and they do seem to have a greater degree of public ease in articulating themselves than do Witches. Here in SA the community broadly goes three ways regarding publicly identifying as a Witch: to reclaim the identity at the public level, to keep it within fellow community, family and friends or to, as you mention, keep in hidden within one’s circle.

        Since this debate surfaced here in 2007, i have found that publicly identifying as a Witch “depends on one’s day job” – even among those who chose to reclaim the term. Its not hypocritical but definitely easier to use Wiccan or Pagan when on is a teacher, a nurse, or works in the bank, to name but a few that I know personally. Not everyone can go out guns blazing. I feel that there should be community support for those for whom public visibility is difficult. Some in the US were, for different reasons, not in favor of the recent public ritual. Here at home, and in our unique circumstances, there has been deep division in the Pagan community over public statements or actions that are construed as a blanket ‘Pagan position’ in society. I guess this would hold in most countries to different degrees.

    • damonleff

      Point taken Dale. I concur with the use of the common noun when speaking of non-Pagan Witchcraft. The rest of your comment merely repeats your frequently stated general criticism of SAPRA’s perceived position, without you ever having personally engaged with us on this matter in a constructive way. I urge you to practice cooperative engagement with SAPRA, not just preach it against us when it suits your advantage to criticize SAPRA. 😉

      • Dale Wallace

        Hi Damon. The reason for my response to the article followed emails from two American friends. Reading that Mr Fikile had referred to the ‘Craft’ and that a African would be fired for practicing Witchcraft [sic] led them to message me saying that they were unaware that now Africans were involved in Pagan Witchcraft and were publicly compromised. For readers abroad it is confusing as I know many (most?) Pagan scholars don’t necessarily use the capital W. That shows me that there is little to no other active ‘witchcraft’ in their societies. To be coherent when writing from or about Africa the distinction is vital.
        I am so sorry that you saw the rest of my comments as an attack on SAPRA. Far from it and it is a pity you take it that way because I hold a different opinion from yourselves in some instances. This is my opinion and has developed from direct engagement and dialogue with Traditional Healers, African churches, members at community meetings, and with state institutions: all on the topic of witchcraft through the course of my post-doc on witchcraft discourses. Being South African you would be well aware of the resurgence of attention on, and conflict over, issues of race, voice and neocolonialism,
        Regarding cooperative engagement, I do a great deal with all manner of stakeholders in this debate. Without asking for any details after concerns I had after a meeting with numerous state commissioners, you threatened me with court action should I ever say or write that anything SAPRA says or does is harmful to the SA Pagan community. No questions, no dialogue. To state commissioners I never criticize SAPRA’s position (nor anyone else’s) and merely say that any questions related to SAPRA must be raised with them and not me. I do hold by constitutional rights to freedom of speech but also to academic freedom. I am deeply engaged and particularly in issues relating to Pagans, and Pagan Witches in particular, in public spaces. It is an interesting debate raised in the US but one that presents us here with unique challenges. I do constructively engage with the issues, as do you. This is all good.

        • damonleff

          Hi Dale. You know very well that said incident concerned accusations leveled by you (and others associated with you) against SAPRA as a result of our public advocacy against Satanic Panic, and that it had nothing at all to do with this matter. History however shows that our advocacy against false accusations of Satanism in relation to crimes publicised by the media, did in fact not harm Wiccans at all! Your public statements then (incorrect as they were) however did harm SAPRA’s reputation with other Pagans. But you already know this. Kindly engage with us constructively in person before you make broad and incorrect sweeping statements based on your own untested assumption about SAPRA’s advocacy in future please. We will engage with you in a constructive and respectful manner.

    • Heather Greene

      Thank you for your comment. Part of our work here at the Wild Hunt is to explore the various meanings and cultural understandings of the term Witchcraft or witchcraft around the globe.This understanding is not uniform by any standards. The above article was merely one part of this complex world cultural puzzle, but it certainly does not cover the entirety of the issue.

  • LezlieKinyon

    The “call” to bind Trump was, in my opinion, a stupid piece of political theatre. I know of no one who actually participated. Perhaps there were, but, I sincerely doubt anything happened except a few post-wishcrap headaches. Political theatre has it’s place and we will see a great deal more of it as this administration becomes ever more uncivil and unpopular. Hopefully, these actions will be better thought out.

  • Shion Flame

    This article is very articulate. I enjoyed reading it. It offered up some of my own concerns as a pagan and witch regarding how such a public spell casting would affect the larger community. Listening and watching the video, my initial reaction was actually not negative in regard to the use of words in the spell. Now, whether or not others had the intentions to prevent harm cannot be known (Although it is more than obvious that there are those who have ill will -and not just those who practice the Craft.) I think it is still important to consider the “policing” of magic and the implications of attempting to excavate the intentions of others. Often we do not know the intentions of others (at least on the surface) but to what extent are people willing to go to uncover them for “protection?” What makes this both interesting and dangerous is the publicity of it. While I feel that witches from all backgrounds should be willing to aid their community, protect those who cannot protect themselves etc, I think there is a very good reason for some work to be in the shadows. It is not what is public that is the problem it is the accusations and assumptions around the public act that creates a shit storm of issue -and clearly for more than just American witches.