Witch hunts have become a human rights problem in South Africa, where large numbers of people are attacked, banished or killed after being accused of practising black magic. In villages like Helena, they find relative safety.
Helena, South Africa (dpa) – A few men loiter on the quiet road leading through the village. A woman hangs laundry in a yard with a few strutting hens. Music blares from one of the low houses.
Despite appearances, Helena is not just another village in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province. It was established in 1991 as a refuge for people fleeing attacks after being accused of practising black magic, known as witchcraft.
Fear still lingers in the village. Residents agreed to talk to dpa on the condition they not identify themselves or their village of origin and that there would be no photos.
One woman, 72, came in 1994.
“A child and its mother had died in my village. One of the local traditional healers looked into his [magic] mirror and said 10 witches had caused the deaths.
“I – who am also a healer – was one of the accused. I think I was set up by my husband’s brother, who was jealous of my work.
“The villagers brought petrol and matches. Somebody called the police, and the villagers did not set anyone on fire. But they said the witches must leave.
“My house was burned down, and I ran so hard I stumbled on a laundry line and broke my tooth,” she says through an interpreter, showing a gap between her front teeth.
“I settled in Helena with my husband and two children. I can never go back.”
Helena consists of 62 households, surviving on subsistence farming. There are several such villages in South Africa, where witchcraft accusations are rife, according to Damon Leff from South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), which campaigns against the so-called witch hunts.
SAPRA documented 10 killings of alleged witches in 2014, based on media reports, but the real figure is believed to much higher.
Every year, more than 1,000 such people are beaten, expelled or killed by burning, stoning, shooting, hacking or hanging, estimates Yaseen Ally, who wrote a doctoral thesis on witchcraft accusations for the University of South Africa.
“Entire families can be killed,” Leff said. Police classify witch hunt-related killings as ordinary crimes and keep no separate statistics.
Witchcraft accusations are common in many African countries. The influence of churches branding traditional spiritual beliefs as witchcraft – along with sensational media reports – appear to have made them escalate, though there are no reliable statistics on the increase, according to Ally and Leff.
Researchers also associate witchcraft accusations with times of social tension, such as elections or economic crises.
“Almost any misfortune can be attributed to witchcraft – car accidents, deaths, divorce, a HIV infection, a still-born child,” Ally said.
People of both sexes can be branded as witches, but most of the accused are older women, according to the researcher.
“Many of them are financially independent, outspoken women, who arouse male resentment and female envy.
“If such a woman is seen humming a song, or acting strangely, and then someone gets sick” – the stage has been set for a witch hunt, Ally said.
“Women were traditionally seen as having great spiritual powers,” said Sheila Khama from the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights of Communities.
“Witches can make you sweat at night and gather your sweat in an invisible blanket [to use in rituals]. They appear as insects or birds in your house,” said David, a traditional healer near Johannesburg whose clients seek his help against witchcraft.
In a certain sense, witchcraft does exist, as some people perform rituals involving herbs and invocations of spirits in attempts to harm others, according to Ally.
But the accused documented by SAPRA showed no evidence of engaging in black magic. Accusations are often used to get rid of a rival or to shunt aside responsibility for behaviour that led to diseases or accidents, Ally said.
“Defusing a situation where someone is pointed out as a witch … is indeed very challenging,” said Colonel Attie Lamprecht from the Harmful Occult Crimes unit of the police force, which has detectives to deal with such cases.
A banished person returning to their village “can mean instant death. If they are allowed to return, they will always be associated with someone who has dark powers and can easily be accused if anything ‘bad’ happens,” Lamprecht said by email.
South Africa’s legislation on the subject – dating from 1957 – criminalizes the acts of claiming to be a witch or of accusing others of witchcraft.
But most cases of witchcraft accusations are handled by traditional courts, where the accused are not provided with legal counsel, and where traditional healers using oracles may act as witnesses, Leff said.
There is hardly any public discussion about what Leff sees as a human rights problem. Politicians do not want to be seen as defending alleged witches, he said.