In wake of witchcraft accusations, concerns rise over religious regulation in South Africa

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PRETORIA, South Africa –A self-styled prophet and leader of the Enlightened Christian Gathering is being sued because he accused a businessperson of being a witch on live television, and some South African Pagans fear the case may bolster a push to regulate religion. If that were to come to pass, members of minority traditional and Pagan groups may be disproportionately affected in this country.

Witchcraft is a complicated topic throughout Africa. Witch accusations can lead to violence, arising out of negative associations made to traditional practices. The emergence of Neopagan movements such as Wicca make the use of the word “witch” all the more confusing. In South Africa, while practicing one’s religion is protected by a constitution, it is also illegal to accuse another of practicing witchcraft.

Flag of South Africa [public domain.]

Shepherd Bushiri reportedly made such as accusation against one Lebohang Mpane during a church service which was broadcast live on television in 2016. In essence, he accused Mpani of using witchcraft to steal her husband and his children away from another woman.

Mpani has filed charges of crimen injuria against Bushiri. According to Damon Leff, director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, “Crimen injuria is a common law criminal offence, defined as the act of unlawfully and intentionally impairing the dignity or privacy of another person. If found guilty, Bushiri could receive a jail sentence.” She is also seeking monetary damages, which suggests a civil defamation lawsuit as well. “A crimen injuria case does not automatically initiate a civil action for defamation, but both matters can be pursued separately,” Leff explained.

Controversy swirls around Bushiri like flies around a picnic. He is being investigated for laundering money and for rape, in addition to the present situation, during which his bodyguards prevented police from questioning the preacher at his compound. Leff is worried that controlling people like this preacher will be the excuse used to push for more regulation of religion generally.

“The Bushiri matter will no doubt be used by those seeking to motivate for the regulation of religious leaders and organisations,” Leff said. There is already a proposal, brought forth by members of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural‚ Religious and Linguistic Communities, “to license and regulate religion, religious organisations and leaders.” Leaders of another group, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, have rejected this idea.

“There is currently no legal requirement for religious practitioners to register with any peer review mechanism,” Leff said, and the SAPC position supports keeping it that way. The only requirements are for religious leaders to either register their organizations as nonprofits, or comply with pay-as-you-earn tax rules. The Enlightened Christian Gathering is a taxable entity under South African law.

According to Leff, “Religious leaders have objected to regulation and certification by the state primarily because they do not believe the state has any constitutional right to interfere in or with their beliefs and religious practices.” There is no requirement for regulation of religion in the constitution.

The reason Leff believes the specter of regulation will be raised is because, in addition to the allegations of money laundering and rape against Bushiri, he denounced Mpane as a sangoma. These are diviners in traditional African practices, and painted as witches. “Within African traditional religions in southern Africa, ‘witchcraft’ is regarded as a taboo practice and the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ are never used to identify either practitioners or practices of these religious specialists,” Leff said.

Sangomas are “respected practitioners, and consulted widely as diviners and traditional healers,” at least within their communities, Leff said. “An accusation of witchcraft against a traditional healer usually results in a public lynching, and most often ends in arson and murder of the accused.”

A push to crack down on leaders like Bushiri would not go well for sangomas, Leff believes, nor would it for contemporary Pagans in the country.

He and other SAPRA leaders “remain convinced that should minority faiths be legally required to register their religions with the state . . . . Pagans would be discriminated against. Our concerns were partly confirmed in August, 2017,” when a commissioner refused their comments “on the grounds that ‘Only religions which were broadly represented at a percentage above three percent were [permitted to be] part of the hearings.'”

An additional aspect of the rights commission plan also brings pause to Leff and his colleagues. This is the “recommendation that all places of worship also be registered. Pagans in South Africa almost exclusively practice our faiths in our own homes, gardens, or public spaces. Pagans, especially Witches, do not want the state to know where they live (given the high incidence of witchcraft accusations), as this would be inconsistent with the constitutional right to privacy.”

Regardless of how the case against Bushiri unfolds, its thread will likely be a prominent one in the rich religious tapestry of South Africa.