Democracy comes head-to-head with supernatural authorities in rural S. Africa

April 24, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

MAFEFE, South Africa -- As the molopo drums spread an infectious rhythm through the darkness of the night here, the new South Africa and the old Africa seemed to meet in the person of Rhine Maditsi.

He's finishing up a university degree in physical education and looking for a teaching job that will probably take him far from this village in the valleys of the northern Transvaal.

For now, though, this 24-year-old is home, where he will vote in South Africa's first multiracial election next week. He can tick off the parties and their positions and weigh the merits of each one.

But even as he does, ancient roots tug hard at his newly learned modernity.

He listens to the drums coming from a house a few hundred yards away and explains their significance.

"Someone is sick with molopo and they cannot get well so the sangoma comes with drummers and dancers," he said. Sangomas are the people who were once called witch doctors, now referred to as traditional healers.

"They beat the drums, trying different rhythms, until they find one that makes the sick person feel better. Then they keep playing that one. It can go on until very late at night."

Does he believe it will work? Of course. It always has.

The nights are dark in Mafefe because its 14,000 residents have no electricity. Stars cover the sky like a brilliant canopy, competing only with the soft glow of kerosene lamps.

Mafefe is in Lebowa, the homeland set up by the apartheid government for the Pedi, or Northern Sotho, people.

The town is ruled by a chief, a descendant of the 19th-century chief who brought his clan to this valley after one of the Pedi wars.

The crowded, politicized urban townships have formed the international image of black life in South Africa, but over half of the country's 30 million blacks who are getting the vote for the first time this week live in rural areas like this one.

Many are in towns like Mafefe where one minute someone might be discussing the redevelopment ideas of the African National Congress (ANC) and the next assuring you that witches do exist.

Lebowa generally makes the news for two reasons, corruption in the homeland government of Nelson Ramodike (who was just removed as an ANC parliamentary candidate) or another incident of witch burning.

Almost every time lightning from one of the huge thunderstorms that roll across the highveld strikes someone in Lebowa, local residents consult sangomas to identify the witches responsible.

A few older women usually end up burned to death.

"Do you believe in witches?" Ivy Swafo asked a visitor. "I do. I'm not from here, so I didn't believe in them. I moved here 14 years ago with my husband.

"Now I am part of this culture, and I know that there are witches, people who can make you sick, who can kill you, just by looking at you." Ms. Swafo, who has an 11th-grade education, spent eight years as a teacher in the local elementary school.

Like almost everyone in Mafefe, she plans to vote in the election. Indeed, Ms. Swafo is a community leader, active on the local health committee which has spent years dealing with the deadly pollution left behind by now-abandoned asbestos mines.

AThe tailings from the mines are still visible on the sides of the surrounding mountains.

Ms. Swafo lives in a small house which, like most homes in Mafefe, has two circular outbuildings. One is often an in-law apartment, the other perhaps a kitchen. She lives with her husband, Daniel, who has been waiting to be re-called to his job in a gold mine since a layoff three years ago.

Just behind her place, a short walk over the rocky, scrubby ground, lives Mack Madila, a sangoma. People usually consult him about illnesses. For around $3, he will take out his rabbit-skin sack, massage the collection of bones and shells inside, throw them onto a mat, then study them carefully for clues about the mysteries of the world.

The bones, some from domestic animals, others from baboons, speak to him, telling him what the ancestors say. He looked at their scattered pattern one day recently, pointing here and there with a stick, muttering to himself, taking his time.

"There will be no problems with the elections," he finally said. "Everything will be fine. It will all be peaceful.'

That is good news for Kelick Mahl, the young general secretary of Mafefe's ANC branch. It was just formed last September, but since then has conducted a door-to-door campaign, letting people know about the elections and ANC policy.

He has rounded up two trucks, two cars and 12 vans, the majority of Mafefe's motorized vehicles, to make sure everyone makes it from the remote parts of the community to one of the town's six polling stations next Wednesday or Thursday.

Ensuring a good voter turnout is Mr. Mahl's main job -- this is ANC country, with a sprinkling of support for the Pan Africanist Congress the only other factor.

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