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Do many South Africans still believe today in the supernatural, bad magic, witchcraft, witches and evil demons?

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Gabriel Louw 1, Andrè Duvenhage 2

Ensovoort volume 36 (2016), number 8: 1.

Background

The main definition of the Traditional Health Practitioners Act (Act No 22, 2007) clearly reveals a mindset, upheld by certain segments of the population as well as official thinking, that the supernatural is real and an important part of their daily life. This belief system needs support in the form of diagnosis and treatment in which the traditional healer is the main service-giver. Belief in the supernatural is centuries old, but was mostly phased out as citizens of countries started to develop scientifically and enlightened governments took their peoples into the Modern Age. Indeed, laws were even sometimes promulgated to curb and fight the supernatural and its witchcraft, like the Witchcraft Suppression Act (Act No 3, 1957) of South Africa.

Abstract

Aims

The aim of the study is to determine if a significant number of South Africans believe in the supernatural.

Method

The exploratory and descriptive method was used to research the belief system regarding the supernatural, bad magic, witchcraft and demons. The findings were offered in narrative form.

Results

It seems as if the New South Africa has indeed embraced the upholding of beliefs in the supernatural, witchcraft and evil demons as encapsulated in Act No 22, which includes the official management and practices around such phenomena in South African daily life by the main role player, the traditional healer (statutorily to be known in future as “traditional health practitioner”).

Conclusions

There is an established community of believers in the supernatural in South Africa. With Act No 22 this community will be assured of support as well as the opportunity to promote such beliefs as a health science.

What this study adds

  1. What is known about the subject?
    Very little is known about the total amount of believers in the supernatural in the RSA.
  2. What new information is offered by this study?
    It shows that 21% of the county’s population believe in the negative impact of the supernatural on their daily lifes in some way.
  3. What are the implications for research, policy, or practice?
    It clearly shows that the traditional healer’s practice of witchcraft and quackery can be popular with a large section of the population still.

Background

Do South Africans continue to believe in the supernatural, bad magic, witchcraft and witches, as well as evil demons? Yes, they do believe, and that is official as Act No 22 (2007) reflects traditional African philosophy very well in its definition in Section 1. This definition means that indigenous African techniques, principles, theories, ideologies, beliefs, opinions and customs and uses of traditional medicines communicated from ancestors to descendants or from generations to generations, with or without written documentation, whether supported by science or not, and which are generally used in traditional health practice, are true parts of the belief- and thinking-foundation of South Africans and are guiding them daily in every making of a decision. 3

This belief system is also further described in the Act in terms of the pre-modern diagnosis, treatment and training of the traditional healer. There are thus no counter-arguments to say that the supernatural, bad magic, witchcraft and demons do not form a foundation for many of the traditional healers’ diagnoses, treatments and muthis. Besides the so-called “normal” needs for the traditional healer and his muthi to treat “traditional” ailments as a result of everyday and afterlife fears by a certain population group, there is, opposite it, the hidden fear of the traditional healer as a person that has extraordinary powers. This tends to reinforce the supernatural beliefs in him, as well fears for him among his customers in a section of South African society. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

The aim of this research was to determine if a significant number South Africans believe in the supernatural.

Methods

There exists a paucity of research material on the activities around the supernatural, witchcraft, bad magic and demons in the New South Africa. This lack of information has necessitated a specific research approach in gathering and analyzing information. The aim of this study was to build from the ground up a viewpoint de novo, based on information as it appeared during the evolving research. This method of research allowed the use of various contemporary sources like articles and newspapers to reflect past as well as present thinking around the supernatural, witchcraft and bad magic.

To obtain the above outcome the exploratory and descriptive research approach was used. The findings were offered in narrative form. 9, 10

Results

An early-history perspective

Notwithstanding South Africa’s modern way of life, scientific and health-care development, as well as more and more financial and democratic empowerment leading to a higher lifestyle for its people, it seems that beliefs in the supernatural, bad magic, witchcraft, witches and demons, are still resonating very strongly and powerfully in the minds of some of its people. On the other hand, the belief in the supernatural and its contributions is not unique to South Africa. It is a worldwide phenomenon, in the European, Western as well as the African and Eastern world, in the past and present. For instance in Europe, after the Dark Ages and the start of centuries of dynamic intellectual experimentation – the Renaissance, the Reformation and even after the 17th-century Age of Reason and the Age of Scientific Revolution – Europeans still believed in the supernatural. 11, 12, 13

The Bible and its stories also strengthen the idea of the supernatural with its struggle between good and evil, between God and the devil. In early Europe misfortune was not seen simply as accident, but as either a divine punishment or the ill-will of a human enemy. Priests, local wizards and wise men were found everywhere, passing on herbal or magical remedies for illnesses, finding thieves or lost property and the identification of the source of a spell or bewitchment. 14, 15, 16, 17

Witch-hunts and witch-finders were all overactive in early Europe. In Lancaster, UK, ten persons were hanged as witches in 1612, with the last hanging in 1722; thousand of persons accused of witchcraft were hanged between 1560 and 1670 in France, while more thousands of women were burnt in Germany on charges of witchcraft. The last witches to be legally burnt in Europe were as late as the 1780s. This belief situation and support for witchcraft misdemeanours forced Louis XIV of France to edict in 1682 a royal ordinance, treating witchcraft solely as a matter of fraud or imposture, nothing more. It was especially the French medical doctors of that time that helped to phase out beliefs in the supernatural, witches, witchcraft and bad magic, explaining it as a mixture of ignorance, superstition, imposture and mental illness. 18, 19, 20

In the Western world mass beliefs in the supernatural and its attributes dissipated mostly with time, but today it is still strong in India where the role of bad magic, built into the customs, beliefs and rituals of certain religious groups, still play a role. Even today the UK and the USA are sometimes still plagued by forms of witchcraft practices. The “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s in America, when it was believed that thousand of cults were conducting satanic rituals that involved the sacrificial mutilation of animals and the sexual abuse of children, is a good example. Also the so-called “recovered memory movement” in America from 1980 onwards, was nothing else than a Western parallel to medieval witchcraft. 21, 22, 23

Africa, as a whole, is still caught up in beliefs regarding bad magic, the supernatural, superstition, witches, sorcerers, demons and witchcraft. South Africa is even today not free from witchcraft. It is alleged that more than 300 persons (or 2% of the total murdered victims) are annually murdered for muthi (medicine), while the killing of persons, alleged to be witches, is also common. The resulting crimes were such that the various South African governments were forced to introduce legislation from 1957 to fight witchcraft. Today witchcraft and the ritual-related murders that go with it, are still active, but well hidden from the authorities. 24, 25, 26, 27

Here, in contrast to France in the 1800s, it seems that the wise diagnosis and advice of the 1800s French medical doctors on the supernatural per se, are ignored by the present-day government and, contrary to Louis XIV’s actions in disarming it, the present government is actively promoting beliefs in bad magic, the supernatural, witchcraft and witches with Act No 22 (2007) and the traditional healer. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44

The supernatural in the New South Africa

The question is thus not if there is a strong belief in the supernatural among South Africans because there is clearly such a belief among some people, but the questions are:

  1. The frequency of beliefs in the supernatural; and
  2. are beliefs in the supernatural only Black-orientated as Act No 22 (2007) seems to indicate, especially with its definition of traditional philosophy?

To give a direct answer to the above question is very difficult. Statistics show that Blacks consult traditional healers at a rate of 1,4% to 11,2%, but such data lack any indication if these consultations were driven by the need to be treated, or fear of the supernatural and bad magic or not. Research offers some indication to illustrate that 89,7% of consultations can be for non-physical/cultural/religious needs (meaning that it can be for the treatment of the supernatural). On the other hand, available data suggest that Whites also consult non-medical facilities up to 1,5% of the population, that may or may not include traditional healers and the treatment of fear for the supernatural. 45, 46, 47, 48

The best answer to the above questions seems to be an Ipsos poll, done in April 2014 on 2 129 registered voters (all races) in South Africa. Two questions were put to the 2 129 participants, namely: 49
(a) Some people say a lot of the problems and hardships people face in their communities are caused by bad magic and that witches and demons are responsible for bad luck, against
(b) Other people say there is no such thing as magic and poor service delivery and weak government are responsible for the problems people experience.

The following outcomes (in percentage), reflecting a belief in bad magic and that witches and demons exist and are responsible for bad luck, were obtained, broken down into regional areas in South Africa: 50

A:

Average

21%

B:

Provincial

34%

KwaZulu Natal

32%

North-West

24%

Limpopo

20%

Gauteng

19%

Northern Cape

12%

Mpumalanga

11%

Western Cape

5%

Eastern Cape

It seems to be KwaZulu-Natal (34%), North-West (32%) and Limpopo (24%) that are above the average of 21%, with Mpumalanga (12%), Western Cape (11%) and Eastern Cape (5%) in the lower rankings. One fact is clear: the belief in bad magic exists in all provinces of South Africa. 51

With regard to race, the following outcomes (in percentage), reflecting a belief in bad magic and that witches and demons are responsible for bad luck, were: 52

A: Average

15%

B: Ethnic

25%

Blacks

19%

Indians

10%

Whites

5%

Coloureds

It seems from the above that Blacks believe the most in bad magic, witches and demons (25%), with Indians in the second place (19%). In this regard, Whites and Coloureds were both under the average (15%).

A challenge for Act No 22 and its supernatural intentions

The above finding seems to put Act No 22 (2007) in a very challenging and favourable position against its critics, with its legal condonation of the supernatural, because it incorporatres the possibility that the traditional healer represents a religious/cultural identity, one that is specifically, intensely and exclusively needed by Blacks. It seems specific to those living in KwaZulu-Natal, Northwest, and Limpopo who are in need for treatment for their fears of devils, witches, witchcraft and bad magic. 53

But the contrary is true. First, there is no indication by the Ipsos poll of 2014 that the participants (specifically Blacks) needed any help in the form of the traditional healer to treat their fears of the supernatural. Secondly, all South African races show some fear of demons, the devil, witchcraft and witches (with an average of 15%). 54

Thirdly, traditional healers (specifically the diviners and spiritualists) treat only between 1,4% and 11,2% of the total South African population, which does not reflect a pressing need for their services. 55, 56, 57

Fourthly, indigenous African religions (including the old traditional African religions in which the traditional healers had played a prominent role in the pre-1900s) only have a membership of more or less 0,35% of the total Black population. In comparison, nearly 92% of South African Blacks belong to Christianity and Christian-African Religions. 58

Fifthly, if there is a need to exorcise the devil and demons, the preachers of the Christian churches can surely do it as well as the traditional healers for their church members, seeing that both are spiritualists. In this case the ratio (in terms of church and religious membership) of the Christian preachers versus the traditional healers will be 210:1. 59, 60

Sixthly, references to concepts like afterlife, God versus Devil, Angels versus Demons, Science versus Witchcraft, that are alleged to be unique to the traditional healer, is in reality also part of Christianity and the Biblical doctrines of modern times. The Christian preacher sometimes, as mentioned, also exorcises devils, demons and witches. 61, 62, 63, 64, 65

The new South African socio-eco-political order with its own, unique supernatural beliefs

There is no evidence that the selected 2 129 participants in the Ipsos poll are only from poor, undeveloped and underdeveloped areas. The belief in bad magic, witches and demons goes much further; it also penetrates and encircles, although a small section only, all modern South African people. These are people living a modern lifestyle, with good training and status in life, but people who nevertheless believe in the supernatural and who are practising it. 66

Pumza Fihlani 67 of the BBC News Johannesburg, reports well on this belief in and practice of the supernatural (so-called “psychic traits” or neo) that spread into all the social, economic and academic levels of the South African population hierarchy, with her description of a traditional healer working in Johannesburg’s business district, a modern person, who dresses in smart tailored clothes, has manicured nails and long, sleek hair extensions.

Fihlani 68, par. 19 writes: “She lets out a piercing cry, her body starts shaking violently, her hands are clapping to the rhythm of large African drums – she is calling out to her ancestors. Thabiso is a traditional healer, known in South Africa as a sangoma. The 24-year-old is not your typical sangoma though – she is also a corporate administrator at Bidvest Bank, one of South Africa’s best-known and most prestigious institutions and has dreams of becoming a successful businesswoman”.

About these psychic traits of the traditional healer (or so-called traditional healer’s “calling”) Fihlani 69 reports that the mentioned healer has three ancestors inhabiting her: par. 19 “My great-aunt, uncle and grandfather live in me. When they take over I lose all control of my body, I am aware of my surroundings but I have no control over what I say or do. They completely consume you and in that moment I am their messenger”.

Such alleged possession by the ancestral and spiritual powers of an individual and the calling to traditional healing that may be found in all socio-economic classes of South African Society, are reaffirmed by an intern-journalist and traditional healer, working at a well-known Sunday newspaper, when she concludes: 70, p. 6 “Nothing is different about us. We are a modern family, made up of politicians, engineers, medical students and IT specialists. We are the ideal township family – people look up to us because we are all educated and self-supporting and not one of us is a thug – but we have the gift”.

These words strongly suggest the possibility of the presence of a mental impairment that not only leads to beliefs in the supernatural by individuals in society, but that may also call them to practise supernatural rituals, either as a believer or a traditional practitioner. 71, 72, 73, 74

Beliefs in the supernatural, demons, witches and bad magic are even to be found among ministers of the present Zuma cabinet. In 2013 a well-educated and notable minister referred extensively to the role of witches and demons in the political life of South Africans. 75, 76 More recently, a senior minister, in his divorce case, accused his ex-wife of trying to harm him with witchcraft and muthi. In one of his affidavits he writes: 77 “[She] wanted to cause [me] harm by endeavouring to cause unknown substances to be placed in my food and beverages. There were various instances where [she] practised witchcraft whereby she took my shirts to her sangoma and further she requested that the child minder sprinkle substances into my food; [She] has been practising witchcraft to my detriment.”

The president of the cabinet of the South African government, Mr. Jacob Zuma, himself seemingly claims the ability to know God’s Will, together with the ability to interpret it for the living, that he is in touch with his ancestors (afterlife) and can also understand and advocate their wishes to the common folk. He also prescribed muthi for the problematic behaviour of boys. His supernatural traditional-practice belief-system reveals itself well in the way it has been infused into his private life and behaviour. 78

Van Onselen 79, p. 19 reports: “Prior to the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, Zuma went to Impendle in KwaZulu-Natal to be “cleansed”. It was reported that a bull was slaughtered and its head thrown into the Inzinga River, after which some 50 virgins washed their hands in the bull’s blood. That is one of many such ceremonies in which he has taken part. Constantly, he seeks to appease the traditional forces that he believes exist on the other side of the mortal curtain.” This was followed in 2012 by the slaughter of 12 cows at Nkandla for his further cleansing. 80

Discussion

The fact that only 79% South Africans do not believe in bad magic, witches and demons, is cause for concern. It seems that Europe’s Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Reason and Age of Scientific Revolution have still not reached 21% of South Africans and that they are cognitively tied to the supernatural, witches, demons and bad magic. The same need to modernise exists for the South African traditional healers who serve with their occult rituals certain segments of society that belong to both the Dark Ages and our modern world. 81

It is clear that, to put a modern health-care system and its epistemological models in place in South Africa, individual and group beliefs, customs, habits and needs, must be understood and researched in depth before any hasty decision can be made. Only after the necessary information has been obtained, may educational, cognitive, financial and social uplifting be implemented. Only then may persuasion be started and mind-set changes be contemplated. What may be preferred and lived by one group (21%) such as the rights to believe in and to practise witchcraft bestowed upon them by Act No 22 of 2007, may be devastating for the personal and medical life of the majority group (79%). Such rights may also be in conflict with the Constitution and Act 3 (1957) on witchcraft practices. 82

These were considerations that politicians, activists, healthcare planners and developers did not take note of with the implementation of Act No 22 (2007). Available information was also misused to politicize and superficially culturize the role of the traditional healer. The fact that political heavy-weights in South Africa support the role and working of the supernatural, demons and muthis in daily life, shows that the traditional healer, Act No 22 (2007) and its traditional philosophy and traditional medicine are going to be with South Africans for a long time. It is clear that the broad public’s education on sound health-care and abnormal thinking on specific or general illnesses have also been left totally uncared for since 1994. 83, 84, 85, 86

A general belief in the supernatural is an interracial phenomenon in South Africa and not an exclusive part of Black thinking or culture. One the other hand, there is evidence of the use of the traditional healers’ services by the Black population, which can vary from 1,4% to 11,2% in certain areas. The fact that nearly 90% of these consultations seem not to be for medical assistance (buying of concoctions) but exclusively for cultural and religious needs that may indicate a supernatural substructure, together with the Ipsos Poll of 2014 showing that 25% of Blacks (10% higher than the average of the country) believe in the supernatural, witchcraft, bad magic, witches and evil demons, can thus not be ignored. These findings, on the other hand, do not indicate an exclusive need from the Black population in general for the traditional healer and his supernatural medicines or that they require Act No 22 (2007). 87, 88, 89, 90

These beliefs in the supernatural – and thus a need for traditional healing assistance to treat it – seem to be limited to certain segments of the Black population. This can surely include poor groups in rural areas, but on the other hand it seems to include also small segments of well-educated, financially rich and politically empowered individuals. It is also important to note that persons in political and financial high offices are not afraid anymore to make known their beliefs in the supernatural in the New South Africa. 91, 92, 93, 94

It must be appreciated that the treatment of fear for the devil, demons, witches, witchcraft and bad magic is not exclusive to the practice of the traditional healer, but inclusive to all religious practitioners in modern-day South Africa. From the nearly 50 million Christians so much as 7,5 million Christians may be, in terms of the findings of the Ipsos poll of 2014, be caught up in the angst and fear of the supernatural, witchery and demons in their daily lives. 95

There are only at most 124 946 believers in Indigenous African Religion that may need the exclusive help of the more or less 4 000 bona fide traditional healers. This number (124 946) represents only 0,35% of the total Black population and reaffirms again the minimal role that the traditional healer plays in the treatment of the supernatural beliefs of the South African population. In this respect, it seems that the ministers of the Christian Faith must be especially concerned about the high levels of belief in the supernatural and witchery of their church members in the provinces of KwaZulu Natal (34%) and the North West (32%). 96

Strength and limitations

The existence of witchcraft and the belief in the supernatural in present-day South Africa are well-illustrated by this study, even that such practices are supported by the socio-political leadership.

The impact of the study is going to be limited as a result of legal instruments such as Act No 22 (2007) which is promoting the belief in the supernatural, witchcraft and evil demons amongst the population.

Conclusions

A significant number of South Africans still believe in the supernatural, bad magic, witchery, witches and evil demons. That is a fact. How much we want to argue around or against it, the definition of traditional philosophy in Act No 22 (2007), notwithstanding its unscientific and psycho-pathological mindedness, is endorsed by 21% of the population: It does not matter if they are followers of the traditional healer or are Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Blacks, Coloureds, Indians or Whites.

Notes:

  1. Research Associate, Focus Area Social Transformation , Faculty of Arts, Potchefstroom Campus, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa
  2. Research Director, Focus Area Social Transformation, Faculty of Arts, Potchefstroom Campus, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa
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  29. Briggs R. Early modern France: 1560 – 1715. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1998.
  30. Gumede MV. Traditional healers: A medical doctor’s perspective. Johannesburg: Blackshaws; 1990.
  31. Kors AC, Peters E. Witchcraft in Europe 1100 – 1700. A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 1992.
  32. Mbiti JS. Introduction to African Religion. Johannesburg: Heinemann; 1991.
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  51. ibid.
  52. ibid.
  53. ibid.
  54. ibid.
  55. Petersen L. Comment. In: Wilkinson K. Do 80% of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers? The claim is false. AFP Foundation, Africa Check: 2013 July 3; pp.1-13. (Electronic copy store on Africa Check web-site https://www.africacheck.org/reports/do-80-s-africans-regularly-consult-traditional-healers-the-claim-is-false/3/).
  56. Wilkinson K. Do 80% of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers? The claim is false. AFP Foundation, Africa Check: 2013 July 3; pp. 1-13. (Electronic copy store on Africa Check web-site: http://www.africacheck.org/reports/do-80-of-s-africans-regularly-consult-traditional-healers-the-claim-is-false/3).
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  62. Depressie is g’n bloot duiwelswerk. Beeld, 2014 Oct 2; p. 10.
  63. Dink jy Duiwelspiek se naam moet verander word? Rapport, 2014 June 22; p. 3.
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  68. ibid.
  69. ibid.
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  75. Van Onselen G. One in five blames bad magic for their hardship. Sunday Times, 2014 Apr 27; p. 14.
  76. 43. Witches want an apology from Mbalula. Available from http://iol.co.za/news/politics/witches-want-an-apology-from-mbalula-1673382 (accessed 19/10/2014).
  77. Joubert P. My ex used muti on me, says minister. Sunday Times, 2014 June 1; pp. 1-2.
  78. Van Onselen, op. cit.
  79. ibid.
  80. Jesus must come back: Zuma. Available from http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2014/09/01/jesus-must-come-back-zuma (Accessed 10/09/2015).
  81. Van Onselen, op. cit.
  82. ibid.
  83. ibid.
  84. Koabane R. Our spiritual connections should not be denied. An important psychic gift runs through the generations in her family. Sunday Times, 2014 Sept 21; p. 6.
  85. Joubert P. My ex used muti on me, says minister. Sunday Times, 2014 June 1; pp. 1-2.
  86. Jesus must come back: Zuma. Available from http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2014/09/01/jesus-must-come-back-zuma (Accessed 10/09/2015).
  87. African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS). Analysis of traditional healers in Lesotho: Implications on Intellectual Property Systems, 2013. [Pitso Masupha, Lefa Thamae, Mofihli Phaqane]. ATPS Working Paper Series, 2013; No 68: 1-47.
  88. Petersen L. Comment. In: Wilkinson K. Do 80% of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers? The claim is false. AFP Foundation, Africa Check: 2013 July 3; pp.1-13. (Electronic copy store on Africa Check web-site https://www.africacheck.org/reports/do-80-s-africans-regularly-consult-traditional-healers-the-claim-is-false/3/).
  89. Wilkinson K. Do 80% of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers? The claim is false. AFP Foundation, Africa Check: 2013 July 3; pp. 1-13. (Electronic copy store on Africa Check web-site: http://www.africacheck.org/reports/do-80-of-s-africans-regularly-consult-traditional-healers-the-claim-is-false/3).
  90. Van Onselen, op. cit.
  91. Fihlani, op. cit.
  92. 40. Koabane, op. cit.
  93. Joubert, P., op. cit.
  94. Jesus must come back: Zuma. Available from http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2014/09/01/jesus-must-come-back-zuma (Accessed 10/09/2015).
  95. Van Onselen, op. cit.
  96. See Petersen, Wilkinson, Van Onselen, as well as South African Statistics South Africa.Pretoria: Government Printers; 2012. Also Fihlani, Koabane, Joubert and: Jesus must come back: Zuma. Available from http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2014/09/01/jesus-must-come-back-zuma (Accessed 10/09/2015).