Witch hunt time warp


In some countries today, people are free to call themselves a Witch or a Pagan with relatively little fear of prejudice, discrimination or persecution. The persecution of suspected witches in Europe and the USA up to the 17th century is now viewed as a shameful travesty. In South Africa today however, self-identifying Witches in suburbia are subjected to religious intolerance by Christian extremists and, primarily in rural areas, people are accused by others of witchcraft and violently persecuted on the basis of such accusations alone.

Some possible factors contributing to the violent witch hunts in South Africa today are a widespread fear of witches and witchcraft, jealousy, unexplained illness, death and misfortune, political instigation, and the inability to deal with suspected harm-doers via legal channels. Traditional healers may play a role, e.g. in the naming of individuals as the cause of unexplained misfortune or suffering. Suspected witches are violently attacked and often killed on the basis of accusations alone. Elderly women and children are particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

A related criminal phenomenon is the practice of “muti” (from Zulu: umuthi, meaning medicine) murders or killings, also known as ritual murders, during which body parts are obtained from humans and animals for traditional medicinal purposes. Aside from the crime itself, this harmful practice fuels the fear of witches and witchcraft.

Witchcraft past and present

Dictionary definitions of “witchcraft” include magic, sorcery and nature religion.

The Watkins Dictionary of Magic by Nevill Drury defines witchcraft as follows:

“A term used to refer to both ‘modern witchcraft’ – the magical and neopagan practices of modern revival movements such as Wicca – and its traditional European antecedents (‘traditional witchcraft’). It is also used to refer to practices in pre-literate and tribal societies in which, for example, spells, enchantments, and evocations are used to cure disease and ward off evil influences… Today, traditional witchcraft is regarded by most authorities as a folk religion that blended superstition, fortune telling, folklore, and herbalism with remnants of various pre-Christian beliefs (e.g. of the Celts and Druids).”

According to The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, there is no universal definition of witchcraft as “the term has different meanings in different cultures and has had different meanings at different times in history”. Guiley states that the capitalized word Witchcraft is an organized religion and the largest tradition within Paganism, defined as “Contemporary Earth-based spiritual traditions and paths blending elements of pre-Christian, Christian and non-Christian religions”.

For the purposes of this article, a Witch is a person who self-identifies as such in the same way that a person may identify themselves as, among many other things, a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Buddhist.

Many modern Witches subscribe to an ethical code and believe that harm to others inevitably leads to self-harm. For Wiccans, these ethics are encapsulated in the Wiccan Rede (“An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”) and the Wiccan Rule of Three (“Three times what thou gives returns to thee.”)

Although the term “witch doctor” was applied to indigenous African magicians in the past, I understand that indigenous African magicians and traditional healers do not generally self-identify as either Witches or Pagans today. This could be related to the European origins of the terms “witch” and “witchcraft” and the negative stereotype perpetuated by our society and in our legislation despite our constitutional right to freedom of religion in the new South Africa.

Historical and legal context

Witches and witchcraft have historically existed on the fringes of society, often subjected to misunderstanding, fear and persecution. The positive witch stereotype of the village wise woman and healer was twisted over time into a negative witch stereotype of an evil Devil-worshiping sorcerer. Furthermore, in many cases the persecuted were not even witches but convenient scapegoats.

While Europeans have reached a more balanced view of witches and witchcraft after hundreds of years of tragic persecution, sadly South Africa is now experiencing a delayed “burning times”. While this appears to parallel the original “burning times”, it is complicated by our colonial history where indigenous African cultural practices were legally suppressed by the government and have therefore been unregulated in the past, as well as political and social upheaval in the years leading up to and following the advent of democracy in 1994.

It is instructive to consider the timeline of related events in history, including the measures that have been taken to remedy the situation although the wheels of bureaucracy move extremely slowly while innocent people are still being tortured and killed.

1233: [Europe] Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church to suppress heretics began, ultimately leading to the persecution of suspected witches

1486: [Germany] Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches) published as a comprehensive guide for witch-hunters

1541: [England] Witchcraft Act 1541 made witchcraft a crime punishable by death, followed in later years by a series of Witchcraft Acts with penalties for witchcraft

1600: [Europe] Peak of the “burning times” where many people accused of witchcraft were executed by burning or hanging

1692: [USA] 29 people accused and found guilty of witchcraft, 19 of them executed by hanging, in the now infamous farcical Salem witch trials

1735: [Great Britain] Witchcraft Act 1735 replaced penalties for witchcraft with penalties for the “pretence of witchcraft”, reflecting the official view of the time that belief in witchcraft amounts to superstition and that any claim to knowledge of witchcraft is fraudulent

1895: The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1895 passed in the British colony of the Cape of Good Hope, penalizing the pretence of witchcraft and also accusations of witchcraft

1910: Union of South Africa founded as a British dominion

1951: [Great Britain] Witchcraft Act 1735 repealed and Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 passed, followed by the modern revival of witchcraft and the popularization of the modern religion of Wicca in Great Britain and USA

1957: The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1895 applicable to the Cape province and relevant parts of legislation applicable to other provinces repealed and Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 passed (amended 1970), penalizing the pretence of witchcraft and accusations of witchcraft throughout South Africa

1961: Republic of South Africa founded

1994: South Africa’s first democratic elections held on 27 April and Interim Constitution of 1993 came into effect providing for inter alia the right to “freedom of religion, belief and opinion” thus paving the way for the South African Paganism movement

1994: African National Congress (ANC), the dominant political party in the 1994 elections, issued A National Health Plan for South Africa, a policy document including inter alia right of access to, and control of, traditional health practitioners

1996: The Commission of Enquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murder in the Northern Province of the Republic of South Africa (The Ralushai Commission) proposed a new Witchcraft Control Act including penalties for practising, or pretending to practise, witchcraft (i.e. acknowledges the existence of witchcraft and criminalizes it) and also recommended new legislation to regulate traditional healers

1997: Constitution of the Republic of South Africa of 1996 came into effect

1998: Commission on Gender Equality issued The Thohoyandou Declaration on Ending Witchcraft Violence, recommending urgent legislative reform to mitigate harmful witchcraft practices and violent witch hunts including new legislation to regulate the practices and conduct of traditional healers

2004: Pagan Freedom Day Movement South Africa chartered and first annual Pagan Freedom Day celebrated on 27 April (Freedom Day)

2007: Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill 2007 expanded on Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, defining witchcraft as harmful magic and attempting to regulate the conduct of traditional healers in the province of Mpumalanga (Bill subsequently withdrawn)

2007: South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) in collaboration with South African Pagan Council (SAPC) and Traditional Healers Organization (THO) appealed to South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) for the review of witchcraft legislation on inter alia constitutional grounds

2008: Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 passed

2008: [Great Britain] Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 repealed and replaced by Consumer Protection Regulations

2008: 30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts annual campaign from March 29 to April 27 (Freedom Day) launched by South African Pagans including members of South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) and South African Pagan Council (SAPC)

2010: Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development approved South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Project 135: Review of witchcraft legislation

2010: Ethnomedicine Practitioners Association of South Africa (EPASA) applied to the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) to open a register for Ethnomedicine, a field of study and practice that includes traditional medicine and impinges on the practices of traditional healers.

Current legislation

Aside from our Constitution, two pieces of current legislation are relevant:

  • The Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957 (as amended) administered by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, “To provide for the suppression of the practice of witchcraft and similar practices.”
  • The Traditional Health Practitioners Act 22 of 2007 administered by the Department of Heath, “To establish the Interim Traditional Health Practitioners Council of South Africa; to provide for a regulatory framework to ensure the efficacy, safety and quality of traditional health care services; to provide for the management and control over the registration, training and conduct of practitioners, students and specified categories in the traditional health practitioners profession; and to provide for matters connected therewith.”

The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 is based on The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1895 applicable to the British colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which in turn appears to be based on the archaic Witchcraft Act 1735 in Great Britain that was repealed in 1951 and has subsequently been replaced by Consumer Protection Regulations. Despite its stated aim, it arguably does not acknowledge the existence of, or criminalize, actual witchcraft only the so-called pretence of witchcraft (and also accusations of witchcraft). It does not appear to be effective at preventing the violent witch hunts that persist primarily in our rural areas and furthermore appears to be a contributing factor as it does not provide an effective legal avenue to address perceived harmful witchcraft. The difficulty proving harmful witchcraft in a court of law is a major obstacle to penalizing any actual harm-doing via legislation thus mitigating mob justice.

The Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957 also denies the constitutional rights of among others self-defined Witches and traditional healers and should therefore be revoked on constitutional grounds. Note that the following criminal offence listed in the Act is not necessarily directed at harmful practices (or pretence thereof), and a person convicted of such an offence may be liable to imprisonment for up to two years: “for gain pretends to exercise or use any supernatural power, witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, or undertakes to tell fortunes, or pretends from his skill in or knowledge of any occult science to discover where and in what manner anything supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found”.

The government’s ambitious aim of regulating the practices and conduct of traditional healers may be a step in the right direction to the extent that registered traditional healers may be involved in harmful practices related to the witch hunts. The principal tenets of the ANC’s 1994 National Health Plan with respect to traditional practitioners include:

  • “People have the right of access to traditional practitioners as part of their cultural heritage and belief system.”
  • “Traditional practitioners will be controlled by a recognised and accepted body so that harmful practices can be eliminated and the profession promoted.”

It remains to be seen how feasible and effective the practical implementation of the Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 will be.

There seems to be an anomaly between the provisions of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 and the provisions of the Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007. The categories of registered traditional health practitioners in the latter include diviners (Zulu: isangoma/izangoma), herbalists (Zulu: inyanga/izinyanga), traditional birth attendants and traditional surgeons. Practices that may be considered fraudulent and illegal in terms of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 are legitimized by the Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 to the extent that they are based on traditional indigenous African philosophy. Apart from the apparent legal contradiction, this could also amount to unconstitutional unfair racial discrimination. This strengthens the case for the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 to be revoked.

Public opinion

The privately owned free-to-air local television channel e.tv aired the 3rd Degree episode titled “Witch Hunt” on 2 August 2011. This is 3rd Degree’s synopsis of the programme:

“Thousands of people across South Africa hold strong beliefs in witchcraft. Fear of being bewitched is rife, especially in rural areas. When a loved one dies mysteriously or after a long illness, residents all too easily blame it on a suspected witch. Superstitious residents take it upon themselves to judge, then brutally execute those they accuse of witchcraft, giving them no chance to defend themselves. Houses of the accused are set alight; those lucky enough to escape execution, flee into exile. 3rd Degree speaks to victims of witch hunts and investigates why these brutal slayings persists.”

Common responses from viewers on 3rd Degree’s Facebook page included:

  • Witchcraft does not exist, i.e. belief in witchcraft is based on ignorant superstition.
  • Witchcraft exists and it is evil, based on personal experiences and/or Christian religious beliefs.
  • Witchcraft exists and it is not evil, based on a modern Western understanding of Witchcraft as a Pagan religion with a positive code of ethics.

These conflicting public perceptions of witchcraft highlight the urgent need for an acceptable common understanding of the terms “witch” and “witchcraft” and sensible, practical measures to address perceived harm-doing without resorting to mob justice.

(You may also be interested in reading Witchcraft Killings Become a Pagan Issue by Jason Pitzl-Waters, S.A. Witches Will Define Themselves, Thank You by Damon Leff, A Pagan Witches Touchstone by Damon Leff, Morgause Fonteleve and Luke Martin, Witch Hunts in Modern South Africa by Yaseen Ally and Witchcraft and the State in South Africa by Johannes Harnischfeger.)


Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Stewart Paton (1903-1988)


This article was first published here: http://mywingsofdesireblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/witch-hunt-time-warp.html

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