Home » Witch-hunts in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa

Witch-hunts in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, extra-judicial witch-hunts claims thousands of lives every year and there are also reports of torture and physical punishments.

Witch-hunts in South Africa

South Africa is today one of the African countries with the highest prevalence of witch-hunts, with most cases being reported from the Northern Province.

As early as 1998, Phumele Ntombele-Nzimande of the country’s Commission on Gender Equality spoke out about how witch-hunts were “a national scourge” in South Africa. (Source: Gilbert Lewthwaite, “South Africans go on witch hunts,” Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1998.)

In the period 1985-1995, a total of 204 witchcraft-related killings took place in the Northern Province according to legislators, while the police put forth the number 312 for the same period. Both numbers might be gross underestimates, as communities are reluctant to report killings they feel were justified. (Source: Neely Tucker, “Season of the Witch Haunts Africa,” The Toronto Star, August 1, 1999.)

Unlike the European witch-craze where formal trials and executions dominated, the South African witch-hunts are informal and illegal, and perpetrators are sometimes tried and sentenced by South Africa´s legal system. It is typically members of the local community that both accuses a person of witchcraft and kill, maim or expel the accused. Afterwards, the local community protects those who took an active role in the attack, and strives to shield them from legal consequences.

If someone is accused of murdering a witch, the community tends to support them by supplying money for an advocate when the case comes to court. There is a solidarity there — after all, that person is accused of ridding the village of a witch.”, says Matome Mamabolo, a South African police inspector quoted in Peter Alexander´s article “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” published in The Daily Telegraph on May 26, 1997.

One example of how brutal these mob-justice murders can be is found in Nina Shapiro´s 1991 article and concerns the murder of Linah Seabi, a 65-year-old sorghum beer brewer accused of having killed an elderly woman with a toxic potion. “More than 200 villagers stormed Seabi’s house in late May [1991], beat her and burned her to death with straw thatch from the roof of her house.” (Source: Nina Shapiro, “Wave of witch hunts sweeps South African countryside,” The Toronto Star, September 19, 1991)

Two other burnings of alleged witches in the Northern Province took place in December 1998; this time in the village Wydhoek, where Francina Sebatsana, 75, and Desia Mamafa, 55 were burned to death on pyres of wood after being accused of witchcraft. Afterwards, eleven men – ranging in age from 21 to 50 – were charged with murder. (Source: Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, “South Aficans go on witch hunts”, Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1998)

Strong beliefs in magic

The witch-hunts in South Africa are closely tied to widespread beliefs in magic. Just as the witch-craze in Europe in circa 1450-1750, many cases are also linked to poverty, socio-economic pressure, and personal jealousies between individuals.

In the Northern Province, traditional healers and other people claiming religious/supernatural powers are widely used for a variety of issues, and many occurrences in life – good or bad – are seen as the result of supernatural forces. (Source: Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, “South Aficans go on witch hunts”, Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1998)

Alexander reports that “In a region of intense poverty and little education, villagers are quick to blame any adverse act of fate on black magic.” (Source: Peter Alexander, “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997.)

Ritual killings and mutilations carried out by witches

Adding to the complexity of the situation in South Africa is the very real phenomenon of self-proclaimed “magicians” using human body parts for their rituals. Exactly how widespread this practise is remains unknown, but it is easy to understand how even a few real occurrences would be enough to fuel a great fear that could easily tip over into hysteria, paranoia and witch-hunts.

Back in 1997, Alexander reported how ritual killings related to witchcraft included “the removal of organs and limbs from the victims — the genitals, hands or the head, all of which are believed to bring good luck.” (Source: Peter Alexander, “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997) Alexander also noted how ritual murders and the removal of body parts for supernatural purposes often brought retribution against innocents accused of witchcraft.

Special villages for the accused

In his 1997 article, Alexander reports how no fewer than ten villages have been established in the Northern Province as a kind of refuge for individuals who have been accused of witchcraft and would be at risk if they stayed in their communities.

One of the people quoted in the article was 62-year-old Esther Rasesemola, who had been expunged from her community after an incident where lighting had struck the village where she lived.

A group of people visited the Inkanga [village witch-doctor] to see who was responsible. When they returned, it was my brother-in-law who told the rest of the village that I was responsible. He owed me money and I think he did it to get rid of me because he did not want to pay the money back. People in the village became convinced I was a witch. They came to my house at night and burnt it down and took all my belongings. Then they put me in a truck and drove me to a deserted place and dropped me off with my husband and my three children. They told me never to come back to the village or they would kill me. My husband died two years after we were expelled. My children have gone away and now I have nothing. I don’t believe in witchcraft. It is just superstitious belief.

(Source: Peter Alexander, “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997)

Gilbert Lewthwaite describes similar cases in his 1998 article. One of them concerns Violet Dangale, a 42-year-old woman living in dire poverty in the “witch village” Tshilamba in the Northern Province after having to flee from her home in Dzimauli. Dangale wasn´t shunned alone – she was accused together with other family members and they fled together. The main accuser was her uncle, who started by accusing Dangale´s father of using the work of zombies to enrich himself. Then, the uncle turned on Dangale, saying that she was a witch and that she enjoyed her share of the family´s wealth through witchcraft. Eventually, relatives and neighbours joined in the witch-hunt, and the accused fled, fearing for their lives. “They said I was a witch,” Dangale told Lewthwaite. “I don’t know anything about witchcraft. I don’t believe in zombies. Since I was born, I never saw a zombie.” (Source: Gilbert A. Lewthwaite, “South Aficans go on witch hunts”, Baltimore Sun, September 27, 1998)

Gender-aspects (victims)

In South Africa, both men and women are accused of witchcraft and killed or made to suffer, but women – or at least certain groups of women – seem to be at higher risk than the average. Finding exact statistics has proven difficult, however, due to the informal nature of the attacks. Peter Alexander states that approximately 30% of the accused witches are male, which means that women make up an overwhelming majority. (Source: Peter Alexander, “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997.)

In her article, Nina Shapiro quotes Northern Province Premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi, who says that the most vulnerable are “defenceless elderly women, against whom the actions are taken without resistance“. (Source: Nina Shapiro, “Wave of witch hunts sweeps South African countryside,” The Toronto Star, September 19, 1991)

This sentiment of women being at higher risk is echoed by Lebowa police lieutenant Mohlabi Tlomatsana and local journalist Russell Molefe, both quoted in Shapiro´s report.

In our culture, men go out in the afternoon, women remain in the home,” said Russell Molefe. “People believe women sit at home concocting potions.

Older women are suspected simply because they are alive, said Mohlabi Tlomatsana, “People will think ‘Why has she not died? Probably because she is a witch.’ “

Gender-aspects (perpetrators)

According to Peter Alexander, males are usually the ones that carry out the murders and other violent attacks on accused witches, but – as was the case during the European witch-craze – women play a vital role as accusers. Alexander points out how patterns of gossip and rumour are central to the dynamics and how women are active participants in that. In South Africa, women also help by shielding male perpetrators from the justice system afterwards.

(Source: Peter Alexander, “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997.)

The dual role of nangas (male traditional healers) as both accusers and accused

In a 1998 article published in The Daily Telegraph, journalist Anton La Guardia alleges that being a nanga – a traditional healer – can put a man at an increased risk of being accused of witchcraft in South Africa.

La Guardia describes the case of Credo Mutwa, a well-known practising nanga, who says he has been attacked by a mob and stabbed several times. “He lay bleeding on the ground and waited helplessly to die as his assailants poured petrol and prepared to set it alight. Mr. Mutwa (…) said he was saved by the same superstition which was about to claim his life. ‘A young man shouted, “His ghost will haunt you.” They vanished, leaving me like a fish on dry land.’” (Source: Anton La Guardia, “South Africa’s non-political witch-hunts,” The Daily Telegraph, September 9, 1998)

It should be noted that nangas are also frequently the ones called upon to point out “which witch” is responsible when something goes wrong in the community.

Generally, if people believe there is a witch in their village, they will consult the [witch-doctor]. He or she will then ‘sniff out’ the witch. The person who is accused will then be killed or ordered to leave the village,” said a South African police sergeant quoted in Alexander´s article. (Source: Peter Alexander, “‘Witches’ get protection from superstitious mobs,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 1997.)

Witch-hunts in Zimbabwe

Patterns similar to those reported from South Africa have also been seen in Zimbabwe, which borders to South Africa´s Northern Province. In his 1999 article, published in the Sunday Telegraph, journalist Paul Harris notes how witch-hunts in Zimbabwe seem to be closely linked to a black-market demand for human body parts which are used for supernatural purposes. More specifically, Harris mentions using human body parts in potions. According to Harris, an upsurge in the practise of making such potions had brought on an increase for ritual murders to obtain body parts, and that in turn spurred witch-hunts as revenge. According to Harris, all of it was ultimately linked to Zimbabwe´s steep economic decline. (Source: Paul Harris, “Hundreds burnt to death in Tanzanian witch-hunt,” Sunday Telegraph, August 22, 1999)

Gordon Chavaduka, head of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, supported the economic explanation.

It’s obvious the cause is economic,” he said. “The worse the economy gets, the more political tension there is in society, the more frustrated and frightened people get. They turn to witchcraft to gain riches or to hurt their enemies.” (Source: Neely Tucker, “Season of the witch haunts Africa,” The Toronto Star, August 1, 1999.)

Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 and his long authoritarian rule, which lasted until 2017, was characterized by widespread human rights violations. A land reform wreaked havoc with the economy, and in the 1990s, the country began to experience a sharp economic decline, including several stock market crashes and hyperinflation.

Witch-hunts in Tanzania

In his 1999 article, Paul Harris shows how being an old woman increased the risk of being the victim as lynch mobs killed hundreds of alleged witches in Tanzania.

Lynch mobs have killed hundreds of Tanzanians whom they accuse of witchcraft as black magic hysteria sweeps East Africa. Most of the usually elderly victims have been beaten or burnt to death by gangs of youths. Some old women have been singled out simply because they have red eyes — regarded as a sign of sorcery by their assailants. The condition is actually caused by years of toiling in smoky kitchens cooking family meals. (…) Police say 357 suspected witches have been killed in the past 18 months, but the Ministry of Home Affairs believes that the true figure is much higher. A departmental survey said as many as 5,000 people were lynched between 1994 and 1998.” (Paul Harris, “Hundreds burnt to death in Tanzanian witch-hunt,” Sunday Telegraph, August 22, 1999.)

Witch-hunts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire)

In 1999, BBC News reported how thousands of children were being accused of witchcraft in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Kinshasa alone, some 14,000 children had been expelled from their homes due to accusations of witchcraft, and that number did not include those who had been murdered instead of being allowed to leave. (Source: Jeremy Vine, “Congo witch-hunt’s child victims”, BBC News, December 22, 1999).

Witch-hunts where men are more at risk than women

Above, we have looked at witch-hunts were, by and large, both genders – and even children – have been at risk, but where women have been especially likely targets. In some African cultures, however, witch-hunts predominantly target men, reflecting traditional believes that only (or almost only) men can be witches. This contrasts with many of the witch-crazes described above where women, and especially elderly women, were much more likely to be victims of a witch-hunt.

The British sociologist J.F.M. Middleton has written about the Lugbara tribe, where a witch is a man who perverts a mystical power of kinship for his own selfish ends. Dr Middleton was quoted in an article published in The Times UK in 1997.

Witches in general are given both physical and moral attributes: a witch has greyish skin, red eyes, a physical deformity; he may travel about upside down; he is bad tempered, secretive, petty and jealous; he is thought to practice incest and cannibalism. The distinction between witchcraft, a mystical activity, and sorcery, the use of material objects, was widespread in eastern Africa, Dr. Middleton said. When, as in Lugbara, the basic principles of organization were unilineal descent and seniority by generation it would be expected that men were believed to practise witchcraft, whereas women should have the less important role of sorcerer. (Source: “How to recognize witches,” The Times [UK], September 5, 1997.)

In 1993, a then 99-year-old tribal elder named Sanslaus Anunda, a member of the Gusii tribe, was quoted in The Ottowa Citizen, explaining how suspected witches were tested in his youth. In his explanation, he is using male pronouns for the witches.

The most respected men in the community would call a meeting. Next, they would smear local herbs on the hands of the suspect and that of a second, innocent man. Both men would be ordered to dip their hands into a pot of boiling water, then return in five days. If the suspect was a witch, burns would appear on his hands. However, Anunda insists, the innocent man’s hands would remain unscarred.” (Tammerlin Drummong, “Kenya: Dozens die in witch hunts,” The Ottawa Citizen, August 28, 1993.)

According to Anunda, the Gusii had always executed people found to be witches.

Regrettably, witch-hunts were not a thing of the past for the Gusii, as the article goes on reporting that in 1993, witch-killings among the Gusii tribe were occurring at the rate of one a week. The typical process was for a village mob, comprised of several hundred people, to lock the accused witch inside a thatch-roofed house and set the building ablaze.

The penis-shrinking witches of West Africa

Reports of so-called penis-snatching witches are not uncommon in West Africa, and in these reports the alleged witch is usually a man.

The term “penis-snatching” is a bit of a misnomer; the penis is not actually snatched or removed – the belief is instead that a witch has the power to make man´s penis shrink or even disappear by supernatural means. A recurring theme in these West African stories is that a witch will make a
man´s penis shrink and then demand money in exchange for a cure.

From Ghana, a small country bordering the Gulf of Guinea in western Africa, a wave of penis-snatching hysteria was reported in the 1990s, and the individuals accused of magical penis-snatching during this hysteria were predominantly male.

In one example of a witch-hunt in Ghana, the news agency Reuters reported how eight men in Accra had been accused of using witchcraft to snatch penises. “Mobs attacked them (…) two died and six were seriously injured. The police examined all the alleged victims and found their genitals intact. (…) The ‘victims’ believed that sorcerers only had to touch them to make the genitals shrink or disappear completely.” (Source: ‘Witches’ steal penises in Ghana,” Reuters dispatch, January 17, 1996.)

In 1997, D. Trull wrote that this type of witch-hunts occurred within a large region of western Africa and that killings of alleged penis-snatchers had been reported “along the west coast from Cameroon to Nigeria.” (Source: D. Trull, “Witches Protection Program”, 1997)

Regrettably, this witch-craze is not just a thing of the past; it has continued into the 21st century. In 2008, Reuters reported that the police in Congo had arrested 13 individuals who had been accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men´s penises. The arrests were made after a wave of panic had erupted which lead to attempted lynchings of alleged witches.

Rumors of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo’s sprawling capital of some 8 million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings,” wrote Reuters´ reporter Joe Bavier.

According to Kinshasa police chief Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, who was quoted in the article, several of the accused had been beaten. “You just have to be accused of that, and people come after you. We’ve had a number of attempted lynchings. (…) You see them covered in marks after being beaten,” Officer Oleko told Reuters.

In addition to arresting 13 individuals accused of penis-snatching, the police also detained 14 purported victims who claimed their penises were under attack.

I’m tempted to say it’s one huge joke,” Oleko said. “But when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it’s become tiny or that they’ve become impotent. To that I tell them, ‘How do you know if you haven’t gone home and tried it’ “

Eventually, all 27 men were released by the police.

Source: Joe Bavier, “Penis theft panic hits city“, Reuters, April 24, 2008