Strong Muti & Harm Ye None: two worlds apart
As part of the ‘30 day’s of avocacy against witch-hunts‘ campaign I managed to arrange a meeting and interview with Vincent Maswanganye (also known as Thambolenyoka) of Mpumalanga.
Vincent Maswanganye is a Nyanga who uses ‘strong muti’. He utilizes the word muti (medicine), as we would use the word magic, to describe afro-centric magical practices. According to Vincent a traditional herbalist is someone who learns from his grandparents what herbs and plants to use for an ailment, how to harvest these plants, roots and herbs, and how to prepare these for sale at one of the popular local markets.
Vincent explained the difference between the very labels used to describe traditional healers, according to his understanding of things.
“To be a sangoma is to heed a calling from one’s ancestors. The sangoma goes to twasa and works mainly with ancestral spirits. Sangomas do not use human bones in their muti for it drives away the ancestors. They are diviners and healers. They use animal bones to foresee the future.”
A nyanga is trained in herbal lore and all other matters pertaining to African Magical Practices. “Nyangas use strong muti.” Vincent explains. I asked him what ‘strong muti’ was. “Strong muti is made of plants, roots, herbs, animal and plant fats, bones and parts of human bodies.
“Where do you get these bones, say if the muti you are preparing requires the knuckles of a leopard?” I asked.
“If I cannot kill one myself, then I go say to Skukuza and I buy it from the people there. We also find bones in the veld or dig the graves.”
Vincent explains that Sangomas heal and consult the ancestors for answers and for cures. Nyangas work with spirits. They can heal and they can kill. “In world folklore, Shamans and Witches are said to fly at night. Can nyangas also fly and shape-shift?” I ask.
“Yes. There are muti’s for all those things.”
“How does one become a witch in the African sense of the word?”
“A umthakathi must pass his magic to a child of his family before he dies.“
“They will take that baby child and make incisions at the bottom of its spine and rub in the strong muti ‘umnyezane’. This muti will penetrate into the child’s bloodstream and make it strong. The umthakathi will throw the baby vigorously against a wall. If the muti has taken, the child will grab the wall and not fall. If the muti has not taken the child will fall and cry. This means the muti must be administered again, until it works.”
“Vincent, when I first met you, you proudly announced that you were a witch. Sometimes you called yourself a witch-doctor. I know that in your culture a witch is an umthakathi, a practitioner of malevolent magic. Does this mean that you are an umthakathi?”
“Umthakathi and thakathi are the accusations leveled at a nyanga who uses strong muti. One nyanga to avoid being pointed out and also to safeguard his practice, will point out another nyaga as a umthakathi. Sometimes the accused does not even know anything about magic. It is just an ugly old woman.”
“How did the African Renaissance and the return to African culture and roots affect your practice, Vincent? Is the use of what you call “strong muti” more socially acceptable now?”
“No, it is not acceptable. It is practiced under dark cover.”
“The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 outlaws witchcraft and finger pointing, but it also conversely creates the climate in which both magical crimes and false accusations are perpetuated. How does the WSA of 1957 affect you? Do you wish to see it revoked?”
“The Witchcraft Suppression Act makes us who wish to practice our magic, open to attack by the community. For example, if you keep a monkey at home the people will toy-toy outside your house and accuse you of being a witch. It does not help to explain to them that a monkey is an animal like any other animal. Monkeys, meerkats, cats, frogs and bush babies are all feared as they are used in African magic. We use them in revenge muti. An African magician can actually send these animals to do work for him. For example, strong muti can be put into the stomach of a frog through the mouth. You put the frog under a car’s tyre and when the person drives off, the frog dies and the muti for revenge will start to work. That person WILL have an accident. Maybe die.”
“According to your understanding is the word “witch” then a bad word?”
” It is not nice. I much more prefer the definition “African magician”.”
“But is the word “witch” not also a word of power in the African community?”
“Yes, People respect you because they fear you.” Vincent speaks and there is a certain pleased glint in bright eyes. “Tsotsis (thiefs) will think twice before trying to steal a “umthakhati”’s car, for example.”
“Is yours a spiritual or a magical practice, Vincent?”
“It is a magical practice.”
“Do you know that Witchcraft is a recognized religion in our country as well as all over the world?”
“Yes, a religion is a belief. And people believe in witchcraft. I know it is a religion.”
“Actually it is more than that. It is the return to the ways of our ancestors. A return to their customs, Gods and Goddesses. It is the revival of old belief structures, principles and ethics. It is our spiritual heritage. For us, a Witch is a wise person. The Church and Christian Missionaries used the mistranslated biblical injunction “suffer not a witch to live” to demean and adulterate this word’s meaning. The ramifications of this mistranslation infiltrated even your culture, turning your magical practices into superstitious practices and evil beliefs. We wish to claim and reclaim the word “Witch” so that it commands the respect that our religion deserves and you the freedom to pursue your culture without harming none.”
I explained further. “Traditional healers in our country told us that they have fought long and hard to be called “traditional healers”, instead of witch-doctors. South African Witches are campaigning so that those who do not self-identify as Witches stop using this word in their practice of false accusations. Its use in this context is demeaning of our religion and promotes scape-goating and community execution of the innocent. It is being used as a smoke-screen. Malevolent afro-centric magical practices are described as superstition by Western culture. South African Pagans grant African Traditional Healers the cultural respect and wish likewise to have our religious identity and traditions respected. Witchcraft is our religion and, as Damon Leff of SAPRA wrote, the continued allegations by Phephsile Maseko that mutilations and murders linked to the making of what you call strong muti are perpetrated by witches in the name of witchcraft, are false and defamatory. We have been involved in talks with the THO since 2007, and have repeatedly asked Ms. Maseko to respect and show consideration for our struggle, but I presume that the solidarity we’ve asked of her goes against the THO’s political agenda?”
“Yes, one will accuse the other before he is himself accused.” Vincent responds.
“Together South African Pagans and the THO challenged the Mpumalanga Legislature’s proposed revision of the WSA in 2007. We agree on the fact that we need the 1957 WSA to be abolished. We will not settle for anything else but its complete and entire repeal. We realize, however, the Traditional Healers would be happy to see it rewritten to suit their aims and goals and to accommodate the custom of pointing out umthakathis. What the legislators tried to do back in 1957, through the implementation of the Act, was to prevent the criminal activity and violence surrounding afro-traditional magic. Under a Christian Apartheid Regime African Magic was given a white label (witchcraft) and criminalized. South African Pagans could opt for settling for an amendment which would accommodate our religion, but that would ultimately cripple the right of African magicians, such as yourself, of practicing their magical culture. It would mean that a person with wicked intentions could still point out an innocent person and still accuse them of practicing malefic afro-centric magic and thereby arouse the community to violent indignation.”
Vincent nods and I continue. “Our Constitution grants us all the right to freedom. We are fighting to reclaim the words Witch and Witchcraft, but we also support the prevention of muti-related violence, mutilations, killings, grave-robbing and trafficking in human body parts. Please explain to me why, if the word muti means medicine, your magic is not only used for healing?”
“If a member of someone’s family suddenly dies in a car accident, or is struck dead by lightning, they will consult someone like me to find out if the death was a natural death or if it was caused by witchcraft.”
“You mean caused by supernatural means?” I ask.
“Yes. We go to the graveyard and take that corpse, cut it and rub muti into it. This muti is called ‘vukakwabafile’ (wake up from the dead) and we put a spear in the corpse’s hand to go and exact revenge. If the suspect dies a few days later we know witchcraft was involved. If not, we know it was a natural death. For a strong leader or a King to talk and have power we use lion fat and lion phlegm. We cut the body of the politician and rub in the medicine. The lion’s courage and big voice reaches the person through the penetration of the muti into the bloodstream.”
“Do you believe in the Ancestors, Vincent?”
“Very much so. The ancestors can show us where to go, what herbs to use. Make sure we stay safe and healthy.”
“Does your magic allow you to harm another human being for gain?”
“I am paid to help my customer. I heal my customers if they are sick and sometimes I heal the situation they are in.”
“What services do you offer your customer, Vincent?”
“To heal sickness, make people love you/make you popular, make people sick, get back a job lost through unfair dismissal, make someone mad, make someone impotent/sterile, make someone have an accident, make someone die, make a thief bring back stolen goods.”
“Should culture be protected at the cost of innocent lives? People and animals are getting killed.”
“It is our way.”
“And if you are pointed out as a “witch” What would be your fate? Court or Kangaroo Court?”
“You cannot prove witchcraft in court, but the community does not need the court to make you pay. If they decide you are implicated and if they are angry enough they will burn your house and kill you.”
I want to correct Vincent and ask him to say “magic”, instead of “witchcraft” but I pause to think and just then I realize that this is simply a war of semantics. African culture is ingrained in their psyches. Swopping the word witch with the word magic would not resolve the problem. Vincent cannot deny his traditional ways and call his manner of performing magic a criminal activity. Using the word magic would only mean that the so-called bad word would then shift to the word magic. Magicians in the Western Traditions would then have to reclaim the word magic, for magic would then become the word behind which the injustices would continue to happen and behind which the guilty could hide, whilst they finger-point innocent bystanders.
I sit and ponder on this dilemma long after the interview is over. Horrified, I realize that irrespective of the labels used, the culture and cultural practices are what have to be urgently addressed and changed. As a European descendant I feel we don’t have the right to request that Africans relinquish that part of their culture, as our ancestors (the Romans, Greeks and Jews) evolved into doing with regards to millennia of human sacrifice. Africans will do so in their own time, I presume.
I come to the conclusion that it is not about the words chosen. I can only propose, as Luke Martin, the Convenor of the SAPC said, “good, solid law enforcement, activism against body-parts-muti as well as the SAPS and courts to take a hard-line stance against those who perpetuate these crimes”.
I asked Vincent, “Do you use human bones in the making of your muti?”
“Yes, we buy them from those who go to graveyards. We used it to make very strong muti for those who want to be prophets and leaders. We used the hand and the skull to boost business and bury it by the gate on the customer’s property.” He had not hesitated to answer. He was being candid.
“You do realize that these are all illegal activities?”
“Yes. Amongst the people of our country, in our communities and according to the law these are illegal activities and yet these practices are ancient customs whose roots are deeply entrenched in African tradition.”
“Should culture and tradition be preserved and protected at all costs? Even at the cost of losing human lives?”
“Would you point out somebody else as an umthakathi?”
“Never! There should be honour amongst African magicians.”
We have been focusing on the similarities between our two cultures, but no two cultures have ever been set so far apart in principle and ethics. Harm ye none vs. strong muti. Quite frankly, our struggles pull in opposite directions.
What is the way forward then? How do we strengthen our position in a country where we could be regarded as the insignificant cultural and religious minority? In my opinion we have to start by not being on the defensive. By constantly defending ourselves we are on the back foot and never moving forward. It is vital that SAPRA continue to call for the repeal of the 1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act, that the Alliance continues to document muti-related violence and witch-hunts, and continues to advocate for an end to these. By being positively pro-active we can state who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in without shame or fear. Perhaps it is time for us to focus our energies on this rather than on other cultural beliefs which are juxtaposed to ours.