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Witchcraft in South Africa

Most black South Africans self-identify as Christian and are members of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches or of the predominantly black Zion Christian Church. In addition, many still follow traditional beliefs, often consulting a sangoma (also written izsangoma, a diviner). Statistics indicate that more people in South Africa consult traditional health practitioners than medical doctors and other practitioners of allopathic medicine. In many instances they do not have access to any other kind of health care.

At the Lonmin Marikana Mine in the North West portion of the country, 34 striking miners were killed in clashes with police on 16 August 2012. Days earlier, 10 people, including two police officers, died in another incident at the mine. It was said that a sangoma had "cashed in" on the fears of striking miners, who were allegedly given muti (a potion, or medicinal herbs) before charging armed police. It was said that individuals came with muti's for people to drink and get courage to be able to withstand the struggle, to sometimes smell blood. Some of the 34 miners killed in the Marikana mine massacre may have believed the muti from a traditional healer from Mbizana had made them invincible. Bulelani Malawana from Mthatha, turned it down himself. "I was offered it for R1000. I turned it down as I didnt believe in it," he said. "After they got the muti people were so aggressive. They just wanted to fight. They felt so invincible," Malawana said.

The izinyanga (a traditional herbalist) alleged to have administered the muti, known in Mbizana as Nzabe, was renowned in the area. Several people who spoke to South Africa's Daily Dispatch believed his treatments were effective. A taxi driver who declined to be named said he had used Nzabes muti before and it had worked. "During the taxi war in the area three years ago I used the muti and was never wounded even when shot at. They just didnt use it correctly," he said.

One of the definitions given for African traditional medicine by the World Health Organisation Centre for Health Development is the following: "It is the sum total of all knowledge and practices, whether explicable or not, used in diagnosis, prevention and elimination of physical, mental or societal imbalance and relying exclusively on practical experience and observation handed down from generation to generation whether verbally or in writing."

The Republic of South Africa Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) publication "The Organizating Framework for Occupations (OFO) 2012" defines a Traditional African Medicine Practitioner as someone who "Diagnoses, assesses and treats patients in accordance with South African Traditional Medicines. ... Alternative Titles and Specialisations: ... Sangoma", which is assigned the occupation code 223105. It states that "Traditional and complementary medicine professionals prevent, diagnose and treat illness, disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments and maintain general health in humans by applying knowledge, skills and practices acquired through extensive study of the theories, beliefs and experiences, originating in specific cultures."

There are some 200,000 traditional health practitioners in South Africa. In some cases associations or councils have hundreds if not thousands of members. Traditional health practitioners include diviners (izangoma), herbalists (izinyanga), and traditional surgeons (izingcibi). These people have for centuries played an important role in the health care of South Africans while traditionally the diviner provides a diagnosis, usually through spiritual means, and the herbalist then chooses and applies relevant remedies. Today there are many traditional health practitioners who do both.

It is estimated that 80 percent of South Africans consult traditional health practitioners, often as their first response to a health problem. Traditional health practitioners received a raw deal under the Apartheid regime. Superstition, charlatans and accusations of witchcraft were just some of the stigmas and stereotypes that traditional healers had to contend with, especially in the province of Limpopo.

When the National Assemblys Portfolio Committee on Health handed over their report on traditional healers to the Ministry of Health in 1998, they fully expected that a Bill would be forthcoming shortly. In 2004 the proposed Traditional Health Practitioners Bill proposed establishing an Interim Health Practitioners Council to register all qualifying traditional health practitioners and promote training and research. The categories of health practitioners falling within the jurisdiction of the legislation will be the inyanga, herbalists or traditional doctors, sangomas, or diviners trained to communicate with and utilise the powers of ancestors and diagnosing diseases or other ailments. The ababelekisi, or traditional birth attendants, are usually older women who have been midwives before and ingcibi, traditional surgeons, or those men with training and experience in traditional circumcision. Formal legal recognition of the practice of traditional medicine would mean that traditional health practitioners will be registered practitioners in terms of the law. Medical schemes that choose to do so will be able to recognise and pay for the services as a benefit of their members. This bill eventually became the Traditional Health Practitioners Act, 2007 (Act No. 22 of 2007).

The belief in witchcraft was long general throughout the country, and the punishments are severe. Any one in command or authority holds such authority by virtue of magic or witchcraft superior to that of his adversaries. The King or Paramount Chief is looked upon as the embodiment and representative of the most powerful witchcraft, and, as such, is far more than merely the head of the nation. There were many authorised magic specialists such as crop-doctors, lightning-doctors, locust-doctors, rain-doctors, war-doctors, as well as makers of love charms, each class of doctor attending to his one department and seeking only the good of the clan. Though these men worked magic, they are not regarded as sorcerers, for they work for social ends; the sorcerer, the wizard and the witch, are unauthorised people who use similar magical charms for purely personal and anti-social ends of their own, and are therefore regarded as pestilent quacks and enemies of the state. In many cases the people give up puzzling as to the cause of death, or else conclude that some evil person has been working witchcraft or sorcery so as to get rid of a private enemy.

Portions of the heart, the liver, and other parts of the body of brave enemies who had fallen in battle were, after having been dried and reduced to powder, eaten by the young warriors in order to make them valiant and brave in war. Just in the same way, the heart and other parts of the bodies of slain braves were buried in the roads leading to certain districts, in order to bewitch those localities, and so to bring them under the influence of magic in the interests of the nation.

Edward Long, an admirer of David Hume, writing in 1774, describes Africans as: "proud, lazy, treacherous, thievish, hot, and addicted to all kinds of lust, and most ready to promote them in others, as pimps, panders, incestuous, brutish, and savage, cruel and revengeful, devourers of human flesh, and quaffers of human blood, inconstant, base, treacherous, and cowardly, fond of and addicted to all sorts of superstition and witchcraft, and, in a word, to every vice that came in their way, or within their reach...."

Among the many customs arising out of superstition, there was one called Umhlahlo or "smelling out" for witchcraft. When any sickness or other unaccountable misfortune had befallen an individual, it was invariably ascribed to the evil influence exerted by an umtakati or "witch"; the remedy therefore was to find out or "smell out" the witch from among the neighbors of the injured party. To this end the services of a "witch doctor" (igqira) were requisitioned. The igqira indicated who the witch was either by mentioning his name or by pointing to him. Immediately all those near the accused would retire, leaving him standing quite alone. By way of punishment his property was confiscated, and he himself was put to death under circumstances of the most inhuman cruelty. This was known technically as "being eaten up".

By the mid-1820s, as every able-bodied Zulu man, except the witch doctors, who were exempt, must be a soldier, Chaka saw that there were too many witch doctors and that they were increasing, so he laid a trap for tncm. One night, he and two men who were in the secret, sprinkled the huts in several kraals with bullock's blood. Then the king called all the witch doctors in the land for a grand "smelling out." They came, and after sundry divinations accused several persons. But two of these doctors were bold enough, or shrewd enough, to say that the king himself did it. So Chaka ordered all the witch doctors but these two to be killed, and the witch medical corps was speedily reduced to that number. The employment of "witch doctors" for "smelling out" criminals or abalagati (usually translated "wizards," but meaning evildoers of any kind, such as poisoners), once common in Zululand, as in neighboring countries, was discouraged by Cetywayo [r. 1872-1884], who established "kraals of refuge" for the reception of persons rescued by him from condemnation as abalagati. But "smelling out," and sacrifice of life on charges of witchcraft were of continual occurrence. "Smelling out" of abalagati was finally suppressed by the British in the early years of the 20th century, bu still there was the same superstition and the same result to witch-finders and witchproof and the ceremony of smelling out.

In the 1830s and the 1840s, British officials in the eastern Cape Colony tried to eliminate the Xhosa practice of witch hunts, which were increasing in response to the turmoil in the region and were spreading fear through many religious communities. The British also abolished traditional economic practices, such as the Xhosa custom of paying lobola , or bridewealth given by the family of a groom to that of his bride. But abolishing an element of traditional culture almost always resulted in an array of unforeseen cultural consequences, and this was especially true when the practices being eliminated were central to a group's social organization, as was the lobola.

By 1850, the Xhosa were enraged by the British presence. A leading Xhosa healer and diviner, Mlangeni, organized an army to confront the British and promised supernatural assistance in this effort, as long as the Xhosa people sacrificed all of their yellow and dun-colored cattle to counteract the evil spell that had engulfed them. A brutal frontier war ensued, and the rebellion was suppressed in 1853.

The Xhosa defeat was made even more bitter when a chiefly adviser, Mhlakaza, convinced many people of a prophecy brought by his niece, Nongqawuse, telling of an end to British domination and the redemption of the Xhosa if they would first kill all their remaining cattle and destroy their food stocks. In 1856 and 1857, thousands of Xhosa responded to the prophecy; more than 400,000 cattle were sacrificed. After the prophecy failed, more than 40,000 people died of starvation, and almost as many were forced to seek work in the colonial labor market.

In the words of Professor Jeff Peires who wrote the book The Dead Will Arise, the Cattle-Killing was a logical and rational response, perhaps even an inevitable response, by a nation driven to desperation by pressures that people today can barely imagine. He goes on further to say, I further believe that the Cattle-Killing would not have been so fatal an error had it not been for the measures of Governor Grey, which first encouraged and then capitalized on the movement. In this sense, though not in the one related by the old men of Xhosaland, Grey was the true perpetrator of the isihelegu sikaNongqawuse, the catastrophe of Nongqawuse.

The Thohoyandou Conference and other research initiatives have revealed that current law and the administration of justice have not responded meaningfully to the issues relating to witchcraft. Among other things, witchcraft violence is threatening to become a social epidemic in a number of remote rural areas. Although both men and women are targets of this crime, elderly women are the usual victims. Victims are often burnt alive or stripped of all their possessions and thrown out of societies. They are then forced to live a hermitlike existence in areas without any infrastructure and where there are no employment opportunities.

When the leaders of the area which became known as Venda opted for independence, not all of the aspects of witchcraft seem to have been adequately dealt with by the anti-witchcraft Act. Generally, chiefs of the districts formed part of a tier of government at the time. They were regarded as believing in witchcraft. It seems that it was one of the findings of the commission that the chiefs in general did believe in witchcraft. Coupled with this, was the bona fide belief in the area that chiefs were associated with ritual murders which flowed from witchcraft. There was the further belief that witchcraft enhanced the powers of chiefs and ensured the maintenance of their political powers. It was therefore believed that the chiefs were the custodians of the witches. There was also the bona fide belief that those who practised witchcraft were more than willing to help chiefs in their endeavours to retain authority and power over the community. There was therefore a general fear, especially amongst the youth, that ritual murders would be resorted to more readily by the chiefs and government officials, to entrench their powers.

In every village in Venda, many people during the final days of Apartheid believed that witchcraft was something which was happening and they were able to point at a person who they believed was a witch. They realised that the only method they can be used in Venda to make the government fall or to make the area to be ungovernable was to burn the witches. All those things came when the society decided to demonstrate and to fight with the government. It was found that youth who were acting during that time were mysteriously dying, so it resulted in witches being killed, since they were suspected. But the aim was not necessarily to burn the people but to fight the government but because of all these things which were happening, then the situation dictates that because people were dying mysteriously, they found themselves killing the witches.

The rulers, or the members of the government who were in place found that they were involved in evil things, for example ritual murders. If a person was killed according for a ritual murder, the parts will be taken to the witchdoctors so that the parts will be mixed with medicine so that the people will get richness and power. Such things fall under witchcraft. In Venda it's in the villages, and in the villages it is different from Soweto or Pretoria, Bloemfontein or elsewhere, where when people wanted the government to fall, they could engage on boycotts of rents and many other things. The main objective which the people realised was that because the members of the society were dying mysteriously, then they realised that if they burned the witches, the society will be free from witchcraft and by burning the witches there will be turmoil in the villages or country and it will be ungovernable. The witches were killed because political activists were killed by the witches. People were being bewitched and villages were full of wizards or people who practised witchcraft and these wizards or people who practised witchcraft were very close to the Headman or the Chief.

For instance, on 6 April 1990 a mob killed Edward Mavhungu, a member of a high profile family in the Mavungha area suspected of witchcraft. The deceased was involved in farming and possessed a number of farming implements to carry on his farming operations. These farming implements were those which were not normally owned by ordinary Black people, farming in the area. This led to the conclusion by many people in the area that he was able to afford such farming implements because of the benefits attained from the apartheid regime as a reward for helping them "control" the areas at the expense of the general population. There is evidence that, what looked like human bodies, were seen to be off-loaded at the deceased's farm. The high level of his productivity at the farm with so few farm labourers, led to the belief that he used what was termed "zombies" to work his orchards. Presumably the aforesaid human bodies, were used to evolve the zombies. The belief that it was being done by means of the supernatural powers of witchcraft and through which the deceased was also able to sustain himself and the apartheid mechanisms.

The youth of Hampofu area, in the district of Tshitale gathered within the context of the general attitude towards the political situation in the area. As was the case in other districts of Venda, they also paid attention to the role of the witches within the political context. The chief in the Tabalala area was known as Freddy Tabalala who was a known supporter of the Venda National Party and held a position in Parliament. Mudzunga Mulaudzi, it was believed, was providing assistance derived from the practice of witchcraft to help Tabalala retain his political power. Again, it was reasoned that this would stifle the progress towards freedom and reincorporation into South Africa as desired by the majority of the community. On the 20th March 1990, the community gathered and resolved, in view of the failure to rectify Tshiluka's situation, as requested, that those indulging in witchcraft practices, had to be killed. They then went to Mudzunga Mulaudzi's kraal, found her at her cooking kraal. The Applicant hit her with a stone to prevent her from escaping. Her hut was already burning. He compelled her to go into the burning hut and prevented her from escaping from it. She died as a result of this attack.

There were many other such instances at that time. The Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to thirty three (33) amnesty applicants for killings of people suspected of practising witchcraft in the former Bantustan of Venda in the Northern Province between 1989 and 1990. Ten other applicants have been refused amnesty for acts ranging from murder and arson and for failing to satisfy the requirements of the TRC regulations.

The South African Law Reform Commission received two submissions from the South Africa Pagan Council and the Traditional Healers' Organisation respectively, requesting that the Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957 and the proposed Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill 2007 be investigated to determine their constitutionality. In June 2008 the Mpumalanga Province Department of Local Government put the drafting of the Witchcraft Suppression Bill of 2007 on hold until further notice. The department was mandated by the Provincial Executive Council to prepare a Bill which seeks to address high level of violence in the province caused by allegations of witchcraft.

In March 2007, a gang of alleged serial killers and a sangoma were arrested after a spate of killings that left nine women dead in the KwaMakhutha, Adams Mission, Umbumbulu and Folweni areas in KwaZulu-Natal. Police said at the time that each of the women had been found with body parts such as ears, tongues, breasts and genitalia missing. Some of them had been raped before being killed. Ninety percent of cases involve women. Women are either killed or accused by their communities of practicing witchcraft.

In January 2010 the mutilated body of 10-year-old Masego Kgomo was found in a clump of bushes near her home in Shoshanguve. Five male suspects were arrested and charged with murder and abduction; a sangoma (an African practitioner of magic, medicine, and witchcraft) named Jan Maleka also was arrested, but then released for lack of evidence. Later, one male suspect, Brian Mangwale, was put on trial for murder. On November 28, Judge Billy Mothle sentenced Mangwale to six years imprisonment for kidnapping and life imprisonment for murder. Speaking to the crowd outside the court after sentencing was passed, the minister for women, children, and people with disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, welcomed the judges sentencing but cautioned listeners that Mangwales accomplices were still at large. Xingwana urged community members to work with police in order to apprehend other suspects.

In early 2010 the Department of Women, Children, Youth and People with Disabilities, held discussions with the National Traditional Healers Organisation to discuss ways in which to curb the growing number of people who are killed by what many describe as witchcraft. While the subject of witchcraft continues to be taboo in many corners of South Africa, all stakeholders need to be involved in exposing perpetrators of this practice. Witchcraft is all about greed and jealousy, it is a huge problem in South Africa and legitimate traditional healers are being victimized. This is a practice hidden in mystery and therefore there will be a need for more research to better understand the underlying factors.

In March 2010 traditional healers requested Mpumalanga Safety, Security and Liaison to protect them from the people who accuse them of witchcraft and end up killing or assaulting. Wearing their red attires, members of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) stated at an imbizo held at Mayflower next to the Swaziland border that they want the police to protect them from the people who turn against them. They said when people are angry; they call them witches and just attack them without any reasons.

There were reports that persons accused of witchcraft were attacked, driven from their villages, and in some cases murdered, particularly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape provinces. Incidents of suspected witchcraft sometimes resulted in assault, forced exile, and killings, particularly of elderly women. Traditional leaders generally cooperated with government educational programs and reported threats against persons suspected of witchcraft. On 21 March 2011, a group stoned two women to death. Cynthia Lemaho (26) and Mupala Motopela (81) were stoned after they were accused of practicing witchcraft in Limpopo. The group dragged the two women from their home, stoned them, and dragged their bodies back into the house, which was then burned. The police responded swiftly and arrested 32 suspects, who appeared in the Naphuno Magistrates Court on March 25. Two suspects were charged with murder and arson. In August 2011 in Mayalweni village near Lusikisiki, three members of the Mayihlome family, a 65 year old mother, her 20 year old daughter and a 24 year old son, were hacked following allegations of witchcraft.

Ritual killings (muthi killings), especially of children, to obtain body parts believed by some to enhance traditional medicine practices, remained a problem; specific muthi killing statistics were unavailable. For example, on 06 February 2011, the body of 74-year-old Tsatsawani Maria Maceke was found in her house. Her genitals, breasts, lips, and eyes had been removed. On February 9, SAPS were alerted to a discarded plastic bag containing body parts, which were believed to belong to Maceke. SAPS arrested five suspects, and they have been charged with murder in the Malamulele Magistrates Court.

Despite substantial progress in the past few years in advocating for the protection of senior citizens, the community still associate ageing with witchcraft. In KwaZulu-Natal senior citizens have been sexually assaulted, hacked to death or burnt beyond recognition. In 2011 in Lindelani Mr Raphael Zulu and Ms Elsie Dubazane were killed on allegations of witchcraft and many other seniors that were subjected to similar abuse by their own community (youth). Elderly women, especially in rural areas, are linked to witchcraft and as a result they are brutally murdered on the basis of those suspicions.

Senior Citizens have been previously marginalised, as ageing has been perceived as a problem rather than a natural process. Their role in the society has changed significantly. In the past, they were regarded as the custodians of tradition and cultural practices and they passed this knowledge to next generations. They taught younger generations about the moral values inherent in our culture and tradition. However the breakdown of traditional family life is seen as one of the causes of the growing number of incidents of abuse directed at senior citizens by the youth.




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