Politics of witchcraft and mental illness in the black communities

Author: Konanani Happy Raligilia
Acting HoD, Department of Jurisprudence, University of South Africa

When asked by Judge Boshoff about his views on witchcraft, Steve Biko had this to say; “we do not reject it [witchcraft], we regard it as part of the mystery of our cultural heritage, [and] we feel for ourselves it has not been sufficiently looked into with available scientific approaches as of this moment.” Indeed, issues relating to witchcraft are public interest matters and that is so because ordinarily they highlight conflicting and contending views about spirituality. Arguably, the attributing factor to this contesting view is the fact that at the time of the enactment of Witchcraft Suppression Act in 1957, South Africa was still a Christian state as opposed to the current secular post-democratic one which embraces all religious denominations and cultural heritage. The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 exposes a reality that this law failed to divide matters of spirituality and witchcraft, thereby creating a vacuum which often results in members of the communities resorting to judging those who are perceived as witches based on Christian standards of acceptability and norms. Regrettably, the Witchcraft Suppression Act does not provide a definitive answer of what constitutes witchcraft, yet its founding purpose is aimed at suppressing practices of witchcraft and similar practices. However, Reverend Riaan Swiegelaar and Dr Adri Norton announced the country’s first Satanic church in June 2020. It remains to be seen whether its practices would fall out of this witchcraft’s legislative framework and whether those potential witchcraft practitioners would then be prosecuted and punished.

The topic of witchcraft is very sensitive and the belief in or fear of it remains prevalent in society, more especially in the rural communities.  Accusations of witchcraft often results in the brutal assaults and killings of those who are suspected of practicing it, in most instances vulnerable women. This could be attributed to the fact that the Witchcraft Suppression Act negates, in context, dealing with issues of mental health and old age. Recently, the breakup of a love relationship between Amapiano musician Lady Du (Dudu Ngwenya) and her ex-boyfriend Andile Mxakaza (former Isibaya actor) exposed another angle of witchcraft accusation against women. In a widely circulated video, Andile Mxakaza could be heard uttering the words “women practice witchcraft and I know, I don’t want you guys calling me names…” Clearly, Andile Mxakaza’s statement is dangerous and has a potential of igniting further violence against women who are already accused of witchcraft in our society.

In April 2021, Ms Jostina Sangweni from Mapetla in Soweto was brutally assaulted and torched by a mob on suspicion of practicing witchcraft. Unfortunately, she died a few days later in a hospital. It later transpired that Ms Sangweni suffered from dementia. Two suspects were later arrested, and the matter is still pending. On 02 December 2021, it was reported that a third person was arrested for her murder. Evidently, the death of Ms Sangweni was because of ignorance on the part of some members of the communities who failed to appreciate and live with a reality that certain forms of mental illnesses generally, and dementia in particular, form an integral part of the society.

When older persons are found in public spaces and do not recognise how they arrived at a particular area, the community is quick to arbitrarily accuse them of witchcraft. In almost all instances, the community fails to interrogate critically who this person is, where they come from and whether the person who is accused of witchcraft has mental illness or dementia. Very often, members of the community jump into a preconceived idea or judgement that when these people are found in a particular space or area, their presence is virtually witchcraft related and as a result have evil intentions. Unlike with Ms Sangweni case, many cases of brutality and killings go unreported. Other victims live to tell the tale while others are not so lucky. In reality, few perpetrators are apprehended while others go scot-free with extreme impunity. In July 2022, The High Court in Mthatha found family members guilty of the murder of a 92-year-old relative Ms Nosayinethe Manundu (also known in the community as Mablangwe) they accused of witchcraft. When handing out a judgement, Judge Mbulelo Jolwana held that “I do not know if the men of Majuba, the elders hid their tails behind their legs when this gruesome crime was evolving in front of their eyes and allowed it to be completed. They, in the process, threw a vulnerable 92-year-old nonagenarian, to the wolves. They must do a serious introspection and ensure that unlawful criminal resolution is rescinded or cancelled. They must ensure that the death of Mablangwe does not become their legacy and it is never repeated on anyone else.”

To avoid similar violent incidents of that nature in our society, government and other stakeholders need to enhance public health consciousness drive. In other words, issues of aging, mental health and memory should be part of schooling curricula in the same way other major illnesses are taught in schools. In this way, it will create an environment which will allow people to practice their belief systems freely. After all, even with the enforcement of the Witchcraft Suppression Act, people continue to practice witchcraft in their private spaces and without the knowledge of others.

In the end, public awareness and education will provide society with tools on how to deal with people with mental illness and people who are perceived to be witches in the same way society has reconciled with the fact that sleepwalking does not constitute witchcraft.

About the Author:
Konanani Happy Raligilia is the Acting HoD in the Department of Jurisprudence and Project Leader of Medical Law and Biotechnology Flagship at the University of South Africa. He holds LLB (Univen), LLM Labour Law (University of Limpopo), and LLM International Law (University of Pretoria). His research interest covers employment law, human rights, and public international law.

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