Monday, July 26, 2010

Witch Hunts Today

Witch Hunts Today Cover Few people are aware that witch-hunts still claim thousands of lives every year, especially in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and above all in South Africa.

Witch-hunts in South Africa have become "a national scourge," according to Phumele Ntombele-Nzimande of the country's Commission on Gender Equality. (Quoted in Gilbert Lewthwaite, "South Africans go on witch hunts," Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1998.) The phenomenon is centered in the country's poverty-stricken Northern Province, where "legislators counted 204 witchcraft-related killings [from 1985-95] ... Police counted 312 for the same period. Everybody agreed both numbers were gross underestimates." (Neely Tucker, "Season of the Witch Haunts Africa," The Toronto Star, August 1, 1999.) In 1996 The Observer (UK) reported that "the precise statistics are not known, but the deaths from witch-burning episodes number in the hundreds each year and the trend appears to be on the rise." (David Beresford, "Ancient superstitions, fear of witches cast spell on new nation," reprinted in The Ottawa Citizen, June 18, 1996.)

As with its European predecessor, witch-hunting in South Africa is closely tied not only to prevailing superstitions, but to socio-economic pressures, natural disasters, and personal jealousies. In the Northern Province, "among the poorly educated rural residents, traditional healers and clairvoyants claiming supernatural powers hold broad sway. And hunger, poverty, and unemployment can create jealousies that can quickly turn to anger and vengeance." (Lewthwaite, "South Africans go on witch hunts.") Likewise, Peter Alexander reports that "In a region of intense poverty and little education, villagers are quick to blame any adverse act of fate on black magic." These traditional tendencies have been exacerbated by a recent hysteria (extending to Kenya and Zimbabwe) over the very real phenomenon of "ritual killings related to witchcraft," which "include the removal of organs and limbs from the victims -- the genitals, hands or the head, all of which are believed to bring good luck." (Alexander, "'Witches' get protection from superstitious mobs," The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997.) Such ritual murders often bring "retribution" against innocents accused of witchcraft.

The intensity of the persecution and vigilantism in South Africa has reached such levels that no fewer than ten villages have been established in the Northern Province, populated exclusively by accused "witches" whose lives are at risk in their home communities. One such settlement, Helena, counted among its residents 62-year-old Esther Rasesemola, who "was accused in 1990 of being a witch after lightning struck her village":

A group of people visited the Inkanga [village witch-doctor] to see who was responsible. When they returned, it was my brother-in-law who told the rest of the village that I was responsible. He owed me money and I think he did it to get rid of me because he did not want to pay the money back. People in the village became convinced I was a witch. They came to my house at night and burnt it down and took all my belongings. Then they put me in a truck and drove me to a deserted place and dropped me off with my husband and my three children. They told me never to come back to the village or they would kill me. My husband died two years after we were expelled. My children have gone away and now I have nothing. I don't believe in witchcraft. It is just superstitious belief. (Quoted in Alexander, "'Witches' get protection.")

Gilbert Lewthwaite of the Baltimore Sun described the case of Violet Dangale, a 42-year-old woman who "was driven from her home 30 months ago by relatives and neighbours who accused her of being a witch growing rich from the work of zombies, as the 'living dead' are known." Now she was "penniless and in fear for her life," living in Tshilamba, another of the refuges for accused witches. Her "main accuser was her uncle. He first accused her father of using zombies to enrich himself. Then he turned on her, suggesting that she enjoyed her share of the family's wealth through witchcraft. ... As the accusations and threats grew stronger, the Dangale family fled their homes in Dzimauli." "They said I was a witch," Dangale told Lewthwaite. "I don't know anything about witchcraft. I don't believe in zombies. Since I was born, I never saw a zombie." (Lewthwaite, "South Africans go on witch hunts.")

Both of these women were luckier than 65-year-old Linah Seabi, "a sorghum beer brewer ... [who] was charged with killing an elderly woman with a poisonous potion. More than 200 villagers stormed Seabi's house in late May [1991], beat her and burned her to death with straw thatch from the roof of her house." (Nina Shapiro, "Wave of witch hunts sweeps South African countryside," The Toronto Star, September 19, 1991.) In December 1998, "Francina Sebatsana, 75, and Desia Mamafa, 55 ... were burned to death on pyres of wood in the village of Wydhoek," in the Northern Province, for alleged witchcraft. "Eleven men, ages 21 to 50" were charged with her murder. (Lewthwaite, "South Africans go on witch hunts.")

The gendering of the European witch-hunts appears to be closely duplicated in the South African case. As the above accounts suggest, "traditionally, it is women who are accused of witchcraft" (Alexander, "'Witches' get police protection"). Especially vulnerable are "defenceless elderly women, against whom the actions are taken without resistance," according to Northern Province Premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi. "That women most often are the victims of witch hunts stems from attitudes toward gender," writes Nina Shapiro of The Toronto Star:

"In our culture, men go out in the afternoon, women remain in the home," said Russell Molefe, a local journalist. People believe women sit at home concocting potions, he said. Older women are suspected, according to Lebowa police lieutenant Mohlabi Tlomatsana, simply because they are alive. "People will think 'Why has she not died? Probably because she is a witch.'" (Shapiro, "Wave of witch hunts.")

However, as in the European case-study, "these days almost a third of victims of men" (Alexander, "'Witches' get police protection.") Nonetheless, approximately 30 percent of accused witches are male -- reflecting men's prominence as nangas, or traditional healers. Anton La Guardia describes the case of "Credo Mutwa, southern Africa's best-known practising healer ... [who] said he had been accosted by a mob and stabbed several times. He lay bleeding on the ground and waited helplessly to die as his assailants poured petrol and prepared to set it alight. Mr. Mutwa ... said he was saved by the same superstition which was about to claim his life. 'A young man shouted, "His ghost will haunt you." They vanished, leaving me like a fish on dry land.'" (La Guardia, "South Africa's non-political witch-hunts," The Daily Telegraph, September 9, 1998.)

As in all these campaigns, it is difficult to assign particular responsibility for fuelling the anti-witch hysteria. Although they may themselves be accused of witchcraft, it is also generally the nangas who are called upon to point out "suspicious" persons who can be accused as witches: according to one South African police sergeant, "Generally, if people believe there is a witch in their village, they will consult the [witch-doctor]. He or she will then 'sniff out' the witch. The person who is accused will then be killed or ordered to leave the village." (Alexander, "'Witches' get police protection.") Village males usually carry out the murders and other acts of terrorism. But as in the European case-study, patterns of gossip and rumour are central to the process -- and to shielding the perpetrators from justice. South African police inspector Matome Mamabolo reports: "If someone is accused of murdering a witch, the community tends to support them by supplying money for an advocate when the case comes to court. There is a solidarity there -- after all, that person is accused of ridding the village of a witch." (Quoted in Alexander, "'Witches' get police protection.")

Much the same pattern is evident in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, although the gender of the victims may be more even. In August 1999, Paul Harris of the Sunday Telegraph reported that

Lynch mobs have killed hundreds of Tanzanians whom they accuse of witchcraft as black magic hysteria sweeps East Africa. Most of the usually elderly victims have been beaten or burnt to death by gangs of youths. Some old women have been singled out simply because they have red eyes -- regarded as a sign of sorcery by their assailants. The condition is actually caused by years of toiling in smoky kitchens cooking family meals. ... Police say 357 suspected witches have been killed in the past 18 months, but the Ministry of Home Affairs believes that the true figure is much higher. A departmental survey said as many as 5,000 people were lynched between 1994 and 1998. (Paul Harris, "Hundreds burnt to death in Tanzanian witch-hunt," Sunday Telegraph, August 22, 1999.)

In Zimbabwe, as in neighbouring South Africa, the witch-hunts also seem closely related to "the black market demand for human body parts, which are used in making evil potions." The upsurge in such practices, the ritual murders they require, and the vengefulness that results against accused "witches," are all linked to the country's precipitous economic decline. "It's obvious the cause is economic," says Gordon Chavanduka, head of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (which counts 50,000 members). "The worse the economy gets, the more political tension there is in society, the more frustrated and frightened people get. They turn to witchcraft to gain riches or to hurt their enemies." (Neely Tucker, "Season of the witch haunts Africa," The Toronto Star, August 1, 1999.)

In the Kenyan case, as was also true in a handful of European countries, the witch-hunts appear predominantly to target males. A British sociologist, J.F.M. Middleton, records the conviction of the Lugbara tribe of Kenya that

a witch is a man [emphasis added] who perverts a mystical power of kinship for his own selfish ends and is therefore an evil person. Witches in general are given both physical and moral attributes: a witch has greyish skin, red eyes, a physical deformity; he may travel about upside down; he is bad tempered, secretive, petty and jealous; he is thought to practice incest and cannibalism. The distinction between witchcraft, a mystical activity, and sorcery, the use of material objects, was widespread in eastern Africa, Dr. Middleton said. When, as in Lugbara, the basic principles of organization were unilineal descent and seniority by generation it would be expected that men were believed to practise witchcraft, whereas women should have the less important role of sorcerer. ("How to recognize witches," The Times [UK], September 5, 1997.)

In Kenya in 1993, killings among the Gusii tribe were occurring at the rate of one a week. "In most cases ... village mobs several hundred strong locked the victims inside thatch-roof houses and set them on fire. ... According to tribal elders, the Gusii have always executed people found to be witches. Sanslaus Anunda, a 99-year-old tribal elder, said that during his youth, villagers had a foolproof method for determining guilt. The most respected men in the community would call a meeting. Next, they would smear local herbs on the hands of the suspect and that of a second, innocent man [emphasis added]. Both men would be ordered to dip their hands into a pot of boiling water, then return in five days. If the suspect was a witch, burns would appear on his hands. However, Anunda insists, the innocent man's hands would remain unscarred." (Tammerlin Drummong, "Kenya: Dozens die in witch hunts," The Ottawa Citizen, August 28, 1993.)

A trend of predominantly male victimization may also be evident in West Africa, where a bizarre wave of accusations of "penis-snatching" has come to light. The Reuters news agency reported in 1996 that "eight men in Accra, Ghana, were accused of using witchcraft to snatch penises. Their motivation was allegedly to return the sexual organs in return for cash. Mobs attacked them ... two died and six were seriously injured. The police examined all the alleged victims and found their genitals intact. ... [But] the 'victims' believed that sorcerers only had to touch them to make the genitals shrink or disappear completely." ("'Witches' steal penises in Ghana," Reuters dispatch, January 17, 1996.) D. Trull reported in 1997 that "the killings of alleged 'penis snatchers'" had been reported "along the west coast from Cameroon to Nigeria." (See Trull, "Witches Protection Program".)

Books You Might Enjoy:

Phil Hine - Aspects Of Evocation
Aleister Crowley - The Sixth Chakra Of The Human Body
Richard Johnson - The Zodiac Stellar Stories
Gerald Gardner - Witchcraft Today

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