REVIEW of Witchcraft Suppression Act update

The South African Law Reform Commission has confirmed that a lead researcher (Ms Jennifer Joni) and Project Leader (Judge Dennis Davis) has been designated for Project 135: The Review of Witchcraft Suppression Legislation, as approved by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development in September 2010. An Issue paper is currently being developed in order to stimulate debate on issues arising from the legislation and request for review requested by SAPRA in February 2007. The Minister of Justice will appoint an Advisory Committee to guide the research in the near future.

1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act (Act 3)

South African law currently presumes that the practice of ‘witchcraft’ may be used to commit or justify the commission of criminal activity. This presumption is based in part on the untested belief (not evidence) that a) so-called muthi murderers, criminals who murder their victims whilst harvesting body parts for sale to rogue traditional healers for use in magic, are complicit in the practice of ‘witchcraft’, and in part on the historical belief that b) all black (malevolent) magic is “witchcraft”, and c) traditional African religions and religio-magical practices are ‘witchcraft’.

The lack of corroborating evidence to link the practice of real Witchcraft (or actual self-identified Witches) to these criminal acts however, obfuscates all legal imperative for legislative suppression of Witchcraft, and South African Witches have been campaigning for the repeal of the 1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act (Act 3) since 2007.

In February 2007 the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), an organization representing self-identified Witches, appealed to the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) to have Act 3 repealed on the grounds that it contradicts several sections of Chapter 2 of the Constitution, including the right to freedom of belief and religion.

Witches are already a visible religious minority in South Africa. SAPRA argued that Act 3 “must be declared unconstitutional and invalid to the extent to which this legislation identifies one group of persons (Witches), on the grounds of belief alone, to be prohibited and criminal”. The appeal was supported by the South African Pagan Council and the Traditional Healers Organization in September 2007.

In July 2008 the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) agreed to conduct a preliminary investigation in order to determine whether or not Act 3 undermines the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights of an existing religious minority (Witches) by deliberately criminalizing and prohibiting the right of Witches to exist and to practice their religion (Witchcraft). SALRC considered the inclusion of a Review of the Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957 and the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill (2007) on 1 August 2009. The Commission recommend that the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development approve the inclusion of this investigation in the Commission’s research programme.

Act 3 was originally drafted with the intention of suppressing indigenous African practices, practices incorrectly identified by previous (and current) regimes as ‘witchcraft’. In support of the South African Pagan Council’s submission to SALRC, Dr. Dale Wallace of the University of KwaZulu Natal wrote “When this legislation was promulgated in South Africa, it was consistent with the approach taken by colonial administrators across Africa, and modeled on the anti-witchcraft laws in Britain, that were repealed in 1950. They arose from a specific worldview by which, ”in the colonies”, African indigenous religious forms fell victim to the colonial propensity to distinguish between religion and ‘superstition’, and by which distinction it was relegated to the latter category. This Act can be seen as an extension of the colonial approach to witchcraft beliefs and practices; namely that witchcraft is a superstition that could be overcome through education and economic advancement.”

Traditional Healers have themselves submitted that they have never, and do not, identify their traditional religious and magical practices as Witchcraft.

Whilst the Act criminalizes South African citizens who do self-identify as Witches and who do practice Witchcraft as a religion simply by prohibiting anyone from professing to be a Witch or to having knowledge of Witchcraft, it also criminalizes identified practices associated with and practiced by both Traditional Healers and Witches, including the use of sympathetic magic, the making of magical charms, enchantments or conjurations, and divination.

“This criminalization of witchcraft that focused on both indigenous practices and practitioners was grounded epistemologically on the discourse of the witch as a heretical diabolist. The development of the witch as one who makes a conscious pact with the devil, had become a religious narrative that incorporated and developed mythologies that had arisen in church history, particularly during what is known as the witch-craze of the medieval period. This discourse, that linked the witch with Satanism, and which informed South African religious history from the late nineteenth century, was supported at the highest level by the apartheid government… [] …In the equalities entrenched in the post 1994 SA Constitution, the practices that are listed in the Act as an offense, have to be seen as discriminatory and prejudicial. The belief in, and practice of, magic, is common to countless religious and spiritual traditions in South Africa, and practices listed as prohibitive are linked with ‘evil’ only through the lens of those carrying the self-certainty of exclusive truth. The practices of divination, charms, and the practice of fortune telling (amongst others), are, for instance, at the heart of Hindu practices, and are given salience in their sacred texts.” Dr. Dale Wallace

Whilst the Act has not yet been used to imprison self-identified Witches who have publicly declared their religious affiliation, its existence continues to stigmatize actual Witches in general as ’criminals in potentia’. It does this by reinforcing negative and harmful stereotypical bias against Witchcraft (and Witches) which serves to indirectly encourage witch-hunts against suspected alleged Witches. In practice and as a rule, witch-hunts themselves target non-Witches, individuals who deny practicing Witchcraft and who do not self-identify as Witches. In much of Africa it is ordinary citizens, women, men and children who bear the burden of prejudice and hostile discrimination born from centuries of bias against Witchcraft.

Dr. Wallace writes “Witchcraft violence in South Africa has been noted to escalate during times of social and political change and is particularly prevalent in certain provinces in the country. During the time of transition to a democratic government in South Africa, witchcraft violence escalated in many African communities and was given renewed attention by academics, in fundamentalist Christian churches and in the African Initiated Churches. It is through talk of witches and witchcraft that most Africans articulate their notions of human evil and, through it, seek explanation for illness, misfortune and death that are otherwise attributable to ancestral wrath. Outside of these contexts, witchcraft discourses have been used to political ends, as a tool across economic, social and educational boundaries, and gained new function in relation to the AIDS pandemic in the country.”

Attempting to suppress the widespread belief in the agency of Witchcraft as a cause for misfortune, harm, disease, murder and death won’t stop some people from continuing to believe that Witches are malevolent and must be murdered. Prejudicial beliefs about Witchcraft won’t change overnight, but changing them must start with education, not with the suppression of access to the truth.


“One cannot legislate negative attitudes away, cannot draft laws to eliminate stereotypes, cannot remove from the hearts and minds of people the tendency to discriminate. But we can speak out. We can begin to eliminate negative perceptions and prejudices.” Hissa Al Thani – UN Special Rapporteur on Disability


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