Witch-hunts are common in Africa. Historically, they have been viewed as gender specific because a large number of the victims have been elderly, solitary women, although recent reports show that victims include both women and men of all ages. The frequent result of witchcraft accusations is tragic human rights abuses, because the victims are presumed guilty without undergoing a legal inquiry.
In January and February alone, there were five reported deaths after witchcraft accusations, two of them children. The true extent of witch-hunts has yet to be determined because many go unreported and few governments keep detailed statistics. They are often the work of family members or neighbours who believe that witches are responsible for misfortune, disease, accidents, natural disasters and death.
The “witches” do not identify themselves as such and the accusations are usually driven by religious extremism: practitioners of traditional African religions who believe witchcraft is always the cause of misfortune; traditional healers, including diviners, herbalists and “witchdoctors”, who use divination to point out suspected witches; and charismatic-revivalist Christian religious leaders who encourage their followers to expose the “satanic evil” of witchcraft.
The words witch and witchcraft are used in an accusatory, predominantly negative way. But they can describe clearly defined traditional practices that are not defined as witchcraft per se, as well as folk myths and superstitions. In rare cases in which there are confessions of being a witch or practising witchcraft, the reported testimony is either irrational or has been coerced by torture or threat. The “witchcraft” most often referred to in such accusations exists only in the minds of the accusers.
In 2008 the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (Sapra) launched a campaign — 30 days of advocacy against witch-hunts — under the banner of Touchstone Advocacy. In March 2011 the South African Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities publicly announced its support for this annual campaign.
The alliance has called for human rights commissions internationally to encourage governments to halt the persecution of suspected or accused witches, uphold and strengthen a culture of human rights, respond appropriately and humanely to witch-hunt incidents and make the eradication of violence against suspected witches an international priority. They should train the police to manage witchcraft accusations and violent witch-hunts in a way that does not violate the rights of the accused, create victim support groups to facilitate reintegration and conciliation, adopt education and awareness programmes aimed at eradicating witchcraft accusations and reform legislation that suppresses witchcraft or criminalises accused witches.
In South Africa it is illegal to accuse anyone of witchcraft. During the 30-day campaign, which runs from March 29 to April 27, the alliance will be appealing to everyone to condemn witch-hunts. Human rights are for all, it says, including the victims of witch-hunts.
Damon Leff is the director of Sapra. For more information, go to: paganrightsalliance.org/30_days.html