The ‘witch’ word in South Africa


The indiscriminate use of the words ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ is irresponsible in a society where violent witch hunts still occur on a regular basis. Accusing another person of practising witchcraft may even constitute a criminal offense in South Africa in terms of The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, which is still in place (a project to review witchcraft legislation was approved in 2010).

The use of these words to describe anyone who does not identify themselves as a Witch is also offensive to two distinct groups of people in South Africa who have very different views of these words, i.e. traditional healers who view these words in a negative light and self-identifying Pagan Witches reclaiming these words.

Traditional healers

Note that there are 11 official languages in South Africa, i.e. Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

Traditional healers are generally identified in Zulu as either an “isangoma” (plural: “izangoma”) meaning a diviner or an “inyanga” (plural: “izinyanga”) meaning a herbalist. While the English term “witch doctor” has historically been applied to both witch-hunters and traditional healers, it does not have the same meaning as the word “witch” which has negative connotations. Note that the Zulu words that translate to “witch” and “witchcraft” in English are “umthakathi” (plural: “abathakathi”) and “ubuthakathi”.

The Traditional Healers Organization (THO), commenting on the draft Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill 2007 which has since been withdrawn, proposed that the title of the Bill be changed to “Control of Butsakatsi Practices Bill” and recommended that “butsakatsi” (Swazi for “witchcraft”) be defined as follows:

“‘Butsakatsi‘ includes the use of harmful medicines, harmful charms, harmful magic and any other means or devices in causing any illness, misfortunes or death to any person or animal, or in causing any injury to any person, animal or property”

The THO also suggested the following definition of Witchcraft:

“Witchcraft in this Bill shall mean:

a) Any act or conduct, which causes or leads to the infliction of injury, illness, or even spiritual damage to another person through the use of ubuthi or other destructive means

b) Any act or conduct that leads to the death of another person through ukuthakatha

c) Any act or conduct which is perceived by the community as unnatural and capable of causing danger or damage to the person or property of another through some negative energy

d) Any conduct or act which cannot be explained in western scientific terms but which is perceived or believed to exist and can be proved so to exist by those trained in African Science through diagnosis”

The THO defined “ubuthi” in this context as follows:

Ubuthi means an object, act or substance used in

a) The application of negative energy with an intention to kill or harm a person

b) The usage of any poisonous substance with an aim to kill or destroy one’s life

c) Any act that is evil in its nature and does not uphold the principles of humanity and nation building as enshrined in our constitution

d) Casting a spell on any person”

The categories of registered traditional health practitioners listed in the Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 yet to be implemented are diviners, herbalists, traditional birth attendants and traditional surgeons. Other relevant terms defined in the Act include traditional medicine, traditional philosophy and traditional health practice (see below).

“‘traditional health practice’ means the performance of a function, activity, process or service based on a traditional philosophy that includes the utilisation of traditional medicine or traditional practice and which has as its object –

(a) the maintenance or restoration of physical or mental health or function; or

(b) the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of a physical or mental illness; or

(c) the rehabilitation of a person to enable that person to resume normal functioning within the family or community; or

(d) the physical or mental preparation of an individual for puberty, adulthood, pregnancy, childbirth and death, but excludes the professional activities of a person practising any of the professions contemplated in the Pharmacy Act, 1974 (Act No. 53 of 1974), the Health Professions Act, 1974 (Act No. 56 of 1974), the Nursing Act, 1974 (Act No. 50 of 1974), the Allied Health Professions Act, 1982 (Act No. 63 of 1982), or the Dental Technicians Act, 1979 (Act No. 19 of 1979), and any other activity not based on traditional philosophy.”

‘traditional health practitioner’ means a person registered under this Act in one or more of the categories of traditional health practitioners;

‘traditional medicine’ means an object or substance used in traditional health practice for –

(a) the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of a physical or mental illness; or

(b) any curative or therapeutic purpose, including the maintenance or restoration

of physical or mental health or well-being in human beings, but does not include a dependence-producing or dangerous substance or drug;

‘traditional philosophy’ means indigenous African techniques, principles, theories, ideologies, beliefs, opinions and customs and uses of traditional medicines communicated from ancestors to descendants or from generations to generations, with or without written documentation, whether supported by science or not, and which are generally used in traditional health practice;”

Pagan Witches

The South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) defines Witchcraft as follows:

“Witchcraft is a religio-magical technique that employs the use of divination, herbalism, sympathetic magic and ritual.”

SAPRA objected to the definition of witchcraft in the draft Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill 2007 and the THO’s suggested definition of witchcraft in their comments on the same Bill.

There have been suggestions in the past for local Pagan Witches to disassociate from the words Witch and Witchcraft in order to be more acceptable to society, which was not supported by all. It would amount to waiving their constitutional rights, and is impractical in the context of a global village getting smaller every day in which the words Witch and Witchcraft are being reclaimed.

See related post: Witch hunt time warp


This article was originally published here


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