South Africa has come a long way in the last twenty years. In 1994 we had our first free elections, and from it we left Apartheid where it belonged- in the past. Then in 1996 we adopted a new Constitution; one which is heralded by many first world countries as being progressive. However, as liberal as our Constitution may be, South Africa is still a very conservative nation; especially when it comes to the topic of religion.
Our Constitution under Chapter 2, section 15, guarantees each citizen the right to freedom of religion:
“15. Freedom of religion, belief and opinion
Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion. Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities; they are conducted on an equitable basis; and attendance at them is free and voluntary.”
Our nation’s Constitution means that our government, and by virtue all government-aided institutions, are secular- they are not permitted to endorse one religion to the exclusion of others. However while this is great for Paganism and adherents of other occult-orientated belief systems in theory, the reality is far removed from current legislature.
South Africa is the only country in the world that has a dedicated task force within their police service to the investigation of the occult. Born of SA’s own ‘Satanic Panic’ in 1992, the Occult-related Crime Unit (ORCU) within the South African Police Service (SAPS) was tasked with sniffing and stamping out ‘Satanism’. The truth is that the unit was exclusively Christian and its members abused their power to promote their own personal religious crusade.
If you listened to heavy metal, wore black clothing or nail polish, or even suffered from depression, you could have been singled out by members of the ORCU and interrogated. While SAPS denies that any wrongdoing was done on their part; testimony from victims of the ORCU prove otherwise. In its ‘war’ on anything remotely linked to what the ORCU claimed to be ‘occult’, its members spread misinformation to schools, churches, parents and other units within SAPS on occult practices, beliefs, and symbolism; along with supposed ‘warning signs’ of those involved in the occult.
Thankfully by the start of the new millennium, the ORCU seemed to have faded into obscurity. It was only when the odd mutilated cat or pentagram graffiti was discovered that former ORCU star, Kobus Jonker, was called up by the media for his supposed ‘expert’ commentary. Other than the odd insufferable comment, usually containing the words ‘demons, blood, Satanism, and witches’, there has been a lull in the crusade to smear anything outside the realms of Abrahamic religions. It could even be argued that this sense of peace helped to create a feeling of safety for Pagans and adherents of other occult-orientated religions, allowing us to grow as a community and establish ourselves.
However last year there was a change to this; a disturbance to our peace. A leaked SAPS memorandum showed that the ORCU was being resurrected. But now with Pagans having organisational bodies in place, it was a potential threat that was not going to be taken lying down. The South African Pagan Rights Alliance challenged the memorandum and has been keeping a close watch on further developments in the situation; but now a new situation reared its ugly head yesterday.
While SA’s ‘Satanic Panic’ has somewhat subsided amongst its white population, it seems that it is only just beginning to sprout in the townships of South Africa. A recent media report claimed that a teenage girl was attacked and killed by Satanists in Mohlakeng, Randfontein; all for the purpose of ‘drinking her blood’. While the facts are somewhat unclear, what is crystal clear is that this tragic event was less to do with actual Satanists and more to do with teenagers fulfilling Satanic Panic myth.
However this fact is not being seen by ‘religious leaders’ and it came out in media reports yesterday that this horrible event is being used by the Gauteng MEC for Education, Barbara Creecy, to implement a program with the help of “faith-based organisations” (read excluding minority faiths) on curbing “Satanism and the occult” in schools.
What is most damaging to Paganism and occult-orientated religions is that government is essentially endorsing and sponsoring the slandering of minority faiths, which are being termed as “harmful religious practices”. Children will not only be taught that anything remotely ‘occult’ is wrong and dangerous, but these same children will be judged by similar guidelines as the SAPS’ ‘symptoms of occult involvement’ by teachers. What is important to note is that not only does this move go against the South African Constitution, but it also goes against legislature governing the role of religion in government-funded schools. And while this story is just only breaking, the South African Pagan Rights Alliance is already making moves to combat government’s slight against Pagan and Occult minorities.
This may seem like a difficult battle for Pagans and adherent of occult-orientated religions in South Africa, and in all likelihood it is going to be; but it is also a powerful reminder of the role of citizens in a democracy. Not just as Pagans facing threats to our religious freedoms, but as citizens of a country, it is up to us to ensure that government works for us, and not the other way around. It is up to us, the people, to ensure that our Constitution and legislature is upheld by those in power and that it is not forgotten and abused by them either. If we want to enjoy our rights, we have to be prepared to protect them too.