Steve Hayes (hayesstw@risc1.unisa.ac.za)
Mon, 30 Jan 1995 07:26:53 GMT

SOUTH AFRICA-CULTURE: Witchcraft And Ritual To Cope With The New

By Eddie Koch

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 26 (IPS) - Ritual murder and witchcraft cases
are on the increase in rural and urban townships of South Africa
causing major problems for labour relations, civic
politics and development programmes in the country.

In the latest bizarre incident, a local radio station
reported this week that a young woman was abducted by a gang of
''cannibals'', kept as a sex-slave in an underground cavern in
the township east of Johannesburg, and forced to eat the
body parts of victims murdered for 'muti' (magic) purposes.

Although the teenager is mentally disturbed, a psychologist
who interviewed her says the allegations are credible because
the victim does not have the ''cognitive capacity to have
concocted the account.''

Police are taking the report seriously and have launched an
intensive investigation. So far, however, no evidence has
been found to corroborate the claim.

But there have been a rash of recent cases indicating that
ritual murders and black magic practises are on the increase
in other areas.

In the township of Sheshego near the northern Transvaal town
of Pietersburg, two young mothers were arrested this week
for murdering their months-old babies and removing some of
their organs. Police liaison officer Captain Phuti Setati said
the pair would appear in court on murder charges.

Cases of sorcery and people being burned alive after being
accused of being witches have recently swept through parts
of the Eastern and Northern Transvaal.

At least 70 people have died in gruesome withchunts conducted
mainly by gangs of youths in these townships since the
April all-race elections.

Last weekend, national television news showed footage of a
family scraping the ashes of a woman into hessian sacks so
that they could bury her remains. She had been accused by the
residents of a village near Pietersburg of being a witch
and she was burned alive.

During that week, four other women from nearby Kromhoek were
killed by a mob of youths after being blamed for the mys
terious death of a local teenager.

One of them was Sinna Mankwane from a village called Nobody.
A tyre doused in petrol was put around her neck and her
husband was forced to light the match.

Last year a development programme in Hluvukani, a settlement
for Mozambican war refugees near the Kruger National park,
collapsed after allegations of sorcery.

A member of the committee selected to oversee a water supply
scheme in the settlement fell ill and was paralysed. The
chairman was promptly accused of owning a 'mamlambo' -- a snake
that lived under his home and, at night, turned into a
white woman that had sex with him.

Residents said the mamlambo gave him luck and watered his
fields with nutrients that could not evaporate in the harsh
Lowveld sun. That is why his fields flowered and he became
wealthy while others grew steadily poorer. The chairman was
hounded out of the settlement.

Labour relations at other factories in the Eastern Transvaal
have been irritated by a recent rash of ''witch'' strikes.
A local paper, 'The Lowveld News', reports at least three
large companies near Nelspruit in the Eastern Transvaal hav
e sacked workers accused of being witches by their colleagues.

Management reportedly refused, at first, to accept
''superstitious and unfounded'' accusations as a valid cause for
dismissal but submitted to the demands after the workers staged
go-slows, demonstrations and threats of industrial action

The Zoeknog coffee plantation near the Eastern Transvaal town
of Acornhoek was the site of a novel labour dispute late last year.

After a driver died in a motor vehicle accident, the 150-
strong workforce went on strike and demanded rights to consult
a sangoma (traditional healer) and sniff out the witches
among them who had caused the death.

Management and the local chief agreed the only way to end the
dispute was for the workers to consult a herbalist, at
their own expense and on condition that anyone identified would
not be harmed.

Politics, labour relations, civic matters, development
projects and the course of everyday life for people in these rural
areas are being shaped by a deep-seated belief in
witchcraft -- and poltical organisations are struggling to find
innovative ways of dealing with its recent manifestations.

Academic observers believe the resurgence of these practises
is caused partly by rapidly changing social circumstances
coupled with the assertion of a set of popular beliefs that
had been suppressed in the apartheid era.

The common explanation is that witch burnings are a ''strain
gauge'', an expression of collective anxiety caused by the
kinds of changes that have pulsed through communities since
the April elections.

New sources of wealth, the opening up of new business
opportunities or the promotion of a few individuals into positions
of privilege -- at a time when most other people remain
impoverished -- activate jealousy and bitterness that moves
the instruments of sorcery.

''This is a sign of social panic provoked by desperate
economic circumstances that people feel they cannot control. Ritual
murder is usually practised for the purpose of obtaining
body parts,'' Dr Edwin Ritchken, a political analyst who
has studied the phenomenon of anti-witchcraft movements, told

''People believe these can be used for a potion that can
change their fortunes for the better. The other side of the
coin is that elements of the traditional healers' profession
have been corrupted. A number of 'healers' are willing to use
and supply these kinds of medicine simply to make money.

''Most often the demand for this kind of muti is associated
with businessmen and small scale traders who try to impro
ve their enterprises,'' he added.

A civic leader from a village near Acornhoek also told IPS
that witchcraft accusations were frequently abused by businessmen
and powerful personalities in the community for personal
gain. He asked to remain anonymous.

''The problem is that most people use it for personal gain.
Once they get the mob involved, it is easy to victimise somebody
who is their opponent.

''It is easy to find a sangoma (healer) who will support you
because they get a lot of money for this... If you want
to be popular in this area, then make a witchcraft accusation.
That is what we are trying to discourage,'' he said.

''It does not help to say these things don't exist. We all
believe in witches and they are there. We cannot just ignore
them. We have to find ways of dealing with them because
otherwise the people will deal with them in their own way,''
he stressed.

Steve Hayes, Editorial Department, University of South Africa
P.O. Box 392, Pretoria, 0001 South Africa
Internet: hayesstw@risc1.unisa.ac.za Fidonet: 5:7106/20.1