‘African witchcraft’ an academic misnomer


An article I was recently invited to write for the Port Elizabeth Herald’s Weekend Post was published this weekend under the title ‘Satanists challenge legitimacy of proposed occult units’. My suggested title, ‘Occultists challenge Orcs’ legitimacy’, would have been more accurate than the one chosen by the sub-editor of the Herald.

I wrote the article as the director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA). I am a Witch, not a Satanist. SAPRA does not represent any Satanists and does not speak for Satanism in this country. To date, the PE Herald has not invited any self-identified Satanists an opportunity to comment on the newly released ORC investigation mandate.

The selected title ‘Satanists challenge legitimacy of proposed occult units’ is therefore both misleading and unreasonable because it does not reflect actual published information. Satanists in South Africa have not been given any public platform on which to object against anything yet. In my opinion, the published title contravenes the SA Press Code in respect of section 11.1 – Headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question. As most Occultists know, Satanism and Witchcraft are two distinctly different religions. Witchcraft falls under the new religious movement identified as Paganism, whilst Satanism does not. Deliberately conflating one with the other is nothing but tabloid sensationalism.

Of course I do expect the Weekend Post to print an apology and correction in order to remedy the misunderstanding the editor has created in the minds of readers. I must agree with Thomas Sowell, “If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.”


The Weekend Post also published comment from Dr Theodore Petrus, Senior Lecturer Anthropology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology (University not named) entitled ‘SAPS “occult” unit welcome with caution’. The editor chose to headline a quote above this by Petrus, “African witchcraft and western society oriented Satanism are not quite the same”, as “Expert opinion”. Not quite! What generally passes for so-called expert opinion on anything related to Witchcraft in this country is however most often simply regurgitated and non-factual propaganda, and Dr Theodore Petrus’ recently published comments on Traditional African religions, Witchcraft and Satanism, are a choice example of this propaganda.

Dr. Petrus is quoted as saying “Firstly, a clear distinction must be drawn between Satanism and witchcraft, specifically African witchcraft, as there is a tendency to conflate the two. Satanism has its roots in Judeo-Christian beliefs while African witchcraft beliefs existed since before the arrival of Christianity in Africa. In other words, Satanism and its beliefs are inherently a Western phenomenon, while African witchcraft beliefs are an inherent part of the cosmological and religious belief systems of African communities.”

No one would argue that the belief in Satan finds its roots in Western Judeo-Christian beliefs, nor that Satanism only truly came into existence as an identifiable modern philosophy and religious ideology in the United States in 1966. But whether “African witchcraft beliefs” existed before the arrival of Christianity in Africa remains a matter of academic conjecture, and the answer is not as conclusive as Dr. Petrus would have us believe. In ‘Imagining Evil: Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusations in Contemporary Africa’ Gerrie ter Haar writes “The term ‘witchcraft’ was popularized in regard to Africa only in the later nineteenth century by Europeans who were applying to Africa ideas derived from their own historical memory of witchcraft in Europe. Before the mid- or late- nineteenth century, some aspects of African religious or spiritual beliefs that were subsequently labelled as ‘witchcraft’ did not go under that name.”

Y.B. Hallen and J.O. Sodipo, Professors of Philosophy at the University of Ile-Ife, Nigeria, have questioned whether the European term witchcraft (derived from the Anglo-Saxon term wicca) is even a suitable word with which to identify often disparate beliefs and practices occurring in very different African cultures and traditions across the continent. “There is no reason to assume that witchcraft in Africa is the same as was witchcraft in Europe, anymore than there was reason to assume that the English-language concept ‘witchcraft’ may serve as an accurate translation of its supposed African-language equivalents. Whatever is translated as being ‘witchcraft’ in Africa (or even in one place in Africa) may well be a very different thing from whatever it is elsewhere in the world and history.”

The pejorative use of the term witchcraft to describe acts of malevolent magic believed to cause misfortune, has indeed become a part of the cosmological and religious belief systems of modern African communities. The prevalence of such beliefs in many communities throughout the continent gives rise to frequent accusations of witchcraft and violent witch-hunts ensue. The actual cultural or religious value of many different variations of beliefs, all referred to as witchcraft, within African societies generally can unfortunately only be measured in tragedy and sorrow, as such beliefs do not bring order or peace to the societies in which such beliefs are held, as anthropologists repeatedly but incorrectly argue.

Dr. Petrus continues his Weekly Post commentary by saying “The influence of Christian beliefs on African belief systems has led to the syncretism or blending of these belief systems into what can be called African Christianity, where African witchcraft (sic) and Satanism are regarded as one and the same.”

Prof. Gordon L. Chavunduka, President of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers’ Association argues “Early European Christian missionaries tried to destroy African religion and African medicine. Many African traditional religious rites and rituals were regarded as against the Christian faith and morals. It was also believed that African religion promoted the belief in witchcraft and encouraged people to worship their ancestors instead of worshiping God. African medicine was regarded as unscientific and some of its treatment methods were considered anti-Christian. Traditional healers were regarded as heathens because of their participation in African Traditional Religion. Thus, Africans who became Christians were discouraged by the church from taking part in African traditional religious rituals and from consulting traditional healers.”

African Catholic Bishops still annually entreat their congregations to avoid “witchcraft” beliefs, when actually referring to traditional African beliefs and practices. From a Christian perspective, African animist religio-magical beliefs are incorrectly categorized as either witchcraft, paganism or satanism. In his article ‘Can Christianity Dialogue With African Traditional Religion?’ Peter K. Sarpong reminds us that “…African traditional religion, which should be employed for its potentially salutary effect, has been misunderstood and is still misrepresented. The misconception is amply evident from the many wrong names by which traditional religion has been described.”

An example of this historical misunderstanding can be found in the existence of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, an act drafted to suppress traditional African religious practices, erroneously identified as witchcraft. The Act has effectively institutionalized this misrepresentation in South African law and its existence indirectly prejudices South African citizens who are not adherents of traditional African religions, but who do identify as Witches. In his commentary, Dr. Petrus appears to dismiss the relevance of an existing religious minority that identifies Witchcraft as their religion, a modern Pagan religion that finds its origins in entirely European folk-lore and pre-Christian ‘pagan’ cultures.

The term ‘African witchcraft’ will remain a popular misnomer as long as it continues to be used incorrectly by academics, legal experts, religious leaders and the media, to identify African ethnic and folk religious traditions that do not self-identify as witchcraft. Will actual Witches ever be acknowledged by academia and the media in South Africa as being the only identified religious minority in Africa to use the word witchcraft as a term of identity? Not if Africa’s true Witches keep silent, and we dare not remain silent any longer!





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  1. Jun 29, 2013

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