The belief in witchcraft remains entrenched in many societies and is often blamed for misfortunes, including failing one’s studies. ‘These beliefs can act as a motivator or a demotivator,’ as one academic who has studied this puts it.
By Asanda Mbayimbayi, Masoka Dube and Lucas Ledwaba
When she learnt that her son had failed his matric, Slindile Zwane blamed it all on a witchcraft spell she believed was cast by a jealous relative to derail her son’s fortunes.
“My son was bewitched, that’s all!” said Zwane, whose son Tsholofelo failed his exams in the matric class of 2020. Although the belief in witchcraft and its ability to be used to bring bad luck upon people remains entrenched in many societies, cultural experts, academics and religious leaders remain divided on whether witchcraft exists at all.
In the early 1990s, South Africa, especially in the rural areas of Limpopo, experienced a wave of violent witch-hunts that led to the killing of scores of people accused of casting evil spells on people and causing them misfortune in various ways.
During the same period, 1990 to be exact, schoolteacher Benedict Daswa was killed by a mob in the village of Mbahe near Thohoyandou for refusing to contribute money towards paying a healer to sniff out a witch. Daswa
was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.
A report by the Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murder that investigated the violence that rocked Limpopo in the late 1980s and early 1990s noted: “The African is faced with a terrible dilemma. He believes implicitly in witches, indeed his very society approves of capital punishment for witches. Yet he also sees no protection for his fears within the societal order and law imposed by whites, together with the fact of there being inadequate protection to victims in the law of the land.”
Scholar BL Meel writes in a paper titled “Witchcraft in Transkei Region of South African: Case Report” that witchcraft and witch-hunts have been practised widely almost all over the world.
“It is known as magic in Europe, maleficium (wrongdoing) in Latin America, and superpower in Asia. In Africa those accused of being witches often face execution. A range of accusations are levelled against witches, such as causing impotence, turning milk sour, causing disease and death,” Meel said in his paper, published in the African Health Sciences journal in 2009.
Meel also notes in the introduction that “the old liberal view of European Witchcraft holds that witchcraft never existed at all, but was invented by the Catholic Church and other authorities to gain power and prestige”.
In response to the practice of sniffing out witches by healers, which often resulted in mob killings, the apartheid government promulgated the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957. It prohibits, among others, accusing
another person of dabbling in the occult. The Act also makes it illegal for any person to accuse or blame any other person for the use of supernatural means in causing any disease, injury or damage to any person or thing
or to name someone as a witch or wizard. But this has not stopped people from believing in the power of witchcraft causing bad luck, as in Zwane’s case.
“I don’t understand why he [my son] could have failed because he used to study day and night and even cross night [burning the midnight oil]. There are many people who were jealous that he was doing matric in the first place. So they cast all their spells to make sure that my son doesn’t make it,” a dejected Zwane said.
When we asked Tsholofelo whether he believed he failed as a result of a witchcraft spell he pointed his suspicions to a relative from up
north in Limpopo.
“I received a call from my grandmother in Limpopo … and she was busy asking me questions I did not understand,” said Tsholofelo.
He said she asked “uncomfortable” questions that made him suspicious.
“[She asked questions] like what makes me think I will pass matric and what am I hoping to achieve in life?
“Then her last statement before she hung up was, ‘I will see to it’, and I did
not understand what she meant by that. All started to make sense after my results came out when I learnt I did not make it,” Tsholofelo said.
Although these allegations can never be confirmed, Tsholofelo sticks to his
word that he gave his best to pass his matric final exams.
“I studied very hard and was looking forward to getting a bachelor’s degree but this had to happen. I know at this point nobody will believe me when I say I was bewitched because people don’t believe in witchcraft. But it is real. I was home schooling and had all the necessities I needed but I guess it is what it is,” Tsholofelo added.
University of South Africa (Unisa) educational psychologist Professor Ramodungoane Tabane voiced his opinion on this matter: “People’s belief systems differ and what they believe in has an impact on their views
and approach of life. These beliefs can act as a motivator or demotivator in acting a certain way.
“Psychologically, a person with a strong belief that there is an omnipower that controls their life is more likely to succeed to appeasing this power to perform accordingly,” said Tabane.
But one teacher from Thabo-Ntsako secondary school, Nancy Kunene, says not everything is to be blamed on witchcraft.
“Passing matric is all about putting in a lot of effort and working hard. We often hear people say they are bewitched when things don’t go well in their lives and such statements are never supported. That’s the unfortunate part.
If you don’t study, you will fail. It’s your own fault. Don’t blame other people for your mistakes,” said Kunene.
Healer Mkhulu Ibrahim Khosa, director of the Shobo Elikhulu Institute for Spiritual Healing, swears that witchcraft does exist and that spells can be cast to complicate someone’s life.
“It can be used to make someone fail at school. What they do, they will steal something that belongs to students and mix it with some concoction, and transfer their intelligence to another person,” said Khosa.
“However, the spirit that is being used to perform those dirty tricks is not related to the good spirit of spiritual healing. The job of the spiritual healers is to heal the affected person,” he added.
M Elijah Baloyi notes in a 2018 study “The Evangelical Role of Witchcraft in Some Pentecostal Movements – An African Pastoral Concern” (Missionalia vol. 46 no. 3, Pretoria, 2018, online) that “it is a fact that many African people see witchcraft as one of the biggest threats to their lives”.
He recounts one particular incident in which he was about to lead a funeral sermon in a village in Limpopo when a family member (an old man dressed in a big black jacket) stood up and said: “I am a witch and anyone who denies that can stand up so that I can point my finger at him or her and see if you cannot die. “After this statement, the people in the funeral tent were quiet for a few minutes; nobody said a word or stood up.”
Baloyi notes in the abstract that “there is enough evidence that while listening to the preaching and messages of most Pentecostal preachers or watching them on some free television channels today, the emphasis is on
freeing people from the oppression of demons and witchcraft. Many people, the poor included, risk asking for cash loans to use for travelling to meet with the so-called prophets in distant areas.”
In the latest case of witchcraft violence two months ago, an 80-year-old woman who was found naked at a neighbour’s house in the village of Mbuzini in Mpumalanga, was hacked and set alight by a mob which believed she was in the act of casting an evil spell.
Police arrested several people in connection with the attack on the woman, however, in a move demonstrating the entrenced belief in witchcraft, members of the community expressed support for the accused and spoke out against the victim being buried there.
But although Khosa acknowledges that witchcraft is a reality, he has words of advice.
“When dealing with witchcraft the society should approach spiritual healer and they will get help. But they must fight not kill those accused of witchcraft because that is against the law. If you are sure that you have been bewitched, it’s simple, contact a healer and get assistance,” he said.