Witchcraft education needed
06 July 2012 | ILSE DE LANGE
JOHANNESBURG - Dr Theo Petrus, a senior anthropology lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, is one of a growing number of academics who have called for a radical new look at witchcraft-related crime in South Africa.
His 2009 doctoral thesis on witchcraft-related crime in the Eastern Cape and its implications for law enforcement policy is the first of its kind in South Africa, but he says more research is needed, especially on how the justice system deals with such cases.
Petrus, who was approached by the Justice Department to become part of an advisory committee to assist in a review of present witchcraft suppression legislation, believes as many stakeholders as possible should be involved.
He expressed concern that, instead of curbing witchcraft-related crime, present legislation was actually contributing to an increase in violent witch hunts and related crimes.
Such research could also shed light on the issue of the tension between state courts and traditional African courts, he said.
His study concluded that witchcraft continued to play an integral role in the cultural interpretation of misfortune, illness and untimely or mysterious deaths in many communities in South Africa and particularly amongst Xhosa-speaking communities in the Eastern Cape.
Beliefs associated with witchcraft were still widespread and linked to high frequencies of witchcraft accusations and related violence.
Police investigations were not always successful and the high frequency of unreported cases suggested that the police, especially in the Eastern Cape, was struggling to deal with these cases, which also strained the relationship between communities, traditional leaders and the police.
One of the problems highlighted by his study was that existing legislation was inadequate where acts such as murder became linked to religious or supernatural belief, which in turn hampered the success of the police in investigating such acts.
“In the multicultural context of the post-apartheid state, respect for the religious beliefs and freedoms of various cultural groups is strongly encouraged and supported by the South African Constitution.
“The justice system itself needs to be sensitive to these beliefs.
Consequently, acts of violence that can be categorised as “witchcraft-related” cannot be investigated or prosecuted necessarily with the same level of certainty as could be found with other more “conventional” crimes.
“The problem in the justice system generally, and in law enforcement in particular, is the lack of a framework or criteria to assist in investigating “witchcraft-related crimes”, he says.
His study recommended that the Eastern Cape provincial government should not wait until the problem spiralled out of control as happened in the Northern Province in the 1990’s, but should urgently appointed a commission of inquiry into witchcraft-related crime.
He quoted the example of the Mzamba muti murders, which only began to receive attention from provincial and national police authorities after almost 20 women were brutally killed in the quiet village near the Wild Coast International at Mbizane.
Petrus joined the Ralushai commission, which investigated the phenomenon in the Northern Province, in a call for a review of existing legislation.
He expressed concern that none of the policemen he had interviewed during his study had any knowledge of existing witchcraft suppression legislation and recommended that police officers should receive specific training in how to investigate such cases.
“An understanding of the socio- cultural context of witchcraft beliefs and practices is critical if investigations are going to have any hope of success,” he said.
Petrus recommended education campaigns specifically aimed at the youth in rural communities, but stressed that it should not be aimed at eliminating witchcraft-beliefs as this was an integral part of the traditional religious beliefs and practices of many communities.
Traditional leadership, traditional healers and community leaders, the police and church leaders should all be involved in the design of such education initiatives, he said.
Petrus further stressed that traditional healers should reach consensus about the issue of muti murder and that traditional leaders should play a far greater mediatory role in the adjudication of witchcraft cases.
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