Anyone can be accused of witchery, but older women in South Africa’s rural areas are the most common victims. (Delwyn Verasamy)
Wrinkled skin, yellowing eyes, missing teeth and hunched postures.
In some rural communities in the Eastern Cape, such physical features, mostly just a result of ageing, are seen as tell-tale signs of someone being a witch.
And witches aren’t welcome. In the traditional way of thinking in these societies, people believe witches secretly use supernatural powers to harm others by causing disease, injury or grief.
A bad crop, infertility or the loss of a loved one or a job could all be the work of a witch — and may lead to people labelled like this being attacked, killed or having their houses burnt down.
Under South Africa’s Witchcraft Suppression Act — which dates back almost 65 years — people should be protected against such irrational attacks. The law says that someone who accuses another of witchcraft can be jailed for 10 years and if the accusation leads to the so-called witch being killed, the sentence can double to 20 years.
Yet at the same time, the Act also bans traditional practices completely and even people who claim to have supernatural powers — such as a traditional healer or sangoma — could be jailed for a decade. (The Traditional Health Practitioners Act, which was signed into law in 2008, does legalise cultural health practices, though.)
Lawmakers at the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) say it’s time to redefine legislation for dealing with accusations of witchery — both to shield people from violence and to make sure everyone’s right to religious and cultural beliefs is respected.
Who gets called a witch?
Anyone can be called out, but elderly women in rural communities are the most common victims since they have a lower social status, and more so if they are widows, explains Nkosi Nonkonyana. He’s the Eastern Cape chair of the National House of Traditional Leaders, which represents traditional leaders and practices in parliament.
In 2021, for example, 45 elderly people fled the village of Ezingqolweni in the Eastern Cape because they feared they might be accused of witchcraft by the community.
Without somebody to protect or look after them, older women are doubly endangered if they develop age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, Nonkonyana says, since they may act or speak in incoherent ways as the disease erodes their thinking and memory. Their jumbled speech might be mistaken for an incantation (a spell that a witch would use to recruit people into their practice).
People with mental health problems (for example, schizophrenia and depression) are also accused of being witches, as are those with physical disabilities or conditions such as albinism.
Counting witch hunts
Although the South African Police Service recorded 197 instances of witchcraft-related contact crimes (including assault and murder) in its 2019-2020 statistics, the figures are likely unreliable because the anti-witchery law doesn’t clearly define what witchcraft is.
Moreover, witch hunt victims can be burned, whipped and beaten by members of their community, but such events are usually reported as mob violence — if they’re reported at all, according to research psychologist Yaseen Ally from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha. The more fortunate are exiled from their communities, he says, but those cases aren’t tracked either.
Government data also doesn’t differentiate between witch hunts and people being killed for their body parts in “muti killings”. Muti is traditional medicine, usually made from herbs. However, mixing in human body parts — taken from someone while they are still alive — is believed to make the elixir more powerful. Such attacks usually lead to a victim’s death because they bleed out from their injuries.
Because the law doesn’t clearly define witchcraft, it means that everyone who calls themself a witch is, by implication, a criminal, says the chair of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (Sapra), Damon Leff.
“Self-defined witches believe that witchcraft exists, but we are neither evil nor criminal.”
According to the South African Pagan Council, pagans ascribe to a pre-Christianity faith that incorporates cultural belief systems that are generally based on the study of nature.
The SALRC’s draft Bill, called Prohibition of Harmful Practices Associated with Witchcraft Beliefs, tries to find a middle ground between different belief systems in the country in line with the Bill of Rights, which gives everyone the right to freely express their belief or religion.
The proposed changes acknowledge that traditional African customs were disrespected during the apartheid era and while witchcraft can cause distress among some South Africans, for others the practice is part of their worldview.
The draft law also focuses on “harmful” rituals — anything that would lead to disease, injury, disability, loss of or damage to property, or even distress or fear would be prohibited.
Muti crimes are mentioned specifically — a first in South African criminal law. According to the proposed changes, anyone who is found with human body parts intended for muti could be jailed for a decade. Having animal body parts on you for muti can get you a sentence of up to two years.
Those who suspect somebody is involved with any harmful witchcraft practices should report their suspicions to the police with evidence. Failing to do so can also result in a fine.
Not everyone supports the SALRC’s move, though. A changed law won’t be enough to protect people against ritual violence, some argue. For example, back in 2014 already, the police, researchers and religious organisations wrote to the SALRC saying that South Africa’s existing laws are enough to punish people who injure, defame or kill others, even when it comes to witchcraft-related crimes.
For example, in 2014, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a sangoma who had been found guilty of a muti murder (and sentenced to life imprisonment). The court backed its position using South Africa’s existing criminal laws, and not the Witchcraft Suppression Act. The judge explained in the ruling that religious and cultural beliefs must still respect the right to life.
It’s for this reason that Leff says a new law isn’t necessary. Moreover, the state shouldn’t get involved in controlling how people practise their beliefs, opponents to the new law changes argue. But the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) says there could be a place for regulation of these violent acts.
The apartheid-era witchcraft laws banned traditional courts (which dealt with disputes in traditional communities according to customs people accept as law) from policing these practices and replaced it with government regulation. But formal legislation is rarely enforced by police because finding hard evidence of the supernatural is, by definition, difficult.
The THO suggests that mediation could be a good option for cases that would be hard to prove in court and having a law to back this up would be helpful, as it’s impossible to prove harmful witchcraft under the country’s existing legislation.
“You cannot prove the sale of a lightning bolt or the theft of a footprint because these things [can’t be owned],” the organisation leaders wrote in a letter to the SALRC.
But they realise that a new law alone won’t be enough to decrease ritual attacks, says the THO’s president, Mbaimbai Hlati.
Hlati believes education could also help cut such forms of violence. He’s been running a programme in Limpopo to teach people about the causes of lightning, for example. Here, as also in other rural communities, some people associate lightning with witchcraft because it can kill people and livestock and set homes alight.
His project also brings the local police into the fold by informing them of tense situations where witchcraft is suspected in the community and, he says, “we’ve seen good results and there have been fewer accusations of witchcraft in the area”.
This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.