The Epidemic of “Witch Hunts” (part two)

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ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (TWH) –  Last week we published the first part of this interview with Damon Leff about the “witch hunts” that have been happening in South Africa. The murder of innocent people labeled as “witches” occurs in many countries, and often under reported in the media but according to a 2017 UN report complied by The Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) has reached epidemic proportions  TWH will continue to report on “witch hunts” and examine in depth the causes driving the epidemic, which may slightly vary depending on geographic locations. Damon Leff is South African Pagan who advocates for human rights. We appreciate him taking the time to answer our questions and share his knowledge with us and our readers. This is the second part of our conversation.

Flag of South Africa [public domain]

TWH: African practitioners who function as healers, diviners, and herbalists do not call themselves Witches in SA. Can you explain what the proper name for these practitioners are and how their practices might differ from African Traditional Religion practitioners in the US?

DL: 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.

The terms are used solely as accusation, not as identity.

South African healers, whether diviner (isangoma) or herbalist (inyanga), do not therefore identify as Witches, because they do not practice Witchcraft in any form.

The 1995 Report of the Ralushai Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murder in the Northern Province, 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 July 1999 Professor Ralushai confirmed his Commission’s definition of a witch when hewas 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.”

The (2007) Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill attempted to define witchcraft as “… the secret use of muti, zombies, spells, spirits, magic powders, water, mixtures, etc, by any person with the purpose of causing harm, damage, sickness to others or their property.”

I cannot speak to how practitioners of African religious practices in the US choose to identify, but I can note that whilst such practices in your country may be in a minority, choosing to identify with a larger umbrella – Pagan – may be more useful for some solitary practitioners.

In South Africa, practitioners of Traditional African religion are in a majority, and they have no need to identify with the minority term – Pagan. Many regard the term ‘pagan’ as one of derision imposed on them by colonialism. They are unlikely to identify as Pagans, and do not identify Traditional African religion as ‘paganism’.

***There are exceptions to this rule, where Pagans have chosen to undergo training to become isangomas or inyangas, and therefore may identify as both Pagan and practitioner of Traditional African Religion. These exceptions are few. Although we do have some black South Africans who have embraced Pagan religions and choose to identify as Pagan, they remain a tiny minority. Most Pagans in South Africa are white.

*Note: the terms ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ remain a divisive product of racist apartheid “race identification” ideology.

TWH: Race plays a large part in these prosecutions and in SA politics, can you give our readers an idea of how all this intersects and influences the witch-hunts and killings?

DL: Racial divisions and prejudices imposed by apartheid remain an ever present reality for South Africans. Although much has changed for the better since 1994, our country still has to resolve the effects of apartheid’s legacy on a majority of our citizens, including apartheid spatial planning, inequalities, and growing unemployment and poverty.

Our new democracy is also not immune to corruption – several Commissions of Enquiry are currently exposing the extent of that corruption, and renewed racist rhetoric from an emerging ‘white right’ promoting a false narrative of “white genocide” (independently vetted crime statistics show no evidence of genocide against white farmers, but they do show an extremely high incidence of gender-based violence and rape against women) and calling for secession (our Constitution does not provide any legal mechanism for secession).

Our politics remains largely divided on colour lines in terms of voting, although many political parties are visibly multi-racial, as is our National Assembly.

See these articles for more context.

Over the last 10 years the rate of witch-hunts has reduced significantly. Perhaps there is some correlation to be found in the consequent increase in gender-based violence. I don’t know that with any certainty though. Our courts have also refused to consider a cultural belief in witchcraft as mitigating factor in sentencing perpetrators of witch-hunts. This may play some role in the reduction of incidences. Our advocacy work with the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Cultural, Religious and Language Rights, has resulted in more visible action by local government in condemning witch-hunts when they occur. This too plays a part in the reduction of incidences of witch-hunts.

But incidences still do occur.

TWH: Do types and reasons for Witch-hunts vary across the African continent? 

DL: I cannot speak for the rest of Africa, but in my research, I think there is a common cause for accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts. I believe that cause is a combination of spiritual insecurity, fear of the unknown, and expressed prejudice. The belief that misfortune is caused by witchcraft through the agency of ‘a witch’, is a common one throughout Africa.

TWH: A term that had popularized in many works of fiction, movies, and literature is the word “Witchdoctor”. Is this term used in SA by traditional healers?

DL: The term witch-doctor is applied to South African traditional healers who possess knowledge of how to counter malevolent witchcraft and identify (sniff) witches. The term witchdoctor is also used by immigrant practitioners from other African countries, who sell magical aids and cures.

TWH: If you had microphone that the whole world could hear, what is it that everyone needs to understand about witch-hunts and why the work you do is important?

DL: Witch-hunts are an internationally recognised 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, a 2009 report by Yaseen Ally entitled Witch Hunts In Modern South Africa: An Under-Represented Facet Of Gender-Based Violence (June 2009) shows that victims of witch-hunts include both women and men of all ages.

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.

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.

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, rumour, or gossip.