Everyone around her was running. From or towards what, she didn’t know. None of them responded to her panicked questions of where they were going, so she too started running, not knowing what she would find on the other side. Suddenly, she was alone again on a smoky, barren field. In the distance, she could make out very little except for the silhouette of what she believed to be the figure of a vicious beast, craned over a body, devouring its eviscerated bowels.
These are some of the scattered details of Mam’Jwara’s* dream she flung at us while we, like chickens at feeding time, scurried about picking up kernels of the story we could make sense of. She retold her dream to an audience of seven of my relatives and neighbours in my grandmother’s house during my recent visit to the Eastern Cape. Mam’Jwara, still visibly shaken, was not so much interested in the possible interpretations of the dream as what we made of her misfortune of bumping into the village’s most renowned witch earlier that week. For her, there was no doubt in her mind that an inextricable link existed between her chance encounter with Masevra* and the dream.
Soon after the retelling, the conversation shifted to Masevra’s evil and how she had caused the demise of so many in the village. There was the husband, a meek man of few words, who capriciously turned on his wife, nearly ending her life during a fight; the intelligent young man, once the pride of his family and now a stranger hooked on that “devil drug” nyaope; and the university graduate who could not find a job and is now pregnant with her second child. For everyone in the room, it was clear that Masevra was the source of this misery, and evidence to prove this was abundant in the most banal details, which hardly aroused my suspicion.
She once sent for a chicken to be presented to a young man who had survived the first two critical weeks of his circumcision. The family decided the chicken should be given away because of who it came from. Diverted from its original mission of ensuring the young man’s good health, the chicken died within hours in the hands of its new owner. That the person who had been given the chicken was the local drunk, who had walked for two hours with the chicken squashed in a plastic bag. But this was considered only incidental; its death signified something more than suffocation. It seemed to matter little, too, that death, with power that supersedes Masevra’s black magic, indiscriminately snatches life from dozens of boys every circumcision season. Village members channel age-old discrimination against women, resulting in women being excluded from parts of the circumcision process because of the evil powers they supposedly possess.
And Masevra was in a good position to cast intricate spells through a chicken, for she is said to have trained in Gwadana, that infamous capital of the evil mystical world known to most in the Eastern Cape. It is there where she and her colleagues gather at witching hour, balanced on their broomsticks (the more advanced among them fly on loaves of bread) to be schooled in the ways of turning people into zombies who stalk the edges of the earth for eternity; locking women’s wombs; and making sure the sons of their rivals do not return from their circumcision rituals alive.
Accusations of witchcraft, stemming from a belief in a dark mystical world, are not unique to my village or the Eastern Cape. On the other side of the country, in Limpopo, it is rumoured that witches are so skilled that they harvest lightning and sell it by the bucket to jealous lovers and employees overlooked for promotions. In KwaZulu-Natal, three young men are serving 20-year jail sentences after bludgeoning a woman they believed to be a witch and her daughter using a hammer, a bolted stick, and a spear.
According to Italian feminist author Silvia Federeci, accusations of witchcraft and killings connected to it are a global phenomenon, and although exact figures are difficult to come by, one account suggests that between 1991 and 2001, at least 23 000 “witches” were killed on the African continent alone, and that number has since increased. If dominant representations of Africans are to be believed, we have always had a penchant for the supernatural (in contrast to a more rational outlook), and have clung to it despite colonialists’ benevolent attempts to wean us by dragging us into modernity. These increasing figures, therefore, ought not to shock, because perhaps they suggest a return to our roots, where our zombies and tokoloshes have been waiting.
Federeci, leaning on the work of African scholars such as Umar Habila Dadem Danfulani and Justus Ogembo, disputes this view, arguing that witch-hunts in Africa are in fact “not a legacy of the past, but a response to the social crisis that globalisation and neoliberal restructuring of Africa’s political economies have produced”. More specifically, Ogembo argues that structural adjustment programmes and trade liberalisation imposed on African economies in the postcolonial era “have so destabilised African communities, so undermined their reproductive system and thrown households into such deprivation and despair, that many people have come to believe that they are the victims of evil conspiracies carried out by supernatural means”.
When people do not know or understand the exact forces that govern their lives, they create a supernatural third force that is responsible for their misery, the tangible representatives of which are not policymakers but “witches” or mythical creatures. Contrary to Joseph Conrad’s proposition that “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness” – based on the findings above – it would seem that the belief in a supernatural source of evil is necessary precisely because of the unfathomable wickedness of the world.
One of the consequences of South Africa’s version of structural adjustment – the self-imposed Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy introduced in 1996 by the then minister of finance Trevor Manuel, with the support of former president Thabo Mbeki – was a reduction in health spend. At the time, Mbeki went against generally accepted scientific consensus that HIV could be fought with drugs that were very costly, a view that had a direct impact on the country’s HIV/Aids policy, until a national adult treatment programme was introduced in 2004 following local and international pressure.
Between 1999 and 2002, five of my extended family members died from HIV/Aids-related causes. Desperate to chase this omen away from our household, my aunts decided the family needed to visit a traditional healer. According to his wisdom, the main homestead had never been introduced to the ancestors through a ritual involving the slaughtering of a goat and the brewing of traditional beer. This lack of protocol had allowed a snake to make our house its home and would come every night to spit venom, bringing an indefinite spell of death. Naturally, the snake was sent by a woman in our neighbourhood who had always been jealous of our relative success as a family. The healer recommended the ritual be performed the soonest for the deaths in the family to be halted.
What the healer could never have revealed from his bones and other trinkets sprawled out before him was that research conducted at Harvard University found that more than 330 000 avoidable deaths occurred between 2000 and 2005 as a result of the state’s stance on the causes of Aids at the time. The researchers argued that “the South African government acted as a major obstacle in the provision of medication to patients with Aids”. I suspected it then, but I now know with certainty that my family members were not targeted by a slithering serpent that had encircled our home but were victims of Mbeki’s forked tongue.
As an ardent crusader for the African Renaissance, he lured us to dream of the enlightenment of the continent while his government’s policy on HIV/Aids kept so many in a cloak of darkness. In the post-Mbeki era, even if many people infected with the virus consult sangomas and nyangas, awareness programmes and the rollout of ARVs, which in 2013 reached 1.7 million people, have beamed a sliver of light on the stigma of HIV /Aids. The absurd idea, for instance, that sleeping with a virgin is a viable cure does not seem to have the same grip it had on people’s minds just more than a decade ago. While the extent to which this belief resulted in young girls being raped is disputed, it is interesting to note that girl children became the targets, imagined or real, of the frustration of black men caught in a vortex of mass deaths, groping for solutions at a time when state policy did not provide any.
In a similar vein, black women are disproportionately accused of witchcraft as a result of socioeconomic conditions in black communities, and are subsequently attacked. Black women’s bodies, therefore, become the site of a misdirected war against the impact of the state’s policies, and existing misogyny is aggravated as a result. According to Federeci, older women are specifically targeted because they are “seen as the main agents of resistance to the expansion of the cash economy, and as such as useless individuals, selfishly monopolising resources that the youth could use”.
Both cases are a reminder of the relationship between the misogyny experienced by black women in their daily lives and the structural violence inherent in the functioning of this country, whether it is depriving black communities of water, land, adequate housing or employment, in which individuals turn on one another in the scramble for resources. In these instances, women, as a result of patriarchy, are the most likely to be blamed even though they are not key players.
Recommendations of the Ralushai Commission of Inquiry on Witchcraft and Ritual Murders in 1996 were limited to legislative and educational measures to punish offenders on the one hand, while showing community members the “futility of witchcraft purges and ritual murders” on the other. But the true source of this hysteria would remain concealed to those most affected by witchcraft. My contention is that the commission couldn’t or wouldn’t probe the causes of this continuing destructive belief in a mythical world deeply enough, because the veil of ignorance that shrouds a deeper understanding of the forces responsible for the shameless condition of black life in post-1994 South Africa benefits the ruling class. If we are to slay the dragons that haunt those who rely on a mystical world to make sense of their lives, we ought to look elsewhere, where rupture is a matter of urgency.
Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, argues that through belief in the supernatural world, the colonised subject shrinks the powers of the coloniser and is instead engaged in a “permanent confrontation at the level of phantasy” with “zombies, snake men and six-legged dogs”. In a neocolonial, neo-apartheid reality such as ours, the powers of the ruling class – which includes white capital, the ANC elite in particular, and the black elite in general – are significantly reduced, while the impact of the decisions they make are pinned on mythical beings and evil witches. According to Fanon, the colonised subject simply reasons that fighting against the ruling class is unnecessary because “what really matters is that the mythical structures contain far more terrifying adversaries”.
Considering the onslaught on black people’s lives, retreat to the unconscious and mythical provides comfort against the harshness of life but only serves to maintain the status quo. As far as Fanon is concerned, involvement in the struggle for liberation is enough to disabuse the oppressed of myths about their suffering because then they have no illusions about who or what is responsible. Instead of endlessly shadow-boxing imagined mythical creatures, the colonised, with guns in their hands, “confront the only force which challenges their very being: colonialism”. Mass revolutionary violence, whether spontaneous or organised, as a direct response to the unbearable structural violence of the state against black communities is, in my estimation, a long way off in South Africa, but we need not wait until then to chase away the evil spirits believed to cause havoc in black lives.
It should be the task of black revolutionaries invested in a complete rupture of the status quo to share critical knowledge with black communities inhibited by beliefs in a mythical world about how racism, capitalism and patriarchy function, how this system affects their daily lives, who benefits from its current design, and how tokoloshes and so-called witches are nowhere near the scene of this crime. This is not to say that people are completely unaware of the relationship between their lives and the state, or believe exclusively in the supernatural. If they did, they would not pepper their discussions about the deplorable conditions they find themselves in with references to the state and corrupt officials. But it is necessary to raise consciousness t deal specifically with the divisive nature of accusations of witchcraft and other destructive beliefs, and promote unity within black communities in order to confront the state.
That said, whatever efforts are made should not deprive people of their existing sense of agency in responding to the daily impact of post-94 ANC rule on their lives. It should be rechannelled instead. For people in my village, Masevra is the tangible symbol of evil, and by visiting their sangomas to counter her spells, they are at least able to do something about her supposed sorcery, whether or not those efforts succeed. Political organising that is grounded on black consciousness and black feminism as a response to the status quo is critical to redirect such energy.
In addition to bold communities that are clear about the true enemy of their interests, such groundwork could create sangomas who do not limit their interpretations of black troubles to the subjective and granular details of the destructive relations among black people, but who consider the objective causes, too. Healers who ask themselves, if idliso, ivamna, ikorobela and all other variations of strong potions can be used to bring a lover back, dazed yet yearning for the same arms that made them flee, there must be a potion, equally potent, that could return the possessed minds of the oppressed from the oppressors, as Steve Biko once claimed.
Medicine women and men should learn to recognise that only a bewitched people could accept the unbearable with a smile and the odd grunt in fleeting moments of lucidity when the betrayal stings most. And traditional healers need not to take the well travelled and misogynistic route of blaming the closest woman, but be brave enough to scatter bones in the direction of President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla if they so please.
*Names have been changed
All Photography: Dean Hutton
Main photo: A black chicken which escaped sacrifice
Take Two: KwaZulu Natal women – especially young females – are at greatest risk of contracting HIV/Aids in South Africa
Finally: A domba initiation ceremony in Venda