Witches not stereotypes
“1. A woman thought to have evil magic powers. Witches are popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat, and flying on a broomstick
2. A follower or practitioner of modern witchcraft; a Wiccan priest or priestess
3. An ugly or unpleasant old woman; a hag
4. A girl or woman capable of enchanting or bewitching a man
5. An edible North Atlantic flatfish that is of some commercial value”
Google Search (define: witch)
The words “witch” and “witchcraft” are loaded words and should not be used lightly. As a result of historical negative stereotyping, the use of these words to describe another person who does not identify themselves as a witch is potentially offensive and it is potentially also prejudicial to persons who do identify themselves as witches via negative stereotyping. The best way to avoid offence is to adopt the word used by an individual to describe themselves, which approach most people would appreciate if they were the person being described.
South Africans do not live in isolation from the rest of the world. Paganism, the international modern nature-based religious movement, has reappropriated the previously pejorative terms “pagan” and “witch”. The reappropriation of these terms is effectively a form of human rights activism, replacing prejudicial negative stereotypes with positive, dignified meanings. Once the negative stereotypes have been eliminated, the words can no longer be used as weapons. South Africa is a secular democracy with freedom of religion among other freedoms, and many South African Pagans identify themselves as Witches (note that the words “witch” and “witchcraft” may be capitalized when used to describe a person’s religion). These real life Witches should not be confused with the fictional stereotype of a wicked old woman flying around on a broomstick, which Pagan Witches do not generally claim to be able to do although they may joke about it with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Primarily in rural areas, the harmful superstition that witches are agents of misfortune, illness and death persists and accusations of witchcraft often lead to mob violence and murder or exile of the accused. These so-called witch hunts are seldom about actual witchcraft however one defines it. Traditional healers point out supposed witches, who serve as scapegoats, for a fee. Members of the community use the premise of witchcraft as an excuse for killing or alienating other people in the community, sometimes their own family members. Their motives could be among other things fear, ignorance, religious fundamentalism, greed, hate, spite and jealousy. The victims are usually the most vulnerable people in our society, the elderly and the children. Accusing someone of being a witch may constitute a criminal offence in terms of The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, which also provides that the person making the accusation may be held responsible for the resulting death of the accused.
Traditional healers do not generally identify themselves as witches or practitioners of witchcraft, and generally view these terms in a very negative light. A “witch doctor” is a colonial English term for a “witch finder” or a traditional healer in general. English language terms relating to traditional healers in The Traditional Health Practitioners Act of 2007 yet to be implemented are “traditional health practitioners” (“diviners”, “herbalists”, “traditional birth attendants” and “traditional surgeons”), “traditional medicine”, “traditional philosophy” and “traditional health practice”.
Indiscriminately labelling a person such as a murderer, an animal abuser or any other criminal as a witch portrays witches in general as a danger to society, and should be avoided to protect the dignity and safety of self-identified witches and also persons who are accused of being witches.
Sadly many people who are not personally affected by witch hunts, including journalists and religious leaders, do not care about those who are and bandy the words “witch” and “witchcraft” around indiscriminately. The very least anyone can do is choose their words carefully. Do the right thing and support human rights.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)