Comparative Religion and Academia in South Africa: An Interview with Dr. Dale Wallace

other contributors banner

by Christopher Blackwell

 
South Africa has been a country undergoing change since the end of Apartheid and creation of the present Constitution which guaranteed Freedom of Religion. But that leaves the question of what is considered religion, and there had not been much interest in Pagan religions, nor any study of it in Academia. How it became a subject of study in South Africa is interesting in itself and that leads to Dr. Dale Wallace.
 
Dr. Wallace gained her PhD in Comparative Religion and after her studies of other religions began to focus more on the Pagan religions and on African religions. I was directed to her by other Pagan friends in South Africa and she was kind enough to accept my offer of an interview.
 
Dr. Dale Wallace

Dr. Dale Wallace

Christopher: What kind of background do you come from?

Dale: A happy one! I grew up in a very close middle class family with two brothers who made life a real adventure. What was perhaps different from most of my friends families, was that my upbringing was totally secular, with both my parents (and their families in turn) having no religious orientation at all.  
 
Christopher: May I ask what religious path you follow and how you came to it? 
 
Dale: I always smile when asked that question as my answer to myself follows many similar Pagan accounts in that there was no Eureka moment I can recall. Tracing back as far as I can little has changed in the way I see the world now. There is still a tendency out there to see ‘magical thinking’ as something one grows out of. I didn’t, and as I grew older it just matured as I learnt and discovered more. 
 
Similarly there has always been a great deal of the animist in me and in many ways for me they are interrelated. When I first came to hear and read of Paganism it came with such a comfortable recognition and I can’t recall a moment when I felt as though I was leaving one thing behind and moving into something new. For me, ritual has been valuable in that it has given me a structure within which to grow and learn; but it is the Pagan Wheel of the Year that influences most dimensions of my life. 
 
Christopher: What got you interested in Comparative Religions?
 
Dale: I always had a lay interest in other religions and cultures. I had completed a degree in English and Psychology in the 1970s, but in 1993 I began a further degree in what was then Science of Religion. Although never having been Buddhist I had a growing collection of Buddhas since I was about 18 and decided a wanted to learn more of the religion/philosophy itself. I as bitten as the field married so many of my interests and here I am 20 years later.
 
Christopher: What are some religions that you studied as an undergraduate?
 
Dale: My undergraduate 3 years included Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and African Religion(s). In 3rd year there was a short course on New Religious Movements that appealed to me greatly as I am particularly interested in religious change, syncretism and conversion.
 
Christopher: What religions affect the average persons view on religion in South Africa and how does this affect their view of Paganism?
 
Dale: Well I can’t speak for all the average persons. By the end of the apartheid years the census revealed that over 80% of the population adhered to one or another form of Christianity, of which there are countless expressions. We also have significant Muslim and Hindu communities as well as, especially post-1994, a vast number of other minority religions. What was misleading about the census was a low showing for African Traditional Religion as it is hugely alive and dynamic in African Christian churches that are our most numerically significant religious groups. 
 
The second part of the question is harder to answer due to the huge religious diversity here. Quite honestly I would say that most people know little to nothing about Paganism, but also that some good information got out there due the large media interest in them after their public emergence in 1996, where here of course one found the usual focus on Pagan involvement in magic and the occult. A common question in all was ‘Are you Satanists?’ There were some really fine efforts at correcting this.
 
Christopher: Had there been any prior study of the Pagan religions in South Africa?
 
Dale: No. And now 19 years into our democracy sadly our education system is still inadequate in achieving equitable standards etc. Budget and time constraints for modules are tight and the effort, at the tertiary level, has been to develop good post-colonial scholarship on our numerically significant religions. African Religion(s) are especially important here and the growth of material there has been exciting and important. 
 
What I have been able to do is to include Paganism, where possible, into larger modules. Examples would include Religion and Gender, Religion, Tourism and Festivals and Religion and the Environment. What I have done is to bring Pagan-related papers to our annual local Religion Studies conference where there is a broader academic audience. 
 
Christopher: When did you start to focus on the Pagan religions and how they affect South Africa?
 
Dale: I started this when I was in the Honours programme. I wanted to work on something that was relevant to me, through my growing interest in New Religious Movements, and also that the terms ‘witchcraft’ and ‘paganism’ had a real and complex history here in Africa and it allowed me to develop my comparative background. It was great starting this so soon after their public emergence here.
 
Christopher: What were some of the things you focused on in your earlier studies on Pagan religions in South Africa?
 
Dale: That first thesis was an overview of the beliefs and practices of Paganism, particularly as they were being articulated by the early Pagan community here. Then for my MA, I looked at Paganism in relation to the New Age Movement. Again this had a very local focus and was a relationship I needed to have more insight into before I could go on with what I was by then intending as a diachronic study of South African Paganism. 
 
The PhD was an identity study; looking at the construction and articulation of a contested religious identity in a post-apartheid, religiously diverse country. I pursued identity construction through the personal, the community and then the social dimensions in light of the above.
 
Christopher: Aren’t you now studying and writing on what has happened since 2007? Have there been some significant changes?
 
Dale: There have been very significant changes. The gist of these lies in the fact that the colonial Witchcraft Suppression Act (3) of 1957 has not been repealed by the ANC government, and provides no definition of terms which is quite rare. It was a discriminatory piece of legislation designed to curtail the practices and influence of African diviners, and to criminalise accusations of witchcraft that were treated as a ‘superstition’. In 2007 a Draft Bill to replace this Act came to light and included definitions of central terms that had implications for Pagans as well as for various Traditional Healers organisations/associations and other African communities. 
 
Counter legislative proposals were made and the debates around the definition of the words ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ took on a new significance. I have been following these in the Pagan context but simultaneously in a vast number of African contexts due to the majority demographics and the impact of witchcraft across these communities. I suppose you could say I am working in Witchcraft Studies.
 
Christopher: Has there been a change in the academic interest in the Pagan religions since you started your studies into it?
 
Dale: There has certainly been some from random academics and I have then brought it into a couple of projects. As far as students go, there have been only a few post-graduate studies; most just a one year project, but no PhDs as far as I know although I hear that one is commencing. That’s great! 
 
There are much larger minority religions than Paganism and so much change in the dominant religions themselves post-1994 that this takes most of the academic attention. Support for studies now depends a great deal on their relevance to the social and political processes we are facing as a society and on their applicability to majority demographics and communities. Paganism as a religion is very much a minority.
 
Christopher: Did your study as led you to meet a fair number of South African Pagans and Pagan groups?
 
Dale: Yes and that was as wonderful as much as it was important. My research into any field has always rested on reading as widely as I can, and then getting out among the people concerned. Way back then one could count the Pagan groups on one hand and today there are so many of different traditions and groups. It’s very exciting.
 
Christopher: Have you met some of other Pagan world scholars at a number of conferences?
 
Dale: I have been tremendously fortunate in that. These meetings were firstly at the Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona where I was on a panel on Paganism Around the World with some wonderful people. From 2004 to 2006 I attended the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in different American cities that brings together so many Pagan scholars and practitioner/scholars in the Pagan Studies consultation and in related consultations. 
 
When doing my PhD here in South Africa, and notwithstanding great support from my supervisor, I was felt quite isolated in my field of study. Those conferences were invaluable in what I learned, but also helped me to locate many of the issues I was looking at into a wider context. Although this was the rationale for my trips, the real benefit was in the warmth and generosity of the people I met and shared with beyond the conference itself. Some today I consider as friends irrespective of the Paganism that brought us together. One I love dearly for both mind and person.
 
Christopher: Why are these studies important? Does it affect Pagans in South Africa?
 
Dale: I do feel that Pagan Studies are important at the international and local levels. However, here in South Africa we have come out of about 45 years of apartheid where Christianity was legally entrenched in all our institutions. The change in 1994 to a democratic South Africa did not follow with an immediate change on the ground. The new religious landscape of South Africa is still in process, and the breadth of diversity is still being accommodated, challenged and contested. Pagan Studies are very important as they bridge so many of the debates on what religious freedom and equality means in the new dispensation.
 
Within the physical Pagan community here some might be interested whilst others are not. I think this is the case elsewhere as well and not only with regards to Pagan Studies. Countless papers are written and read all year round that don’t necessarily ‘affect’ the communities they focus on. This bothers me somewhat and I am attempting a much more circular process in what I am doing now. However, as far as studies on witchcraft go—and here at home both Pagan and African forms and understandings are important —I do feel that the issues raised and investigated do affect the Pagan and non-pagan communities in ways people abroad might not always understand. They are hugely important to our whole society.
 
Christopher: How might this affect relations with the other religions in South Africa?
 
Dale:  Far more than Paganism per se, it is the witchcraft issue that affects almost all religions in South Africa with many divisions arising over differences of opinion, experience and interpretation. Where these become really important is in finding some consensus over a definition of the terms in light of the repeal or replacement of current legislation, and also the very real possibility of this not being adequately addressed. Different outcomes will have some serious consequences for many communities. 
 
Christopher: How do you put your studies to work in the real world, creating the hands on work needed to make actual change?
 
Dale: Some aspects of the studies are easier than others and of course what you suggest is the ideal to strive for. What I do is to communicate as widely as possible, and have to accept where this is really not possible. That is not frequent. 
 
In the African context, for example, I have been building up relationships with Traditional Healers (both registered and unregistered), diviners, affected community members, police, government sponsored bodies etc. for a number of years. 
 
Besides interviews I have been conducting workshops where even more voices can be brought onboard. Anyone in fact who has an investment in the issue(s) or who is affected by them. In all of these I share what I know with them as much as I am there to hear their views and experiences. In sharing as much information that is available on the experiences and views of others can be very effective in making decisions for the greater good. And of course, in bringing my findings to the ears of those who are in the position to effect real change. As individuals we can of course participate in this process. 
 
This has become very important to me in an aspect of my work that has brought me into the awful world of the harvesting of human body parts for medicine. Most victims are disabled children and the enormity of this practice is staggering. I am working with a community that is sheltering and caring for some of these children and with numerous official and non-official groups that are involved, or should be involved. In this instance writing a paper is of far less importance than trying to effect real change and to mobilise those who can, and I am involved in many such initiatives. 
 
I am equally involved in the instances of witch-hunts and their outcomes and again find that the wider we all extend our information networks and communications, the more able we are to participate in discussions and play a role in effecting change.
 
Christopher: What about the Witch hunts and about the debates in the Pagan community?
 
Dale: This is for sure the hardest question to answer in a couple of lines. Tragically witch-hunts do still occur here and in many other parts of the world and some have shocking outcomes. Of course this is criminal and unacceptable on every level. 
 
Once that is said, the phenomenon has a complex history and finding solutions is even more so. There is no single reason behind the witch-hunts and the witchcraft accusations that inspire them, but a complicated web that includes poverty, the unequal distribution  of resources and what has Adam Ashforth called ‘spiritual insecurity’ in changing circumstances. 19 years into our new democracy and all of the above have not been adequately addressed, and are even escalating. 
 
In my opinion, one of the most influential factors is the current legislation. Taking the position that the belief in witchcraft is a superstition and criminalising accusations over malevolent practices is directly accountable for fuelling much of the violence. 
 
Prior to legislation it was rare for accusations to lead to violence, and as much as dreadful cases of false accusations are made—and should be severely penalised—the fact is that there are many, many cases in which this is not the case. I have been witness to many cases of proof to accusations, many who confess to the crime, and to some seriously bad things going on out there. That is why they are being given government attention.
 
Of course this has been complicated for the Pagan Witches who, prior to 2007, had never really entered into the debate on witch-hunts and accusations although cases of witch-hunts were huge in the 1990s. However it is the definition of the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’, more than the witch-hunts themselves, that has brought debate and division into the community.
 
I would say that today there are basically 3 positions taken. The first is to ‘reclaim’ the word Witch and to contest that what is happening in African communities is not witchcraft as the term is used as an accusation only. The second is to drop the term in light of its negative impact in our society, and the third is to stay out of the debate, use the broader term Pagan and use, or not use, the term ‘Witch’ wherever individuals feel appropriate. 
 
Because of the complexities in the term in SA I many years ago began to use the capital W in the context of Pagan Witchcraft where it is a term of self-identity, and the lower case for all other uses of the term. This has been useful and the fact that this is not common or necessary amongst international scholars says a lot about the different impact W/witchcraft has in our respective societies. 
 
For myself I still would argue for a clearer distinction to be made between the two in all dialogues and initiatives, and, whilst Pagan Witchcraft certainly has its Constitutional guarantees to religious freedoms, this freedom is not absolute, and can be subject to limitations. There are, quite acceptably, other Pagan perspectives but I personally don’t support any initiatives that deny either the belief in witchcraft, or the reality of harmful witchcraft-related practices in other communities. This position certainly brings its own difficulties that will have to be addressed.
 
Christopher: Didn’t you present an overview of the situation for the Pagan conference of 2007?
 
Dale: Yes I did when asked to do so by Chas Clifton. This was for the Pomegranate journal and really was just an overview of events without detailed analysis or discussion of the issues. It was written so shortly after the conference and, in fact, the real debates came after that conference and I am hoping to publish on them in the near future.
 
Christopher: Is there more work to be done between the Africa Healers and Pagans?
 
Dale: There’s always more work to be done in so many areas. I have been finding it incredibly beneficial. What is important is that there are as many different Pagan opinions on many issues as there are amongst the African Healers. Neither is in the singular so it can often depend on who is talking to whom and for what reason.
 
Christopher: What about work and inter-faith between Pagans, and various Christian groups, including the African Initiated  Churches and with other religions?
 
Dale: The African Initiated Churches and African Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches are by far the largest religious groupings in South Africa and they have a great deal to say on witchcraft. The difference between many African Christian churches and mainstream churches is that witchcraft-related anxieties are brought into the churches and are responded to in various ways. This accounts greatly for their numerical dominance. Their position on some of these issues is therefore very significant and I am not aware of any real engagements between them and Pagans. There could be, but I don’t know of them. 
 
As far as Paganism and mainstream Christianity the conversation still seems to centre on topics of the occult, the practice of magic and links with Satanism. This is important but also a pity as there is a huge diversity within Christian groups as well. Wherever Paganism has surfaced in the world, it has primarily been in predominantly Christian cultures. My own feeling is that we must ‘get on with it’, know ourselves better, and communicate and listen more to what is important to us all as citizens. Of course this doesn’t mean that Pagan beliefs and practices should be compromised in any way and that pursuing various initiatives isn’t important. My answer therefore is that there are little to no really inter-faith Pagan initiatives here to speak of that I am aware of.  
 
However there is a recent inter-faith initiative between the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, Satanists, the South African Vampyre Association, and allied individuals. They have developed an information/forum site, The Alternative Religions Forum: united in our diversity in the pursuit of our common interests. This initiative has brought about divisions in the Pagan community here and is ongoing. 
 
Whilst fully in their democratic right to do so, and I really do not believe that most Pagans have any necessary prejudice towards Satanists, South Africa is still a conservative religious country where the difficulties of being Pagan or a Witch still arises in homes, the workplace and in schools. I understand the rationale behind the initiative but the question is whether it is strategically helpful to all Pagans at this point. I was present when a very similar issue on public Pagan Witch disclosures was actually debated in America in some quarters during the Bush presidency as a result of certain experiences in a negatively changing climate there for local Pagans and Pagan Witches. It’s the case of looking out for what is the healthiest outcome for one’s own religion at different points in time. 
 
There has been an unfortunate recent resurfacing of ‘Satanic Panic’ in South Africa and the climate here is more precarious than a few years ago. Of course this needs to be addressed in whichever way one feels right, but the Pagan community here is relatively small and many feel that ‘to be united [with Satanists] in our diversity’ compromises many of their previous pronouncements on the distinction which many still hold to be the same. It’s actually a matter of managing perceptions—that includes amongst the general public, many official delegations and bodies dealing with directly with Satanism, and in numerous other institutions—that becomes important. 
 
The association of Pagans with Satanists has been recently raised with me at numerous official encounters and it has clearly led to some confusion for them, and again with the general public in cases I am personally aware of.  
 
All I can and do say in response is that independent groups/individuals have their right to their opinion and stance, that this must be heard, but that this position is not supported by the whole community. We have freedom of expression on the one hand up against the possibility that freedom for one can bring difficulties to others. 
 
In the absence of consensus, I do feel that at the public and official level there should be a disclaimer that statements are not made on behalf of the whole Pagan community. In anything I say at these levels I do make that clear. At a group or individual level things can be quite different. 
 
Christopher: Are there things to be done within the Pagan community as well?
 
Dale: This is a very dynamic community with so many talented and caring individuals. I guess, like anywhere, they engage in things according to who they are and to what they feel needs to be done.  Whilst there might not what I would call a common voice in many instances, (and why should there be?), many good things have been done in the past and are being done in the present. This won’t change.
 
Christopher: So where are you looking in your future studies? Any plans on what you would like to study?
 
Dale: This year I am fortunate to have been given support for my research through a post-doctoral scholarship. I have already mentioned a lot of what I am working on and will continue in this area. The topic is so broad, multi-faceted and complex, and, with time flying by as it does, I wish I had a team with me. I am of course writing concurrently and plan a number of related publications in 2013 and 2014.
 
Christopher: Where can readers find some of your work?
 
Dale: My PhD is available online at http://researchspace.ukzn.ac.za/xmlui/handle/10413/7820  There is also the article in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies Vol 10, No 1 (2008). 
 
This year I have a chapter in a forthcoming Brill publication titled Bourdieu in Africa: exploring the dynamics of religious fields in which many of the issues I am working on are raised. 
 
I have local publications that I am not sure would be available outside of SA, but online also have a paper Healers, Heretics and Witches: African diviners and Pagan Witches contest the boundaries of religion and magic in Africa. It is available on www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/…/wallaceepaper.pdf   and was for a multi-disciplinary and not exclusively academic conference so is written accordingly. As I said I plan a number of publications in the near future. Then there are always interviews such as this.  
 
Christopher: Do we need more Pagans interested in working in the academics side? Don’t all religions have their affect on what South African society might become?
 
Dale: There are two questions here. To the first one – that would be great! To the second, yes they do and equally do all the citizens of our country whether from a religious perspective or not.
 
Christopher: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
 
Dale: Just that it is difficult for anyone to understand fully many of the issues faced in cultural and religious contexts outside of their own as we have only our own experiences as a starting point. I guess the route is always then to listen, read and talk more. 
 
Being a Pagan is Africa, and certainly in South Africa today, has complexities that Pagans abroad do not have to encounter. They of course have their own. I am a South African and a Pagan and would not choose to live or work anywhere else in the world. 
 
And thank you Christopher for giving me the opportunity of this interview.

You may also like...