Cultural beliefs, religious identity and secular humanism

Comment in response to an article by Leo Igwe entitled ‘Will South Africans Rally Against Witch Persecution And Muti Murders?’ for The Wild Hunt article entitled ‘Advocacy campaigns against “witch-hunts” continue’ .

I empathise with Leo Igwe’s intention to demonstrate that narratives of prejudice sometimes coopt and distort terminology.

Whilst it is true that the term ‘muti’ means ‘medicine’, African cultural traditions do ascribe supernatural properties to medicines derived from both plant and animal sources. Within these traditions, these properties may be either positive or negative, and may be used to aid healing, as well as banish misfortune.

Igwe is a secular humanist, and so it is not surprising that he would eschew any mention of cultural beliefs that ascribe supernatural properties to muti.

In Southern Africa, unethical traditional healers (nyangas, sangomas and witchdoctors) sometimes resort to using human body parts harvested from victims whilst they are still alive. This practice is widely condemned by both ethical traditional healers and actual Witches. In distancing themselves from such practices, and from the use of the term ‘muti’ with which to identify the products of such practices, some healers erroneously refer to rogue practitioners who use human body parts as “witches”.

Despite such defensive accusations, court records show clearly that those who engage in the harvesting and trade in human body parts do not identify themselves as “witches” at all, but as “traditional healers”.

Scapegoating “witches” to deflect negative attention away from those who abuse traditional healing practices for their own criminal gain results in the reinforcement of prejudicial narratives against actual Witches, and engenders accusations of witchcraft against ordinary citizens who do not identify as Witches.

Igwe rightly asks whether South Africans will collectively condemn witch-hunts. We must ask whether Igwe even acknowledges the work done by the South African Pagan Rights Alliance to challenge accusations and witch-hunts in our country?

If he does, he will note that the number of accusations and witch-hunts in this country have dropped dramatically, and local government officials and police now publicly condemn incidents when they occur. This is a direct result of our advocacy.

We honour Igwe for his own successful campaigns against “child witchcraft accusations” in Nigeria.

We accept that his campaigns seek to deny the existence of Witches and Witchcraft; a natural consequence of his atheism. Our own campaigns in South Africa do not seek to deny the fact that real Witches do exist. We admit that navigating the thin line between religious identity and prejudicial accusation is always frought with difficulty.

We hold that 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 either, but changing them must start with education, not with the suppression of access to the truth.

Damon Leff – Director: SAPRA / Lead Researcher: Touchstone Advocacy