Bewitched or de-witched?

There was confused silence when Luke Martin told a group of traditional healers this week that he is a witch.

Phephisile Maseko, the national coordinator of the Traditional Healers’ Organisation (THO), quickly had to explain that some white people consider witchcraft to be a religion and were open about practising it.

There was still some apprehension, however, because the healers come from communities where witchcraft is considered evil and where people have been evicted from their villages or even killed because they were suspected of being witches.

Now here was someone standing up and admitting to being one.

“My idea of the word ‘witch’ is different from the others’,” admitted Martin, who is the coordinator of the South African Pagan Council (SAPC).

He and 40 traditional healers and leaders were attending a closed meeting with officials from the provincial department of local government and housing on Monday to discuss the draft Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill.

The Bill aims to outlaw anyone who “professes a knowledge of witchcraft, or the use of charms, advises any person on how to bewitch, injure or damage any person or thing, or supplies any person with any means of witchcraft”.

It aims to ban anyone from accusing someone of being a witch or organising witch hunts. It restricts the use of magical charms and incantations and bans foretelling the future, meaning no one in the province can use bones, coins, tarot cards, shells and the reading of palms to predict what lies ahead in a person’s life.
It bans the holding of séances and the use of pendulums and crystal balls.

The draft states that it will be an offence if anyone “professes or pretends to use any supernatural power, witchcraft, sorcery [and] enchantment”.

The SAPC objected to the suppression of their members’ spiritual beliefs. “It is a mirror image of the apartheid-era’s Witchcraft Suppression Act. It discriminates against the practices of minority groups,” said Martin.

He said the SAPC was concerned the Bill represents only an Afrocentric idea of witchcraft, which is that it is evil.

Damon Leff, the convener of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (Sapra), said that in the West witches usually referred to themselves as Wiccans and sought to promote good.

He said the draft Bill reduced witchcraft to violence or muti murders, whereas the Control of Human Body Tissue Act already bans the harvesting of human tissue for personal gain or religious practice.

He said the government should rather draft a Witchcraft Protection Bill to ensure it enjoyed the same rights as other spiritual practices as enshrined in the Constitution.

Sapra and SAPC had presented 100 objections to the department of local government and housing. Martin said the objections will be taken to the highest levels of government if necessary.

Di Atherton, an holistic therapist who runs the Crystal Gateway shop in White River and uses wands, crystals and cleansing rituals to treat clients, said she understood the rationale behind the proposed Bill.

“Although it sounds like it will affect some of my practices, one can understand why they are trying to draft this. They want to protect others from being accused and attacked in the name of witchcraft,” said Atherton.

She believed the main problem with the draft Bill was the wording and that it would be corrected. “What is a charm? Anything can be a charm. What is a charm to you might not be a charm to me,” she said.

The THO’s main objection relates to wording. The draft Bill labels all healers, such as inyangas and igedla (untrained inyangas), as witches. “As traditional healers, we do not kill or cause injury, we heal, so we cannot be associated with butsakatsi [witchcraft],” said Linah Masemola, the lobbying and advocacy officer of the THO.

She said the department of local government and housing had invited the THO to select five representatives by Friday to participate in a committee to come up with more suitable definitions.

Masemola suggested the Bill be renamed the Control of Butsakatsi Practices Bill.

She explained the Constitution protected all cultural and religious practices and that the Bill therefore could not “suppress” these rights, but merely “control” them.

Local government and housing spokesperson Simphiwe Kunene said people should not jump the gun. “It is very presumptuous for people to think this draft is infringing on their constitutional rights. This is not an Act, just a sketch to show what we are trying to prevent,” said Kunene.

He said the main aim of the Bill was to end violence against people accused of being witches. He said the concerns of the Wiccans would “definitely be considered”.

“Nobody is excluded from this Bill. Everybody will get a chance to comment. This is not the government’s Bill, it’s the people’s Bill.

“If there are those who choose to call themselves witches, we will want to ensure they are safe from any form of violence. While there are already laws against public violence, these have not stopped people from practising violence when the word ‘witch’ is mentioned,” Kunene said.

He advised the public to wait until the draft was released for public comment so that everyone’s opinions could be considered.—African Eye News Service