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Decolonizing Witchcraft

In contrast to the terms “pagan” and “native,” Africans appropriated the term “witchcraft” through the systems of colonial education and Christian conversion, and the postcolonial task was one of decolonizing its Eurocentric interpretation and application. The majority of Pagans were not aware of the colonial Witchcraft Suppression Act (3) of 19575 (WSA (3)) that to date remains unrepealed by the ANC. The small minority who were aware were partly correct in their assumption that, as the WSA (3) provided no definition of terms, it did not apply to them nor warrant their direct engagement. Culturally distanced from a phenomenon about which they knew very little, South African Pagans made no comment on witchcraft-related violence that continued in black communities through the 1990s. The WSA (3), which privileged Christian-colonial thought, was modeled on the British Witchcraft Act of 1735 and imposed without consultation on African communities. The role of Izangoma (African diviners) was most negatively affected by the list of offenses in the WSA (3), in which they earned the pejorative and reductive title of “witchdoctors,” a term from which they tried to dissociate through their inclusion in the category Traditional Healers from the 1970s. Izangoma receive their calling to the profession from the ancestors and, on acceptance, undergo rigorous training in mediating human concerns and afflictions with the ancestral spirit realm. Their divinatory skills in diagnosing the causes of physical, social, and psychological misfortune and disruptions, which included their causation through malevolent actions, or witchcraft, made them indispensable to their communities and their chiefs. African languages had applied a number of different words to a range of social and moral transgressions that were colonially collapsed under the single term “witchcraft” that was duly applied in the WSA (3). In this legislation, the primary offense was the accusation, or imputation, of witchcraft, albeit that “witchcraft” remained legally undefined. In addition to delimiting the role of Izangoma as community doctors and healers, the WSA (3) denied the reality of witchcraft by referring to it as “a pretended knowledge” and criminalized the magical practices of divination, conjuration, and fortune-telling that had been historically constructed as indicative of its practice in European history. African churches became a sanctioned location for vocalizing African fears of witchcraft that were not subjected to aspersions of superstition and for addressing them through traditional systems of diagnosis and protection in an African-Christian context. As the dangers of witchcraft in biblical texts endorsed traditional understandings of evil agency, the difficulties in articulating a Pagan Witch identity were exacerbated in increasingly widened sectors of society.

In 1999 Mandela’s deputy, Thabo Mbeki, became democratic South Africa’s second president. Known for his “I Am an African” speech6 in Parliament on the passing of the new constitution in 1996, Mbeki highlighted the distinctness of being in, and from, Africa, in a liberal cosmopolitan world. Throughout his term of office (1999-2008), Mbeki pursued his nationalist vision as an African “Renaissance” and drove South Africa as a leading player within the Organization for African Unity (OAU). Under Mbeki, there was a growing challenge in meeting constitutional provisions for equality in the midst of numerous new, and often conflicting, identity assertions that were potentially counterproductive to nation-building. This led to the establishment of Equality Courts in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000. A related government response to these difficulties was the founding of a new Chapter 9 institution by an Act of Parliament in 2002. This was the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), which had a highly localized focus on ensuring that equality rights “are protected against any form of transgression, violation or denial” (CRL 2014). In line with their mandate, the CRL was government funded to conduct nationwide and inclusive information-gathering seminars on highly contentious issues that would assist government in policymaking.

Toward the end of this first phase under discussion, local Pagans had increasingly withdrawn from national politics and lacked a unifying voice to address matters they considered as infringements of their constitutional rights. In 2004, a more politically engaged Pagan formed the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) “as a faith-based (Pagan) human rights activist alliance” that would protect Pagan rights and pursue cases of perceived infringements “in line with its constitutional mandate, namely, to promote the guaranteed liberties and freedoms enshrined for all South

African Pagans in the Bill of Rights” (SAPRA 2004). In late 2003, an inter-Pagan collective had worked toward the establishment of the “Pagan Freedom Day Movement” that would hold annual festivals on April 27, a public holiday held to commemorate South Africa’s first democratic elections held on that date. The first events in 2004 marked a celebration of a decade of religious freedom, and specific groups and/or individuals took responsibility for their planning in all major cities. The events attracted minimal media attention despite the prior dissemination of a press pack to various media and, as primarily intra-Pagan celebrations, attracted low public attendance outside of family and/or friends, and interfaith invitations were limited. However, in the spirit of sharing the 2004 event with other previously marginalized groups with whom they recognized some affinity, Pagans in Johannesburg invited Izangoma to join in a day on which their disparate religio-cultural backgrounds and divergent interpretations of witchcraft were sublimated in a spirit of camaraderie. In hindsight, had Pagans been advised of Masaeli’s (2008: 495) caution that “Any failure to take the identity awareness into consideration may result in the possible collision among cultural identities,” the conflict that later developed among Pagans, and between Pagans and the wider community of Traditional Healers, could have been averted through purposeful dialogue. This conflict was precipitated by renewed debates on finding a legal definition for witchcraft and was coterminous with political changes within the ANC that would reinvigorate intentions to dismantle forms of neocolonialism that had been obscured by the cosmopolitan commitment to blanket constitutional equalities in the Rainbow Nation.

 
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