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Redebating Witchcraft

The Chapter 9 institutions most engaged with witchcraft are the CRL, SALRC, and the SAHRC, which, in their debates and deliberations, engage in inclusive dialogue with all interested and affected parties and stakeholders. It is in the absence of cooperative dialogue on the issues at hand that SAPRA’s position, in denying the reality of African witchcraft, puts all Pagans in danger of being excluded from debates in which they are undoubtedly invested and from being valuable role-players in reaching a solution. Factors of interest to Pagans are raised in a summary document of the findings of the 2013 CRL national witchcraft seminars that was privately forwarded to me. Of singular importance was that there appeared to be no exception to the call to criminalize witchcraft, and a ubiquitous sentiment voiced was that the western influence on the constitution contradicts “the African way of life” and should be corrected. Contrary to SAPRA’s (2014a) 30 days of advocacy slogan “Accusations are not proof,” the central difficulties debated in the conferences were that there is substance to many accusations, there are confessions substantiated with evidence, and the vibrant economy of the unregulated witchcraft-related muthi trade has empirically verifiable dimensions and is testimony to its sustained cultural value.

The CRL findings were an important source of information for the SALRC, which issued a public document in 2014 entitled “Review of the Witchcraft Act 3 of 1957” in which they reflected a wide spectrum of stakeholders’ perspectives and the legal complexities in defining witchcraft in new legislation. According to this document, in which SAPRA objections were taken to reflect all Pagans, the SALRC noted the primary Pagan displeasure as “directed at the definitions of witchcraft” (2014a: 39) and that “as practitioners of the religion and/or as self-defined witches, they should be responsible for defining the words ‘witchcraft’ and ‘witches’” (ibid.: 40). This assertion failed to reflect the diversity of Pagan opinion in the 2007 conference and the fact that some Pagan Witches too have chosen to publicly relinquish the term “witch.” Members of the wider community have found no channel to counter what they informally debate as being a threat to a “Pagan” identity that, at the official level, is now reductively construed as synonymous with Witchcraft. This concern was validated in a later SALRC media statement calling for public response to a number of questions arising from their deliberations. In reference to Pagans, the question asked was “How the law should account for forms of witchcraft such as Paganism that people practice as part of their religion” (SALRC 2014b). The SALRC have stated their intention to provide new legislation for public comment in 2015; how they incorporate SAPRA’s propositions that are so distanced from local endeavors to decolonize witchcraft and to reassert African cultural and intellectual property rights remains conjecture. Again attributing SAPRA’s position to all Pagans, some indication can be found in the SALRC (2014a: 40) statement that “They fail to provide alternatives to deal with the scourge of witchcraft violence” and that “The only proposal they advance is the use of common law to address the issues around witchcraft violence.”

SAPRA’s (2014a) dismissal of African witchcraft as “imaginary” is of concern in the current political climate in that it mirrors the colonial position that the belief in, and practice of, witchcraft was a pretense or superstition. This is a position that was carried into the wording of the WSA (3) and is one cited as a significant factor in fueling witchcraft-related violence. In addition, it lacks engagement with a “pragmatic pluralism” that Tobias (2011: 73) persuasively argues as

situated and localized forms of cooperation between state and non-state actors, particularly religious groups and organizations, that may not share the secular, juridical understandings of rights, persons, and obligations common to contemporary cosmopolitan theory.

According to Vertovec and Cohen (2002: 9), some celebrate cosmopolitanism for “its political challenges to various ethno-centric, racialized, gendered and national narratives,” whereas others “are highly skeptical of what is perceived to be an emergent global, hybrid and ‘rootless’ cosmopolitan culture.” Skepticism such as this has been increasingly vocalized in South Africa over the past few years and inheres in a postcolonial resurgence of the types of narratives to which Vertovec and Cohen refer. The cosmopolitan principles of human rights as upheld by international institutions can be a political challenge to the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism and religious extremism in Africa, but are also dismissed as a “rootless” cosmopolitanism that cannot rise above being a rarefied concept of little value in addressing the ambiguities of postcolonial experiences.

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