Witches, witch doctors and 'men of reason'

In July, Zimbabwe’s Witchcraft Suppression Act was amended. Accusations of witchcraft are now legal. Given the right sort of “evidence”, the state may convict a person and punish her when it deems the witchcraft harmful.

The amendment was welcomed by Gordon Chavunduka, president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association.
They are the “good” witches, the exorcists, those best qualified to sniff out the “bad” witches (mostly women).

These ghost-busters know what tests to perform. Chavunduka sees the amendment as a “step in the right direction towards asserting our culture that has been trampled upon by successive colonial governments”.

Isn’t the promotion of African culture a good thing? But which part of African culture? The part that resembles the worst features of the European culture that led to the execution of nearly 60 000 people (about 75% of them women) during the witch hunts of 1450 to 1750? Do the witch doctors speak for African women?

When the Catholic Church in Europe reversed a longstanding position of non-belief in witches, the foundation was laid for three centuries of vicious repression (carried out by Catholics and Protestants, state and church). This was a time of deep crisis and turmoil, and the response of the governing classes was to focus attention on witches and away from themselves.

The authorities’ attitudes were expressed by the authors of The Hammer of Witches. “All wickedness,” they wrote, “is but little to the wickedness of a woman ... Women are by nature instruments of Satan … by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” Sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda says this document became “the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft” providing the official rationale “for a horrible, endless march of suffering, torture and human disgrace” throughout Europe.

Church and state became a protection racket. Witches, like the elusive Islamic terrorists of today’s crusades, became omnipresent enemies, but difficult to detect. Yet the evil was detected, the invisible became manifest and the threat of popular upheaval dissipated — only to explode again later.

How convenient.

Has Robert Mugabe discovered that there really are demonic witches, after all, contrary to the world view of the imperialists? Or have he and his friends discovered, instead, certain benefits if the suffering masses blamed their troubles on diabolical forces rather than on the government and business interests that profit from their misery?

Unlike Zimbabwe’s Afrocentric ghost-busters, Eurocentric rationalists don’t believe in ghosts. At least, not the same ghosts. They believe in a different ghost, which they call “Reason”. Reason too is a potent, invisible power, but unlike evil demons, Reason is redemptive. It can lift the ignorant, starving millions into a state of Westernised grace.

One of its spokesmen, Richard Petraitis, has a website devoted to detailing the horrors of Unreason in Africa. One can learn a lot from him. In an essay titled The Witch Killers of Africa, Petraitis estimates that “between 1991 and 2001, a total of 22 000 to 23 000 Africans were lynched to death, by fearful neighbours, as witches”. This continues throughout the continent, including South Africa. As in Europe, most of the witches are women, but poor men and children are not spared.

And what is the cure? We must rid Africa of the superstitious “world view challenged by Enlightenment men”, the Men of Reason. We must follow these “champions of Reason” in a “crusade against irrational beliefs”. The key is “education of the masses” which will give them “basic scientific literacy”.

Reason now prefers to speak with economic tongue. Africa, under the tutelage of Economic Reason, can be free. But the Messiah will come only when the foreign investors are absolutely free; then the benefits of Reason will trickle down to all.

Good things are happening already: the poverty and destitution of millions is a mere stepping-stone to future prosperity, as Repetitive Reason has been saying for 500 years. It’s only the stubborn irrationality of African culture that stands in the way. Will the educative powers of “basic scientific literacy” break the psychological chains that prevent Africans from being free? Reason has much work to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-reason or anti-Western—as if “the West” were one big homogeneous blob of evil. But I am suspicious of the Men of Reason, especially Economic Reason, who (even more than the witch doctors and exorcists) seem to thrive on the suffering of women and the poor.

At least Chavunduka acknowledges some of the bitter realities that lead to witch hysteria. For him, “the cause is economic” and “the worse the economy gets, the more political tension there is in society, the more frustrated and frightened people get”.

Unfortunately, nowhere in Petraitis’s rationalist diatribe is there much hint of such understanding. The problem, for him, is essentially lack of education into Enlightenment Reason, and the solution is for Africans to be freed of superstition, like the secular, tolerant West. No mention of what the “enlightened” West does to foster the conditions leading to witch-hysteria in Africa or to the plight of women on this continent. Not a word about the Men of Reason who sit comfortably far away while the witch doctors and lynch mobs thwart the solidarity required to resist the “rational” economic medicine they prescribe. Reason and Unreason cooperate more than we think.

Chandra Kumar is a postdoctoral fellow in political and international studies and philosophy at Rhodes University

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