..

 



Johannes Harnischfeger

(Germany)

WITCHCRAFT AND THE STATE
IN SOUTH AFRICA*

 

The rebellion of black South Africans against the apartheit regime has been covered in detail by western media. One aspect of the revolt though has not received much attention. The activities of the rebels were not only directed against representatives of the political system; especially in rural areas many supporters of the ANC attacked supposed witches as well. The witch-hunt reached its climax in the beginning of 1990, immediately after the release of Nelson Mandela (Minnaar 1992: XI, 29); but even after the ANC assumed power the homicides have not ceased. Especially in northern Transvaal, one of the countrys nine provinces, the situation is regarded as so critical, that in March 1995 the regional government delegated a committee to investigate into the violence against witches as well as into the numerous ritual killings. The committee of nine was directed by Professor Ralushai, a social anthropologist and former vice-principal of the University of Venda. He was assisted by representatives of the churches, the police and judiciary and as the only white member a professor of law. The report they presented in 1996 lists many singular cases of persecution of witches, but does not contain exact information about the total number of homicides. Reliable data could not be obtained anyway, as the relatives of the victims usually refrain from reporting to local police stations. Black policemen, who believe in withcraft just like the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens, often shy away from helping those accused of witchcraft. In many cases the prosecution refused to investigate the mostly adolescent suspects, or it simply abandoned the legal proceedings altogether. (Ralushai 1996: 17, 57, 62)1 The actual number of victims can be at least estimated by looking at single regions, where the persecution of witches has been examined in fairly great detail. In Lebowa for example, a former homeland in the eastern part of Transvaal, police reports state that a total of 312 people were killed between 1985 and 1995 in witchcraft-related violence. The real figures, however, seem to be far higher. During one single incident alone, in April 1986, 43 suspects were burned. (Niehaus 1999:1) And in the beginning of 1994, right before the elections that brought the ANC to power, about 60 supposed witches were killed here. (Minnaar 1998:190) But not only the murdered can be counted among the victims, also persons who narrowly escaped persecution, like those 3- or 400 people, who in May 1990 sought refuge in various police stations in Venda, because their houses had been burned down. (Minnaar 1992:41)

Responsiblity for these eruptions of violence according to the judgement of the government committee should also fall on the eurocentric legal machinery of the old apartheid government. (Ralushai 1996:1) The white legislators regarded witchcraft as a merely imaginary offense and tried to impose this view on the black majority of the population. Rather than punishing the witches, all those who tried to defend themselves against witches were threatened by long prison sentences: the socalled witch-doctors, who can smell out culprits, as well as ordinary citizens, who accused others of witchcraft, in addition to everyone who used violence against alleged witches. Since Africans are barred by law from acting against the threat of witches in a legal, official manner, it should come as no surprise when outraged villagers take the law into their own hands, resulting in hundreds of suspects burned or stoned to death. The committee envisages only one solution in this complicated situation: like in most other countries of Subsahara-Africa, the judiciary should acknowledge witchcraft as a criminal offense, which can be prosecuted by ordinary courts and punished with prison sentences of up to four years. (Ralushai 1996:55) Thus, mob justice, with its tendency towards excessive and arbitrary violence, could be replaced by legal proceedings which would protect the rights of the accused in a better way.

Colonial Jurisdiction

African critics legitimately reproach the present jurisdiction of eurocentrism. When in 1895 British Colonial officials in Cape Town promulgated the original version of the current law, they followed solely their own sense of justice, without consulting the indigenious population. But the policy of spreading their own standards of civilization to every part of the empire could not be implemented straight away, as it quickly clashed with practical requirements of colonial administration. Having to maintain law and order in the conquered territories with a minimum of personal and financial resources, it seemed advisable to keep the given systems of rule. Chiefs and kings who accepted the souveranity of the British Crown, remained in their offices and in most cases socalled tribal courts and traditional laws stayed with them. In some parts of the Empire, as in northern Nigeria for example, the British authorities adopted the sharia and enforced it until the 1950s. Even Christians and adherents of traditional religions had to comply with islamic customs and were sentenced according to its law. Nevertheless the European conquerers were not prepared to tolerate what they regarded as barbarous punishment, especially torture and mutilation, but also the punishing of witches. (Oyakhiome 1991:156) Their own witch-hunts almost 200 years back appeared as an incomprehensible aberration of justice, which was not to be repeated by a modern administration.

From the perspective of Africans, however, the modern, enlightened legislation presented itself as a perversion of justice. In precolonial Africa witches had been expelled frequently or sold into slavery, occasionally wrapped into leaves of grass or bananas and burned alive. Or they had been simply forced to pay compensation for the caused damage. All these sanctions were now declared offensive and threatened with long prison sentences. As a result, the victims got the impression they were subjected defenselessly to the pursuits of witches and sorcerers. From their point of view it was completely incomprehensible why the Europeans were particularly eager to protect the most dangerous villains. There is hardly any other regulation that caused more damage to the reputation of the colonial authorities, questioning their claim to legitimacy. Already in the early years British district officers, who were confronted with the consequences of the controversal legislation, warned against violently surpressing a tradition centuries old. According to their experience, such a policy was politically unwise and morally reprehensible. (Melland 1935:495; Roberts 1935:490) How could it be justified to imprison people for 10 or 20 years, who felt they were completely innocent, and even were regarded as such by their fellow citizens? To avoid getting entangled in unnecessary conflicts many colonial officials silently tolerated witch trials conducted by traditional courts. The civil servants responsible did not even try to intervene, when prophets or healers immunized whole villages by purification rites against witchcraft or else traced suspects during their campaigns and forced them to confess. (Fields 1982:585) In exceptional cases tribal courts were even authorized officially to hear charges of witchcraft. (Shapera 1975:109-110) There are reasonable arguments to justify this inconsistent attitude one could also say: this pragmatism. A legal solution for the problem did not seem to be urgent, as most outside observers expected that the faith in occult powers would decline as soon as Christianity, modern science and health care gained a foothold in African societies. (Macvicar 1939:20; Wilson 19711:48-49) But exactly this assumption proved to be erroneous. From almost all parts of Black Africa, there are reports about an increasing fear of witches and sorcerers. Already in the late 50ies, when the colonial administration declined, the departing Europeans witnessed a revival of traditional forms of jurisdiction. In the Belgian Congo, for instance, a wave of violence preceeded political independence. Suspected witches and sorcerers were forced to undergo a poison oracle by which hundreds of people were killed. (Douglas 1978:141)

Similar to other former British colonies the South African police and judiciary have not strictly complied with the legal regulations. In principle, it is already a punishable offense to accuse others of witchcraft, but only in a very few cases did the courts insist on a legal suit. (Niehaus 1999:303) When it comes to charges of murder against witchhunters, the courts were more willing to prosecute, but even in those cases white judges accepted the fear of witchcraft as an extenuating circumstance, so that the sentences were often rather lenient. In 1991 for example a group of six people, who had executed four supposed witches, was sentenced to imprisonment of five years each, but this verdict was suspended immediately and converted into 100 hours of community work. (Niehaus 1999:304f)

Moreover: to allay the fears of the population, the authorities not only prosecute people hunting witches, but also those who spread fear with allusions to their personal magic skills. People threatening to bewitch others, or giving the impression that they perform malicious forms of magic, have to face imprisonment for up to five years. But so far the authorities have refused to indict those against whom nothing else could be lodged but suspicions of neighbors or the verdict of witch-doctors. Many Africans therefore accuse the authorities of passivity in the face of menacing witches and of even preventing a suitable punishment: We blacks have witches but when we go to the police to complain that the witches are eating us in the night, the police want to see the pots which they have cooked us in. The witches are happy because the police support them. (quoted in Stadler 1996:106)

A New Bill

Even African intellectuals reproach the state for not prosecuting witches. In the new South Africa with its black government there would be the opportunity to leave behind the European legacy, and judge Africans by African norms. Such a reform, however, is not meant to encourage the persecution of witches. According to the bill as recommended by the government commission, it shall remain a criminal offence to accuse others of witchcraft. The only difference is that a condition has been inserted in the respective paragraph of the current law: accusations of witchcraft are illegal, if there are no good reasons for them. Any person who without any reasonable or justifiable cause (...) indicates any other person as wizard or witch (...) shall be guilty of an offence (Ralushai 1996:54-55). This revised version of the law makes sense only if one assumes that witches really exist. And the commission indeed refers to authorities like the professor of Theology John S. Mbiti or the social anthropologist Chavunduka in order to substantiate their claim that witchcraft is by no means only an imaginary offense: no one can now argue that witchcraft is a myth which can only exist in the minds of the ignorant. (Ralushai 1996:56; see also 61).2 Following this premise it seems only consistent to suggest the punishment of witches: Any person who (...) does any act which creates a reasonable suspicion that he is engaged in the practice of witchcraft (...) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction (...) to imprisonment for a period not exceeding four years (Ralushai 1996:54-55).

There are well-founded reasons for the suggested africanization of legislation. As long as the peoples personal sense of justice and their state-imposed law diverge that far, nobody can expect them to gain confidence in the institutions of a democratic state. And as long as the authorities do not regard the people's fears as serious, they encourage the persecution of witches by illegal methods. If on the other hand the state will take up the prosecution, there is reason to hope that the due course of justice may prevent the lynching of suspects. People, who saw no other way but turning against witches on their own, could in the future rely on police and judiciary to deal with the problem, and deport convicted witches or imprison them. Despite these advantages some reservations against the bill have to be conveyed.

If state authorities sanction the belief in occult powers, there will be little prospect that accusations against witches may gradually abate in the long run. It cannot even be taken for granted that arbitrary attacks on suspects would cease, because persons who are convinced that they have been bewitched, would not accept that the culprits may be acquitted by the authorities. It could easily be suspected, that the witches managed to manipulate the court, or even worse: that they are secretly in league with the judge. Rumors of witches and sorcerers having developed magical techniques in order to protect themselves from discernment have already been circulating for a long time. (Krige 1975:245)

Arbitrary conviction can be anticipated, as there are no reliable means to establish the guilt of an accused. The essence of witchcraft is exactly that it happens in obscurity, with the assistance of supernatural forces. Almost every Zulu, Xhosa or Venda in South Africa knows, that witches have the power to send lightening, killing the livestock on the pasture, or burning entire houses including the inhabitants. But how can it be ascertained, that it was exactly the accused person, who caused the fatal lightening? And how does a plaintiff hope to prove that a malicious neighbor sent him a disease or a grave accident? Given these difficulties, the report of the investigating committee states plainly, that it is basically impossible to prove witchcraft: The most vexing problem surrounding witchcraft is that the activities of a witch cannot be witnessed by naked eyes. This means that one cannot be in a position to say that a witch has done this and that. (Ralushai 1996:57) In view of these difficulties it cannot be accidental, that the three hundred pages of the report do not mention anywhere, how an offense can be proved, which shall be punished with up to four years of imprisonment. If the state should insist, despite these basic uncertainties, to sentence alleged witches, integral principles of the western judicial system would be abandoned. (Ashforth 1998:531) Instead of concrete proof either circumstancial evidence, traces of the crime or direct observations of witnesses convictions would be based on speculations which are principally disputable. There is by no means any consensus on what sort of crimes witches may perpetrate.3 Professor Chavunduka, who advised the governmental committee, assumes that magic techniques will work without actual physical contact (1982:16) in causing harm to persons and objects. He considers it unlikely though, that witches fly at night: that they keep hyenas for riding on their night excursions may be a myth (16). But it seems that he is not completely certain in this matter. And if experts like Chavunduka cannot reach a conclusion, how are judges supposed to decide? Shall they believe a plaintiff, who assures them the accused person has reached the scene of the crime in guise of an owl or a bat?

It seems to be less difficult to make a fair judgement, when judges do not have to deal with witches in a strict sense, but with sorcerers, that is persons, who do not carry supernatural powers in themselves, but have simply learned to use magical objects or techniques. A person feeling pursued by sorcerers may be in a position to produce concrete evidence of the aggression directed against him: e.g. fetishes having been burried under his door, or hidden in his house. It is still questionable though, what those objects could prove. Is a bunch of magic herbs a love conjure, aimed at regaining the affection of an unfaithful husband? Or is it intented to harm or kill him? (Schapera 1975:109) Ordinary judges would never be able to determine what power those fetishes possess; in cases of doubt they would have to rely on the statements of other sorcerers.

As witch trials encourage arbitrary judgements, there is a danger of misusing them for personal vendettas. To denounce people as witches and drag them before a court may turn into a convenient means of intimidating ones political rivals or private foes. As the experiences in other African countries suggests, it is usually the local elite who, through their good relations with judges, police and other officials, profits from this. Let us examine briefly, what consequences the persecution of witches through the state had in other African countries.

Witch Trials in Cameroun

Like in other African regions the increase of witchcraft accusations is a modern phenomenon, closely related to the decline of the moral economy and the widening gulf between rich and poor. Businessmen and politicians, who have become wealthy in the urban centers, are easily suspected to have persued their careers with the help of ritual murders and other obscure methods. And vice versa: their impoverished relatives or neighbors, who have stayed in the villages, are also accused of witchcraft. Since they have not amounted to anything, one assumes that they watch the success of their affluent relatives with an evil eye, and driven by envy and resentment try to destroy them. To escape this vicious circle of mutual accusations many of the persons affected call for the state to intervene, where village communities cannot solve their own conflicts any longer. But as a study of court documents shows: state authorities do not act as neutral and independent agencies. The persons they convict are almost exclusively impoverished or marginal people. It is also striking, that in none of the examined cases (where witches were imprisoned for up to ten years) definite evidence was available. (Geschiere 1997:172) The convictions were often based on the statement of a single witch doctor, who established with the help of magical techniques, that the defendant was guilty. And in a few cases the accused could be persuaded to confess. A 20-year-old student for example declared to have entered the house of a village teacher by witchcraft. Together with three other defendants they had operated on the victim, removed his heart and then ate it. Since then, the teacher was living without his heart. The other three defendants disputed this story, but to no avail. The judge determined that the leader of the group, as well as the accomplices, only tried to mislead the tribunal with his vain and ridiculous denials. (Geschiere 1997:174) Therefore the accused were sentenced to prison for up to five years, and even the court of appeal in the region's capital confirmed this verdict.

When judges have to try offences, committed in an invisible mysterious fashion, they hardly have a choice but to consult ritual experts, who claim to identify witches. In this way, traditional healers, diviners and witch-doctors gain a crucial function in administering justice: as intermediaries between judges and the local population they control the access to courts. Only plaintiffs who can gain the backing of an influential witch-finder will have a chance to succeed with their charges of witchcraft. Such backing, however, is not for free. Witchdoctors sell their services to the highest bidder. As a consequence, it is almost exclusively the local big men that is rich farmers, teachers, party politicians or businessmen, who make use of witch trials to terrorize their opponents. (Geschiere 1997:114, 170, 172)

The Youth Rebellion in South Africa

In South Africa the persecution of witches is also connected to local quarrels about influence and political power. But here it is not a privileged elite, in alliance with the state and traditional healers, who controls the persecution of witches. The initiative has rather been taken, since the mid-80ies, by younger people: activists of the anti-apartheid movement, members of the ANC Youth League, pupils and students councils. From their point of view the elimination of witches was part of the black emancipation movement. The victims though were mostly elderly women in their sixties, who succumbed helplessly to their persecutors usually young men between 16 and 25 years old.4 The conflict between the generations can only be understood, considering that the revolt against the apartheid regime had from its very beginning the characteristics of a youth rebellion. (Bundy 1987:310) It was not only directed against white representatives of the system, but also against the authority of their own parents, who were accused of having arranged themselves with the regime out of fear or opportunism. After decades of silence and collaboration only the younger generation, prepared for complete disobedience, could claim a leading role in the liberation struggle. Starting in Soweto and other black metropolitan centers, the revolutionary message was carried into the rural areas, and especially in the homelands it was eagerly picked up. Each form of authority had been declining here. While many adults, especially the men, where working as migrant laborers on white farms or in the mines, the children and adolescents were raised by single mothers or grandparents. In Lebowa for example 72% of the total population were less than 20 years old. (Niehaus 1999:242) In addition, the political authorities were instable and thoroughly discredited. The apartheid regime had urged most of the homelands to declare themselves independent. Their presidents and kings acted like sovereign rulers, decorating themselves with the insignia of traditional power. But everyone knew that they owed their offices to nothing but the calculations of white politicians. As they were never subjected to democratic control, nothing stopped them from harassing their own population. Chiefs would for instance operate their own toll gates, in order to extort money from passers-by.

Against such arbitrary use of power resistance could easily be roused. Some of the chiefs had to flee their districts in the mid-80ies; others could only appear in public together with their body-guards. Since the uprising was mainly supported by students or jobless school-leavers the attacks were also directed against educational authorities. Unpopular school principals and teachers were expelled, supposed collaborators, police informants and other political undesirables were physically attacked. In the end whole schools had to be closed and the remaining institutions were controlled by student councils. As one of their first measures, the new leadership ordered to abolish the harsh disciplinary punishments; but after some time the activists came to the conclusion that one had to take vigorous action against counterrevolutionary elements. Students who refused to attend political meetings or disregarded the orders of the new authorities had to face corporal punishment again. And yet another offense was punishable: speaking ill of the organisation (Delius 1996:190).

Even outside the schools, in most of the settlements, rebels dominated public life. Armed youths patrolled the streets, they kidnapped buses and taxis, threatened store owners and regularly extorted donations of money or food from them. When protests lay ahead, groups of adolescents went from house to house and forced the adults to join them. Especially evening assemblies girls had to attend as well: They would come into the house and tell us we should go. They didn't ask your mother they just said 'come let's go'. You would just have to go with them. They would threaten you with their belts and ultimately you would think that if you refused, they would beat you. Our parents were afraid of them (quoted by Delius 1996:189). All those opposing the wishes of the young men were reminded, that it was every womans obligation to give birth to new soldiers, in order to replace those warriors killed in the liberation struggle. The idiom of the adolescents referred to these patriotic efforts as operation production. Because of exactly this reason it was forbidden for the girls to use contraceptives. (Delius 1996:189; Niehaus 1999:250)

One of the instruments of political mobilization, with which the adolescents wanted to establish their influence amongst the population, was the struggle against witchcraft. After political assemblies or at the instigation of witch-hunt-committees, hundreds of people marched through the villages, chanting freedom songs, carrying ANC bannners and pulling suspects out of their houses. The victims were stoned or beaten with sticks, then usually dragged back into their houses and burned with all their belongings. In order to take care of a witch one had to destroy her body completely and at best set her house on fire, to burn all her magic paraphernalia. (Minnaar 1998:184) Similar executions had occured in the past under the supervision of chiefs and councils of elders. But it seems that in former times those in charge were normally content with simply chasing away the culprits. Even now, some parents argued that it would suffice to expel the witches and let them reside in some far-away places. (Delius 1996:196) Under the protection of police stations a couple of villages had been erected, where the expelled could settle. But the young activists did not want to make any concessions; under their leadership the execution of witches became the norm: what do you do when you have cocroaches in the house? You kill them. (quoted by Ralushai 1996:15; Minnaar 1998:176).

Witchcraft and African Renaissance

The reasons for the excessive campaign of violence are disputed until today. Many observers assume, that accusations of witchcraft only served as a pretence to get rid of personal or political opponents. The report of the governmental commission for example argues: many of the accusations of witchcraft had nothing to do with witchcraft (...) the revolutionary forces chose witchcraft and ritual killing to destabilise these communities. (Ralushai 1996:269, 270) In any case it is conspicious, that political activists often determined high-handedly, who had to be treated as a witch. And even when the suspects were presented to a witch-doctor first, manipulations were occasionally observed. Some of the ritual experts later reported, that they had been forced to smell out witches, and in case they refused, they were allegedly threatened with death. (Ralushai 1996:49-50) Distrust was also caused by the impression, that the campaign was directed from the background by ANC cadres. A commander of the ANC Youth League for example boasted publicly, that he could order or stop the homicides as he wished: The witches think they are safe because I told my Comrades to stop burning them. (quoted by Niehaus 1999:265) Some analysts even assume, that a part of the political leadership did not even believe in witches, but merely exploited the superstitions of the population. (Minnaar 1998:185) The mass killings of elderly, mostly impoverished men and women would therefore be nothing but a cynically chosen instrument to achieve completely different political goals.

But this interpretation has to be considered with some doubt. In a detailed study, which tried to reconstruct more than 300 cases of witchcraft in Green Valley, a village in Lebowa, the author did not find any evidence that the witchcraft accusations by ANC supporters were aimed against political opponents. (Niehaus 1993:523-525) Those affected were mostly persons, who, even according to the judgement of other observers, had shown suspiciously aggressive or antisocial behaviour. The majority of the population therefore seems to have approved of the actions against witches in principle, despite many complaints about the arbitrary conduct of the persecutors. (Niehaus 1999:274; Peltzer 1999:2) Obviously the adolescents did actually try to identify the guilty persons, and for this purpose they often accepted lists with the names of suspects from their parents or other adults. (Minnaar 1992:24) There are therefore numerous arguments for taking the statement of the activists seriously, that they wanted to liberate their villages from the influence of demonic powers. They seemed to be totally convinced that by witchhunting they are advancing the national democratic struggle (Weekly Mail, March 23rd, 1990; quoted by Minnaar 1992:40)

For outsiders it may seem strange, that in the moment of revolt, with the long anticipated freedom within reach, a wave of violence should be directed against the most helpless members of society. One of the reasons is certainly, that the teenage killers could count on escaping prosecution since the authority of the state was largely eroded. Even more important may be another aspect: with the end of apartheid a new age, connected with inflated millenaristic expectations, seemed to be imminent. The rebels dreamed of a radical inversion of the established order, of a world in which all wealth would be poured upon Africans while the whites would be forced to work as subordinates for the blacks. (Niehaus 1999:108,128-135) In connection with this utopian order stood the hope of a renaissance of African culture: With the unbanning of political parties and release of Nelson Mandela from prison, many people experienced a sense of cultural freedom, including the punishment of witches in a typically African way. This was regarded as reaffirmation of African culture after centuries of colonial and Western suppression. (Dolamo 1996:347) The future system, for which the rebels fought, was basically a world without witches and sorcerers. Especially in the homelands, with their impoverished, overpopulated communities, torn by inner conflicts, nothing seemed to be more urgent than the attempt to clean themselves from envy and resentment. Only the extinction of all evil, antisocial elements would create the preconditions for a morally purified society. (Niehaus 1999:254) The utopian vision of a harmonious world was thus based on an act of expulsion: all dissonances could be overcome, if mens diffuse omnipresent aggression could be directed against a common enemy in which all evil, detestable forces were personified.

Essential for this process of self-purification was the idea, that the suppressed masses would constitute a moral community under the leadership of the youths. In the past, councils of elders and chiefs had carried the responsibility for the wellfare of the community. But after their parents and grandparents failure in fighting the apartheid regime the young men claimed all authority for themselves. For mature, prudent men it was a humbling experience to be pushed around and commanded by teenagers. Not only their status was ignored, they were also summoned in front of socalled people's courts in order to be sentenced by 16- or 17-year old kids. In their ambition to effect a radical break with the past, the youthful judges did not hesitate to interfere even with intimate affairs. An adult man, for instance, was ordered to stay at home with his family in the evenings after 7 pm, otherwise he would be whipped by the comrades. The revolutionaries also did not accept divorces and ordered estranged couples to stay together. From the point of view of adolescents, who had grown up in fragmented families of migrants, it seemed to be part of the social renewal to create a sound family world by decree. (Delius 1996:190)

Measured by African traditions the presumptuous behaviour of the youth was a tremendous provocation. They had occupied social ranks, which so far only elders were entitled to fill, and consequently had to find legitimacy for their disputed form of authority. In the past the respect of chiefs and elders had been based on their ability to protect the community from internal and external enemies. The young rebels now claimed to play exactly this role by taking up the persecution of witches. (Stadler 1996:88) May be their decision was also based on the calculation, that party politics and revolutionary slogans would not be sufficient for mobilizing the population. Witchhunts on the other hand seemed to be a common cause for which one could expect broad-based support. (Niehaus 1993:527) The youths were assisted in their campaign by a general perception that witchcraft was out of control. Many held the apartheid regime responsible for it, because the white government in Pretoria seemed to protect the witches actively. And their black governors in the homelands were openly accused of clinging to power by obscure, magical means. In the summer of 1989, students of the University of Venda boycotted their classes in order to protest against cases of ritual murders allegedly perpetrated by the government. The following year between 3- and 10,000 demonstrators marched against the presidential office in Venda and presented a human skull, which was doscovered so they claimed as a relic of ritual killing. (Minnaar 1992:37, 39) Such attempts to link political enemies with occult practices cannot simply be dismissed as political propaganda. In Venda as well as in Lesotho, Swaziland etc. there is a long tradition of killing people to produce exceptionally effective forms of medicine with parts of their corpses. Already in precolonial times kings and chiefs had claimed the privilege to use those medicines in their fight against powerful rivals. (Evans 1993:27; Booth 1992:266-271) Among their modern successors in the homelands, who were engaged in a similar competition for power and wealth, the use of witch medicine also appeared to be wide-spread. As more and more incriminating evidence emerged, the government of Venda finally had to give in to public pressure: one member of the cabinet and some other influential persons were put on trial for ritual murder and received death sentences. (Ralushai 1996:272; Minnaar 1992:37-39)5

Fighting against such gruesome practices was supposed to unify the rural communities. The political activists therefore took care, that, if possible, everybody took part in the witchhunts. Young men went from house to house collecting donations of thousands of Rand to be spent on witch doctors, who were supposed to identify local witches. Or they collected ransom money to put up bail for their comrades arrested for killing witches. (Minnaar 1998:192; Ralushai 1996:31, 50) Even when it came to militant action, such as the execution of witches, the adults were urged to participate. Parents of activists for example had to carry rocks, with which the victims were stoned. (Minnaar 1992:24) And young women, who otherwise rarely took part in political operations, were forced to collect firewood. (Delius 1996:198) Some reports tell of young people forced to pour gasoline down their mothers throats, having to put tires around their necks and set them afire with their own hands. (Delius 1996:197) Like this the initiators of the violence clearly wanted to prevent a vicious circle of blood revenge: sons, who executed their mothers, cannot hold others responsible for homicide.

With the ruthless fight against witches the adolescents wanted to stop the circle of mutual suspicions forever. Only when nobody had magical instruments to harm others, would people be able to trust each other again and start creating a common future: The youth promised to bring real freedom (...) saying that there would be no witches left in the new South Africa (quoted by Delius 1996:211). But the attempt to overcome the nightmare of fear, hate and envy was doomed to fail, because the activists did not fight the belief in witches, but the witches themselves. Their persecution of social outsiders did not unify the village communities, but stirred whole families and clans against each other. Each homicide left a group of traumatized relatives, who desperately disputed any accusations against the victim. In their helplessness they appealed to supreme ANC functionaries to stop the killings, or they turned to the police usually without results. In the end there were no impartial agencies from which they could expect justice. Whoever sought revenge, had to deal with it by himself. For this reason militias were formed, trying to stop the terror of the youths by picking out individual opponents and executing them. (Niehaus 1999:251)

In order to understand why some families fiercely fought accusations of witchcraft against their relatives, we have to take into consideration that according to common belief witchcraft is hereditary in the mother's line. As soon as a person is denounced as a witch, the immediate relatives become suspects as well. Because you cannot trust anyone of that family, many argue in favor of extinguishing the whole group of potential witches, including the children: All snakes are the same, whether small or big. (quoted by Ralushai 1996:16) 6

Interventions of the ANC leadership

The reaction by leading ANC politicians, when commenting on the anarchic violence of the youths, was ambivalent. In the beginning of 1990, immediately after the legalization of radical oppositional parties, Winnie Mandela and Chris Hani travelled through the crisis areas in Transvaal and praised the rebels for making the homelands ungovernable. (Minnar 19992:50) The militancy of the young activists opened the ANC functionaries path to power: first to the negotiating table with the white government, then into ministerial posts and other state offices. Therefore it was absolutely in their interest, that images of the revolt went around the world. All forms of collective violence be it arson attacks, school boycotts or the plundering of shops were regarded as part of a common struggle, for which the ANC claimed responsibility. The party leaders always declared to speak for all of the rebellious crowds; the truth was, that even after many of them had returned from exile, they had little influence on the angry young men in the townships. The phrase ANCs liberation struggle was rather misleading as it covered up for the entirely different interests, articulating themselves in strikes, boycotts and mass militancy. The party functionaries were mainly interested in convincing the Western-European and US-American public, that the ANC was trying to create a modern, liberal democracy acceptable for all parts of the population, black and white alike. With their public commitment to human rights, seperation of powers and mutual tolerance, Nelson Mandela and other speakers of the party presented themselves as responsible politicians, who followed the traditions of European enlightenment. The witchhunts did not fit this self-portrayal of the ANC. When journalists first reported the lynchings, ANC leaders (as well as human right advocates and other white supporters of the ANC) denied any connection with their youth organizations: the murders were rather initiated by witch doctors and other traditionalists. (Delius 1996:192) Later, when the executions began to increase, ANC cadres appealed to the youth not to commit acts of arbitrary violence: the burning of witches was declared a grave mistake, because it diverted the struggle from the real enemy (Niehaus 1999:257). A functionary of the ANC Womens League, who condemned the atrocities in a radio program, even stated that she did not believe in witches. But in a private interview she admitted to not having spoken her true opinion. Rather she had wanted to prevent an escalation of violence. (Niehaus 1999:274)

Western media, when reporting on the rebellion against apartheid, usually followed the public declarations of ANC leaders. Everthing incongruent to these declarations the murder of political dissidents as well as the images of burning witches was usually left out. For a long time it was not even possible to talk about the ethnic-cultural traditions, which influenced the thoughts and actions of the township rebels. During the years of struggle (...) it became practically impossible to speak or write of social difference other than the obvious differences of rich and poor, oppressor and opressed. Reference to other forms of difference be they cultural, social, or, more especially, ethnic would be condemned as pandering to the purveyors of apartheid. (Ashforth 1996:1189; McAllister and Sharp 1993) But the motivations of the rebels can not be understood by looking exclusively at the public self-portrayal of their political representatives: the understanding of the objectives of organisation and action was almost as diverse as the membership and evolved according to local experience and circumstance. And a particular danger for analysts in this instance as in many others is to attempt to read off popular consciousness from the pronouncements and subsequent reflections of the most articulate leaders. (Delius 1996:187)

Besides the considerations of the Western public there is another reason why the ANC leadership attempted to distance themselves at least partially from the rioting youth. From 1990 onwards, when it became clear, that the ANC would dominate the future government, more and more chiefs and civil servants in the homelands tried to join the ranks of the freedom-fighters. The party functionaries appreciated this increase in support, because in negotiations with the white government the ANC acted as advocate for all blacks, trying to present a united front against the apartheid regime. That is why Nelson Mandela sought the alliance with representatives of the homeland-establishment, who had been considered traitors in the eyes of the young ANC followers. Now, at joint public appearances, he did not want to remind of the bitter rivalries in the past. Instead he recalled a common struggle, which had never existed: chiefs had a long and proud history of association with the ANC (quoted by Delius 1996:207).

After the political transition in 1994 close contacts with the new black elite have become even more important for chiefs, local politicians and businessmen. Many of those who had once sided with the apartheid regime are today members of the governing party. The young freedom-fighters on the other hand lost their influence. Their militancy is no longer needed, because under the new, black government it is not considered heroic any more to boycott schools, or demolish state property.

The Rehabilitation of Traditional Healers

After the years of rebellion with their uncontrollable violence the state wants to direct the persecution of witches into controllable channels. A new bill has not been presented to parliament yet, but the ANC leadership organized a conference on the subject of witchcraft and ritual killings in September 1998, at which the delegates approved of the suggestions of the Ralushai-Commission. (Natal Witness, 11.9.98) If the courts do take over the prosecution of witches, it can be expected, that like in Cameroun ritual experts will gain influence on the criminal proceedings. The report of the government commission does not actually mention, which experts the courts shall consult; but together with the new Witchcraft Control Act an additional law is suggested, which is supposed to officially aknowlegde the status of traditional healers (among whom witch doctors can be counted). Such a reform is considered necessary, because former legislators failed to draw a clear line between the so-called witch, the sorcerer, and the witchfinder. (Ralushai 1996:61)

Critics of the old, colonial legislation have for a long time reproached the Europeans for demonizing all kinds of African magic and punishing them undiscriminately. Like this, the positive forms of magic, existing side by side with witchcraft and malicious magic, had gone by unnoticed. Especially the so-called witchdoctors should be exempted from the usual prejudices, as they see their responsibility in protecting their fellow people from pernicious influences: Calling on the powers of good, they were working against what they believed to be the powers of evil (Davidson 1978:147).

The government commission certainly knows, that traditional healers and especially witch-doctors are often suspected of being witches themselves. Court documents show for example their involvement in many ritual killings. On their advise clients try to obtain parts of corpses in order to produce special medicine. (Ralushai 1996:48, 256, 269, 271) One could object, that those cases are individual aberrations, which do not puport anything about the way a whole profession sees ist vocation. Genuine traditional healers as Simeon Mesaki says (1995:174) would reject such unscrupulous methods, because they understand themselves as spiritual guardians of the community. But the problem is less one of personal integrity. The crucial point is, that the powers used by healers are in themselves ambivalent. They can heal or kill. Especially anti-witchcraft experts are expected to possess in principle the same abilities as their opponents. How else are they supposed to break the power of witches and sorcerers? (Geschiere 1997:64, 196) The distinction between good and evil in this struggle of occult powers is mainly a question of perspective. Everybody involved has to protect himself from the aggression of others, and, if possible, gain influence on his opponents, that is to weaken and ultimately destroy them. Since the power of magic can be used for the most different purposes, it becomes almost impossible to draw a clear line between healers and witches: professional wiches are virtually indistinguishable from legitimate inyangas. Anyone can go to them and purchase deadly herbal weapons. (Ashforth 1998:518)

The government commission ignores all those reservations, when they suggest acknowledging traditional healers officially and organizing them in one national association. It would be the responsibilty of this organization to verify whether the candidates possess sufficient skill in order to practice in the field of magic. (Ralushai 1996:75) Whoever obtained membership could then call himself depending on the respective specialisation registered healer or registered spirit medium. But the professional association would constantly have to pay attention to root out quackery in their own ranks. Persons who turn out to be grossly incompetent would loose their license and with it the privilege to practice. (Ralushai 1996:76) But then the crucial question would be, how the professional qualification of a spirit medium or a witch-doctor can be established. In order to judge the competence of their members, the association would have to agree on generally accepted standards and a code of conduct. (Ralushai 1996:49) It is however an illusion to believe, that experts of the occult could reach an agreement determining which rituals or magic formulas are effective and how they are to be used. Those local associations of healers which already exist seem to indulge in endless quarrels and mud-slinging. (Ralushai 1999:49) Their members usually practice in obscurity and keep their precious knowledge to themselves, making it impossible to establish an efficient control. In addition, it is more disputed today than in precolonial times, which magical techniques are legitimate and which are not. Christian healers, who claim the right to identify and defeat witches as well, usually confine themselves to expelling evil influences with prayers, laying on of hands or unction with oil and holy water. From their point of view all other magical or religious practices are diabolic. Therefore it can be foreseen that many followers of African churches would not accept it, if South Africa's courts followed the verdicts of heathen witchdoctors. (Niehaus 1999:314)

The possible cooperation between state institutions and ritual experts is problematic for yet another reason. It could lead to an increasing association of state representatives with occult powers. Already now many South Africans have the impression that the power of the political caste is founded in obscure, spiritual forces, regardless if talking about white politicians or their ANC successors. (Ashforth 1996:184) This view reflects the experience, that only a minority of former freedom fighters managed to gain from the political transition, while the large majority still finds itself excluded from the arcana of power. It seems as if the really important decisions were made in exclusive circles, to which one only would gain access by secret, esoteric means. The authority of politicians is therefore not so much based in democratically founded institutions or in the will of the people. Whoever will rise into supreme political offices and will know how to defend himself against his rivals, seems to have the neccessary spiritual protection at his disposal. In other African countries statesmen encourage such speculations by surrounding themselves with diviners, sorcerers or islamic marabouts. The aura of spiritual or cultic power serves not at least to intimidate their own population and in particular the opposition. (Ellis and ter Haar 1998:189; Kohnert 1997:40-45) Similar developments could occur in South Africa, if it is correct what Peter Geschiere (1997:200) predicts: that with the africanization of the state, rumors about witchcraft will penetrate into the heart of political institutions.

Africanization

In order to justify their draft of a Witchcraft Control Act, the government commission calls on the tradition of the country: our forefathers regarded witchcraft as an integral part of our lives. (Ralushai 1996:13) With those forefathers, whose cultural self-definition is supposed to be relevant for future legislation, only Africans can be meant here. The Europeans, who have lived at the Cape for more than 300 years, are, without mentioning it explicitly, excluded from the collective we. In a different place the government report states the own premises even more clearly: The African (...) believes implicitly in witches, indeed his very society approves of capital punishment for witches. (Ralushai 1996:269) What is remarkable in this formulation is the use of the singular, as if there were such a thing as the model African and his society. From an academic point of view such an expression does not make any sense, because among Africans one can find, like anywhere else in the world, believers as well as non-believers. And even looking into the past, one encounters African cultures where witchcraft was apparantly of little relevance. (Jones 1970:325) The reference to the African makes sense only in a political context, where group identities have to be constructed. The belief in witchcraft then appears to be an essential characteristic of African identity, as an integral part of a common cultural heritage, which links all Africans with each other and sets them apart from the world of the Europeans. (Niehaus 1999:299) The moment one's own self-definition is determined that way, it only seems consistent to view a legislation coined by Europeans, condemning every form of accusation of witchcraft, as an insult to ones own culture. (Sunday News, 19.1.86)

The discussion around the Witchcraft Control Act shows, that it is an illusion to believe, that Europeans and Africans could agree on general legal and moral principles. What has been held up by the Western world as universally valid norms are only their own culturally determined ideas. As soon as members of other cultures cling to their traditions, it would seem impossible to administer life in multicultural societies by common legislation. In South Africa the attempt to revive the African heritage is an especially delicate matter. During the negotiations about a peaceful transition, when the foundation of a new, non-racist constitution was to be laid, the ANC had still adhered to principles of Western law. The plea for human rights and liberal constitutional principles was a pivotal element of the ANC's strategy since the end of the 80ies: not only in order to find moral and financial support abroad in Western countries, but also to be accepted by the apartheid government as a partner in negotiations. The leaders of the liberation movement had come to realize at latest with the Harare Declaration in 1989, that the white supremacy would not be overthrown by military means. Especially the revolts in the ghettos, with their thousands of casualties had made it clear to all sides involved, that only negotiations could bring an end to apartheid. (Giliomee 1995:85; Friedman 1995:548) But the regime would only make concessions, when important parts of the white population would press for an end of race segregation. Political groups like the Panafricanist Congress, who strictly maintained their claim for Black Power, would not have been able to break down the solidarity between Europeans. The ANC, by contrast, formulated a policy of non-racialism, in order to convince the privileged parts of the population, that there was an acceptable alternative for them to the apartheid regime. In all their talks with the white establishment, with journalists and church representatives, business executives and farmers, the ANC leaders tried to communicate their central message as clearly as possible: that even under a black government, legislative principles like the ones established in Western-Europe and North-America would remain valid.

Now, two or three years after the political transition, as the ANC does not feel obliged to show consideration for the European minority any longer, there is talk about the Africanization of the country. Thus the concept of a rainbow-nation, with its precarious multi-cultural co-existence, is questioned. In an ANC strategy paper from July 1997 the party is called for a continuing battle to assert African hegemony (...). It is debatable whether the popular imagery of a 'rainbow nation' is useful in this respect. (...) it used to express the character of South African society as one made up of black Africans who pay allegiance to Africa, whites who pay allegiance to Europe, Indians who pay allegiance to India (ANC 1997: Thesis 7). Whites are thus expected to abandon their close ties to Europe. It is disputed under ANC supporters though, how far the Western culture should be pushed back. Representatives of the Africanist wing claim that the Africanization of the country demands a far-reaching psychological change among all parts of the population. Especially the Whites, if they want to remain in South Africa, have to part from their ideological ties to Europe, so that they can assimilate without reservations to the African culture of the country: that will lead to the total and genuine liberation of the Whites and Blacks in this part of the continent. For the Whites it will unchain and decouple them from the romance, the preoccupation with Europe as the source of supreme ideas and values and finally bond them permanently to Africa (Makgoba 1996:180).7

But until now it remains unclear, how far the Europeans should comply with African ideas of legislation. The Ralushai Commission for example avoids the question, if its suggestion for a new anti-witchcraft act shall affect whites as well. Specialists say, that the state should only prosecute, where the fear of witches has especially destructive results, that is in Venda and other parts of Transvaal, maybe in Zululand and Transkei. For the citizens of South Africa two different legislations would exist again, like in the times of apartheid. Another disadvantage would be that the rights of ethnic minorities remained unclear: would it be possible to indict Europeans, who live or work in Venda, of witchcraft? Or should it be declared by law that there are no witches among whites? This question may sound hypothetical, because Europeans so far were rarely suspected to be witches. (Niehaus 1996:106-111) Other minorities however, like Indians, often attract suspicion. There are frequent accusations of Indians selling human fat, with which black sorcerers then produce medicine. (Ralushai 1996:24, 26) In Livingstone, a city upon the Zambezi, Indian businessmen were chased by an angry mob, because of rumors, that in one of their shops the heart of a child and other body parts had been discovered. (Guardian, 21.11.95)

In discussions with jurists and social scientists one gets the impression, that nobody can offer a convincing solution for the problem. Even critics of the government commission have to admit, that they are at a loss on how to prevent the persecution of innocent people. The existing regulation is certainly unsatisfactory, because it subjects the majority of the population to foreign European standards of jurisdiction. But the objections against the new bill are substantial as well: if the state convicted supposed witches, it would affirm that the monstrous accusations against them are well-founded. (Geschiere 1997:21) And further: the suggested law would not only introduce a new offense, that of witchcraft, but also question long established principles of the present Western-based legal system, especially where the admission of evidence is concerned. How can a defendent prove his innocence if a reasonable suspicion (Ralushai 1996:55) is accepted as sufficient ground for a conviction? These risks of a new legislation would be easier to put up with, if there were the prospect that beliefs in occult powers might fade away with the expansion of Western education. But there is little indication for it. The violence against witches started to escalate after the school system in the black residential areas had been extended massively. In 1970 there were only 122.000 Africans attending secondary schools; 14 years later the number had increased to a million. (Bundy 1987:311) It is also remarkable that those who took part in witchs hunts were primarily students of secondary schools, sometimes under the leadership of young teachers or civil servants. Illiterates or people with only a rudimentary school education on the other hand were rarely present. (Delius 1996:187)

Not even the hope remains, that the persecution of witches is restricted to remote rural areas. From Soweto, the center of urban black culture, it is reported that the inhabitants are more and more concerned about the supposed increase of witchcraft.8 Voices demanding a massive intervention of the state multiply: each quarter one suggestion says should elect a committee of traditional healers, which in cooperation with the police had the task to oversee the process of elimination of witches. (Ashforth 1998:523) The mayor of Soweto explained, that for her witchcraft presented indeed the biggest problem; but the administration could not do much about it, because the existing law would restrict their abilities to act. (Ashforth 1998:525) A traditional healer practicing in Soweto, expressed those difficulties a bit more crudely: in the days of king Shaka one simply killed witches. Now they have these human rights, so you cant just kill them. (quoted by Ashforth 1998:523).

* German version of this paper has been published in Anthropopos, 95/ 2000, S. 99-112.

 

1 The final report also assumes, that local police authorities have not submitted all of their documents about witchcraft to the investigation committee. (Ralushai 1996:57)

2 In this central question the committee seems to have been divided in their judgement. According to Prof. van den Heever he is the only one of the members of the committee who does not believe in witches.

3 In the past, people distinguished between witches and sorcerers, and in some areas between day witches and night witches. Such distinctions, however, have been blurred. Especially in urban areas where members of different cultures meet, there are no persons or institutions that could determine with authority what a witch is and how he or she operates. People talk a lot about agents of evil who cause harm by invisible, mystical means, but such speculations remain vague and often contradictory: There are evil forces at work in the world which everyone must fear, but the signs of their presence are ambiguous and their potency uncertain. (...) There is no system. On the contrary, there are only fragmentary schemes that people make use of as they muddle through life in a world where conflict and meaning are mediated by uncertain and conflicting authorities. (Ashforth 1996:1205) One might add that the uncertainty surrounding all notions of witchcraft is crucial to the terror they spread. The threat of witchcraft is so difficult to tackle as one feels exposed to some intangible forces, not knowing exactly how they work and whence they originate. This feeling of insecurity may explain the desperate attempts to reveal the hidden machinations and to expose the culprits forcing them to confess what nobody could have observed directly.

4 Among the murderes, there were ten- or eleven-year old children as well. But the average age was in Lebowa for instance about 19. (Delius 1996:199; Ralushai 1996:268; Minnaar 1998:175, 185)

5 Ritual murders are, however, not restricted to the ruling circles. They occur fairly regularly in the townships of KwaZulu-Natal. According to a study based on court files and police records, twelve to fifteen mutilated corpses from Umlazi, a black township, were received in Durbans morgues each year. And in Umbumbulu, south of Durban, there were about six reported cases per month. But the real number of ritual murders seem to be far higher: All the officials involved in the judicial process agree on one thing: that the number of cases reported to them is probably far less than the number of incidents that actually occur. (Evans 1991:46) The situation is similar in parts of northern Transvaal: ritual murder (...) is so ingrained in Venda society that it will take quite some time to fade away. (Ralushai 1996:271)

6 According to poll results from northern Transvaal, the majority of interviewees indicated that all family members should be burned together with the witches. (Peltzer 1999:7)

7 compare Filatova 1997; Louw 1997:87,88; Mar 1996:325

8 White social scientists who always wrote as outsiders when analyzing township riots were not aware to which extent daily life in Soweto or Umlazi is burdened by mistrust and mutual suspicions: I could never have imagined the degree of fear which people endure on a daily basis regarding the risk of witchcraft and sorcery, the constant threat of evil forces being unleashed by jealous neighbors, relatives, and acquaintancies to cause them harm. (...) There is no one living in a black township who has not experienced witchcraft. (Ashforth 1996:1184, 1221)

 

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