What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft?


04 May 2012 | Damon Leff

A response to Beliefnet.com, Patheos.com and About.com, from ‘the Third World’.

In April, Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby cobbled together a monstrous Islamophobic indictment of witchcraft in the Third World called ‘What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft‘. The article has been roundly criticised as a “car-crash”, “thematic mess”, and “lazy slander” by Jason Pitzl-Waters [The Wild Hunt, Patheos.com] and Patti Wigington [About.com] called it plainly what it is, a “crap article”. With the exception of Pitzl-Waters, who made brief reference in his response ‘Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings‘ to Pagans and “witch-persecutions” in South Africa, none of the considered responses from Pagan bloggers thought it appropriate to defer to Third World Witches themselves for informed comment.

I’m an African Witch and a human rights advocate. My field of expertise? Witch-hunts and witchcraft on the African continent! My work with the ‘30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts‘, an international campaign founded in 2007/8 by me in response to increasingly violent witch-hunts in my own country, has focussed extensively on investigating historical cultural and religious motivations for accusations of witchcraft. As THE African expert on the subject, allow me to answer the question posed by Kerby.

What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft?

In order to correctly contextualise accusations of ‘witchcraft’ in Africa one needs to understand that the words ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ were introduced into this continent by European settlers and missionaries, and were used to incorrectly identify and disparage traditional African religions and traditional African magico-religious practices, religions and practices never actually identified as ‘witchcraft’ by their adherents and practitioners. With few very recent exceptions, the body of work produced by academics detailing and / or referencing ‘African witchcraft’ to date, constitutes a gross Euro-centric exercise in prejudicial fallacy.

“When this legislation [The Witchcraft Suppression Act No.3 of 1957] was promulgated in South Africa, it was consistent with the approach taken by colonial administrators across Africa, and modeled on the anti-witchcraft laws in Britain that were repealed in 1950. They arose from a specific worldview by which, ”in the colonies”, African indigenous religious forms fell victim to the colonial propensity to distinguish between religion and ‘superstition’, and by which distinction it was relegated to the latter category. This Act can be seen as an extension of the colonial approach to witchcraft beliefs and practices; namely that witchcraft is a superstition that could be overcome through education and economic advancement.” Dr. Dale Wallace of the University of KwaZulu Natal – 2007 Submission to the South African Law Reform Commission in support of the review of Act 3 of 1957. [7]

Witch-hunts in Europe (including England, Scotland and Ireland) and America, and modern witch-hunts in India and Africa all share a common source and pool of highly prejudicial and completely unproven beliefs about what Witchcraft actually is, who Witches actually are and what We do. Pitzl-Waters says as much in his response “Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice.”

There is an intimate link between historical witch-hunts and those occuring weekly throughout Africa, irrespective of whether the country under investigation is Muslim, Christian, Animist, or religiously diverse as is South Africa. The African stories about witchcraft, folk-lore and myth, can be traced back in part to their European equivalents told during a much earlier time. Their combined effect together with existing legal, cultural and religious bias against witchcraft, in virtually every single country in Africa, has created “provocative delusions” powerful enough for children to accuse educators, mothers to accuse children, and sons to accuse their grandmothers of ‘murder by witchcraft’. [8] The sentence, without trial or mercy, in Africa? Death or exile in a refugee camp!

In South Africa our campaign this year focussed on four refugee camps in the Limpopo Province where individuals and families who have fallen victim to witchcraft accusation have either been banished to by their villages, or taken to by the police. The stories of these victims are now being told. Victims of witchcraft accusation in Africa (and elsewhere) do not self-identify as Witches and are not Witches!

Kerby’s trivialization of accusations of witchcraft and actual witch-hunts merely serves to reinforce an existing body of racist libel and religious fanaticism. He fails to see that the often repeated international demands by Catholic Bishops to African governments to “ban sorcery with rigid laws” and “counter the scourge of ritual murder due to witchcraft” are nothing but an incitement to religious discrimination (against traditional animist societies and peoples who have never identified themselves as Witches or practitioners of Witchcraft), and a fallacy based on a convenient historical stereotype. Real Witches are not responsible for the acts of barbarism identified by the media internationally as either “ritual murders” or “Muti murders”; the dismemberment of a still living victim.

When it comes to reporting on witchcraft in Africa the international media merely reinforces existing prejudicial stereotypes. There is rarely any critical examination of ‘the facts’. Kerby, like so many ‘journalists’ before and after him, failed the first rule of good journalism – Know your subject! He is no exception to the general rule when it comes to this particular one.

Gross violations of human rights are occuring throughout the continent not because Witches are using witchcraft to cause harm, but because ordinary people are accusing innocent people of doing so. In Africa a mere accusation of witchcraft satisfies any need for further proof. People generally believe that witchcraft is always harmful, dangerous and capable of every imagined evil. Accusation is however not proof and belief is not evidence!

An end to violent witch-hunts, irrespective of the continent on which they occur, can only take place in conjunction with an understanding of the difference between ‘prohibition of accusation’ on the one hand and ‘right to identity’ on the other. Marginalising actual Witches in any public debate on the subject of witchcraft or witch-hunts constitutes investigative negligence. Insisting that these two distinctly different world-views be kept apart, or that they be dealt with seperately, does neither true justice. Our very existence denies centuries of equally badly cobbled propaganda, Rob. For Witches in Africa, these world-views can never be separated.



[0] What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft?
Islam forbids dabbling in the occult as does the Bible. Today the Third World is battling what UNICEF calls a plague. So, why does the industrialized world trivialize such beliefs?
23 April 2012 | Rob Kerby, Beliefnet Senior Editor

“…the Vatican has called on African authorities to ban sorcery with rigid laws. When receiving visiting bishops from Angola, the Pope Benedict XVI declared that a “joint effort” of the church, civil society and governments must be made “to counter the “scourge” of ritual “murder of children and the elderly” due to witchcraft. Denouncing it, he urged officials to educate church members against “practices that are incompatible” with Christianity.”

[1] Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings
25 April 2012 | Jason Pitzl-Waters, The Wild Hunt (Patheos.com)

“car-crash” “thematic mess” “lazy slander”

“What, exactly, can the “Third World” teach us about witchcraft? That it should be outlawed, that witches should be hunted and killed? That kids shouldn’t read Harry Potter because witchcraft is serious business in Saudi Arabia? What?”

“Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice. Further, modern Pagans exist in the Middle East, and South Africa, places where witch-persecutions are happening. They take this problem very seriously indeed, and Pagans have even been seen as a possible solution in the problem of witch-hunting in India. To claim our faiths are “trivializing” witchraft is a slur, and an ignorant one.”

[2] The Unbelieveable at Beliefnet
26 April | Gus diZerega, Beliefnet.com

[3] I Don’t Want To Live In A Pagan Ghetto
27 April 2012 | Star Foster, Patheos.com

“We have reached a point where we don’t need platforms, however large, that aren’t willing to respect us.”

[4] BeliefNet and Why Pagans Can’t Live in a Vacuum
28 April 2012 | Patti Wigington, About.com

“crap article”

“Unfortunately, Rob Kerby forgot that the label of “Pagan” does have names and faces, and by doing so, he managed to not only marginalize an entire community, but disrespect one of the best Pagan writers out there.”

[5] Hunt for Charity and Sound Arguments, Not Witches
03 May 2012 | Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead, Guest bloggers for The Wild Hunt (Patheos.com)

[6] ’30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts’
Advocating an end to witch-hunts globally.
Touchstone Advocacy
A South African Pagan Rights Alliance initiative

(7) Dr. Dale Wallace of the University of KwaZulu Natal – 2007 Submission to the South African Law Reform Commission in support of the review of the Witchcraft Suppression Act, Act 3 of 1957, South Africa.

(8) Europe’s Inner Demons
An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt
by Norman Cohn



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