South Aficans go on witch hunts Spells: Neighbors condemn a man to death for witchcraft. His evil deed? Buying a house. Such beliefs are blamed for scores of deaths in South Africa.


TSHILAMBA, South Africa -- Violet Dangale, 42, was driven from her home 30 months ago by relatives and neighbors who accused her of being a witch growing rich from the work of zombies, as the "living dead" are known in that line of work.

Now penniless and in fear for her life, she hides in this remote village of Northern Province in a tent given to her by the local police.

Francina Sebatsana, 75, and Desia Mamafa, 55, suffered a worse fate in December. They were burned to death on pyres of wood in the village of Wyd-hoek, in the same province, after also being denounced as witches. Eleven men, ages 21 to 50, will be tried on murder charges in November.

Since 1990, more than 2,000 cases of witchcraft-related violence, including 577 killings, have been reported in this remote, northern corner of South Africa.

This is not the only area that has seen such violence. This month, in the heartland province of Guateng, four men were arrested after the house of Nokonleko Shingane, another alleged witch, was set afire.

Phumele Ntombele-Nzimande of the Commission on Gender Equality said the violence associated with witch hunts has become "a national scourge."

A five-day conference of government and social agencies held last week in the Parliament building in Thohoyandou, capital of Northern Province, called for a national educational campaign to counter popular superstition.

The conference rejected outlawing witchcraft, which has millions followers here. It favored tolerating the belief, or superstition, but not allowing it to impinge on the basic rights of others.

"In this new South Africa, there is no need seriously for a law to suppress witchcraft," said Barney Pityana of the South African Human Rights Commission. "We need to say to our people, 'You are free to practice and belong, but you are not free to violate someone else's rights.'

"At the end of the day, what is more important to me is not whether you believe in witchcraft or not. It is whether your belief in witchcraft leads you to violate my rights."

The conference urged registration of traditional healers, who are often involved in starting witch hunts by identifying alleged witches. The proposal would subject them to a code of conduct.

"People often come to me wanting me to point out who among them is a witch, and I always refuse," said Credo Mutwah, a leading traditional healer. "A nanga [traditional healer] doesn't need to point out people as witches to earn income. A good nanga makes money by strengthening people's homes against harm by giving people medicine to rid people of sickness."

Nowhere, perhaps, are the ancient superstition and mystery that surround witchcraft more deeply entrenched than in South Africa's Northern Province. There, among the poorly educated rural residents, traditional healers and clairvoyants claiming supernatural powers hold broad sway. And hunger, poverty and unemployment can create jealousies that can quickly turn to anger and vengeance.

"People believe that a person can, through some sort of remote )) control, influence a driver of a vehicle to sleep and be involved in an accident, a pregnant mother in hospital to have a miscarriage, or a person anywhere to be unfortunate in some way or other," said a 1996 report by the Crime Information Management Center on witchcraft in Northern Province.

The province is prone to lightning. Noting that 80 percent of rural people believe witches have the power to command lightning bolts, the Star newspaper in Johannesburg said recently in an editorial headlined "Witchcraft: time to act": "People who believe this are quick to mete out punishment to those whom they suspect of being a witch."

But the violence is not limited to witch hunts. "Witches" have conducted ritual killings.

In pursuit of magical power, Noledzane Ernest Mabuda allegedly killed his 11-month-old baby, planning to use the body parts as "muti," or ingredients for bewitching compounds and potions, according to the charges against him in Venda High Court.

He is charged with forcing his wife, Helen, to take part in the ritual killing in February and drink the baby's blood. She has been granted immunity in return for testifying against him. His trial is expected to end this week.

The crime was discovered when neighbors called police after noticing the mother returning home on the day of the killing -- which occurred on an isolated mountainside -- without the baby strapped to her back in traditional African style.

Capt. Elijah Mphaphuli, the chief investigating officer, found the baby's body in pieces in Mabuda's house. "It was gruesome," said Mphaphuli. "He said he had done it for 'muti' purposes. He was trying to appease his ancestors."

As a nanga, or spiritual healer, in the village of Vondwe, Ndweleni Collbert Ramagoma used to make a lot of money by helping the sick and distressed.

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