Safety at stake over witchcraft accusations

A Commentary

The Sowetan/March 31, 1999
By Pinkie Mbowane

Johannesburg - When it was her turn to speak, Ms Njini told the audience about the day she came home to find that everything had been burnt down.

"Today I have nothing - no children, no parents, no goats or fowls," she said. "Everything was destroyed." She broke down at this point and had to return to her seat. There was an uncomfortable shuffling everywhere in the room.

Her audience included politicians, religious and traditional leaders, police and the very people who had reduced her life to the state of a homeless beggar.

This was just one of the emotional testimonies at the National Conference on Witchcraft Violence hosted by the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) last September. The Commission released its report on the conference in Pietersburg on Monday.

The interest in witchcraft violence took root during a visit to Northern Province earlier that year. As commissioner of this province, I am overwhelmed by the needs of women there to basic safety and security.

Violence associated with accusations of witchcraft has been rife and increasing each year. The victims are those most vulnerable in any society: old men and women. Those accused of witchcraft are faced with death, injury or exclusion from their communities.

The Ralushai Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders in Northern Province (1995) found that, traditionally, women were accused of practising witchcraft, although men were also victims of witchcraft burnings or purges.

This was corroborated by police statistics for the period April 1 1994 to February 16 1995: 97 females and 46 males were killed as a result of witchcraft accusations.

The CGE took up the issue in 1998 and conducted further investigations, which led to the National Conference on Witchcraft Violence, the first of its kind in the province.

Special permission

Among the participants at the conference were survivors of the violence and perpetrators released from incarceration with special permission of Northern Province safety and security MEC Seth Nthai.

The stories told by survivors supported the notion that witchcraft accusations were often based on suspicion and jealousy. The conference heard that a common chain of events preceded witchcraft accusations. It was found that when sickness, death or other misfortunes befall a person or a family, it is believed that this is the work of a witch.

The aggrieved party will then consult a traditional healer to determine the source of the tragedy. Should the tragedy be ascribed to witchcraft, the traditional healer points out a witch.

The Ralushai report noted that women were often accused of killing their husbands because it was alleged that women easily become envious and jealous of other people's successes. Women were also alleged to have the capacity to pass on witchcraft practices to their children through breastfeeding. Of particular interest was the link between witchcraft and disability.

Often women who give birth to disabled children suffer more than the children do. In many instances the woman was accused of being a witch herself or she is forced to participate in the murder of the disabled child. The conference heard the case of a woman who ended up in a mental institution after her family forced her to help murder her disabled child.

Perpetrators of witchcraft violence told stories about how they were involved in the violence. Some accepted responsibility for their actions and expressed regret for their role in the mayhem.

An eye-opener

All delegates were unanimous in condemning the use of violence in dealing with issues of witchcraft. The National Conference on Witchcraft Violence served as an eye-opener to structures that previously ignored the life-threatening effects of witchcraft violence on families and communities.

Political parties, safety and security institutions, civic organisations, churches and labour movements committed themselves to stopping the violence with the adoption of the Thohoyandou Declaration on Ending Witchcraft Violence.

Commitments also came from politicians, who committed the Government to addressing these issues.

As we rapidly approach the second democratic elections, we hope that politicians and parliamentarians take their commitments seriously. This should especially be the case given recent Independent Electoral Commission findings that the majority of registered voters are women. The safety and security of women is a basic right and must be prioritised.

The commission hopes that the stakeholders of witchcraft-related violence will work together so that there is never again the need to hold a conference on this problem.

Instead, we should look to other fundamental issues that will take our people beyond questions of survival toward the improvement of the quality of all South African lives.

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