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.

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