Witchfinders hold sway as old beliefs die hard

When lightning strikes in South Africa someone is to blame, finds Mary Braid. They pay with their lives

A CHILD'S tale led a 500-strong village mob to burn Francina Sebatsana, 75, and Desia Mamafa, 55, to death.

Last month the nine-year-old boy from Wydhoek, an isolated village in the flat, wild bushland of South Africa's Northern Province, told his teacher a secret. Two neighbours, he said, had taught him to lure the living dead down from the mountain by blowing a whistle. The zombies gathered muti (magic) herbs for the women while they danced naked in the moonlight.

A vivid young imagination? Not in South Africa, where the majority, despite the best efforts of the authorities, still believe in witches; and certainly not in Northern Province, its witch-burning capital, where there have been at least 300 witchcraft-related murders since 1990 and there is a thriving trade in human body parts, from the dead and the living, in which the genitals are most prized for muti.

The boy's story spread panic through Wydhoek, and police moved the women to other villages for protection. It did not save them. When the menfolk - all migrant workers - returned from distant mines for Christmas they were told about the witches, who by then were being blamed for a number of sudden and accidental deaths. Teams were dispatched to bring the women home, and a tribal court assembled. Desia and Francina were found guilty of witchcraft and when darkness fell they were stoned, doused with petrol and set alight.

Inspector Lesiba Machoga, of Gilead district police, tells the story in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. He is habituated to such stories: horrific as the Wydhoek murders are, they pale, for example, against the events that followed the death of a Northern Province schoolgirl, Olivia Hiene, struck by lightning in the village of GaMolepo in February 1995.

In the traditional South African belief system, accidents and deaths do not just happen. There is always cause and responsibility. When lightning strikes, someone has harnessed the Lightning Bird (monyana ya tladi) and must be rooted out and eliminated - an unfortunate belief in a province which boasts the highest incidence of lightning strikes in the world. In GaMolepo the villagers paid an inyanga (traditional healer) pounds 200 to "sniff out" the evil in their midst. The bloodletting followed. In a single night seven old women from a neighbouring village were dragged by youths from their beds and burned.

Inspector Machoga does not believe in witchcraft, or in zombies, the Lightning Bird or the dreaded tokoloshe (a short, hairy creature with a huge penis whose insatiable sexual appetite forces women to raise their beds on bricks). More typically, the sergeant manning the front desk does. "They admitted they were witches when we brought them in," he says. "Europeans don't believe in African medicine but it is very strong."

With such beliefs widespread among the force, policing witchcraft-related crimes is not easy. Bringing perpetrators to justice is also difficult. Witch-burning mobs can be thousands strong and the decision to murder often sanctioned by an entire community. At Wydhoek, 11 men were identified as suspects. But when a dozen officers turned up to take them in, the whole village stormed the police van, demanding that the suspects be released or everyone be arrested.

Witch-purging, argues a police researcher, Anthony Minnaar, can only be tackled if the prevalent belief system is accepted. Dismissing widely held convictions as mumbo-jumbo and primitive superstition does no good; a wealth of Church and apartheid regime failures are testimony to that.

Witchcraft is an integral part of a metaphysical system which holds that there is only so much luck in the world, and that it must be equally shared. When a community member does better than his neighbours, they suspect he is employing supernatural means to secure his good fortune.

Dr Minnaar is lobbying for the repeal of the "colonial" Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1970 which, he argues, has actually increased the number of witchcraft murders. Before its introduction "witches" were more likely to be expelled from villages But the act, which makes it a crime to accuse someone of witchcraft, caused communities to take more drastic action.

A new law would be in line with the recent change in thinking which is believed to have helped reduce witchcraft-related killings in the past 12 months. Public education campaigns, a police flying squad, a special commission of investigation and a campaign to persuade inyangas not to "sniff out" witches are all believed to have played a part.

Despite such results, Dr Minnaar warns against complacency. Since witch- pointing is used to settle petty jealousies and political rivalries, there is much potential for manipulation. He points out that of the 300 witchcraft- related murders in the 1990s, 200 occurred in 1994, a year of extraordinary political and social upheaval.

And the misery of those accused continues. Some 25 miles from Gilead is Helena Trust Farm, a "witches' village", donated by a local headwoman, Chief Moloto. "She did it out of kindness," says a local policeman. "These people had nowhere else to go."

Here the rejected - the old, the infirm, the mad - languish, lucky to have escaped the fate of Desia and Francina, but bitter at the way they must live out their remaining years. "We are hungry," says one woman. "People come and listen to our stories but do nothing for us. No one cares." Such is the stigma, their families have been forced to move with them, and the village teems with children. Some have tried to lose themselves in far-off cities, but word from the villages travels fast.

As things stand, there are no new beginnings for those accused of witchcraft - or their families.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
businessHow bosses are inventing unusual ways of making us work harder
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
news
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?