Witchcraft Accusations in South Africa as a Feminist Psychological Issue

Get Complete Project Material File(s) Now! »


Y Ally
This paper explores beliefs about witchcraft in a sample of community members. We argue that witchcraft beliefs are imbued with gender stereotypes that manifest in a negative view of women. These stereotypes are most evident with witchcraft’s associated violent consequences that affect the lives of more women than men. Witchcraft accusations may thus feed into an under-explored facet of violence against women, we argue, and to this end we apply feminist psychological theory to analyse the gendered implications of witchcraft beliefs. Interviews with community members in South Africa provide us with a context to apply feminist discourse analysis to comment on the implication of the association of witchcraft with women. Our aim is to show how witchcraft beliefs are fused with gender, influencing the expression of violence against women.
Keywords: witchcraft; witchcraft accusations; violence; community psychology; feminist psychology; feminism


There is an acknowledgement in the understanding of violence against women1, to address different expressions thereof. Understanding these expressions of violence against women is even more urgent in light of the fact that they do not receive the necessary attention. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon (2006) informs us that “violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence – yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned”. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women of 1993 (A/RES/48/104), violence against women may be defined as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. The same definition was affirmed at the Beijing Platform of Action of 1995, which further delineated the categories of family, community and state violence but specifically included female genital mutilation, dowry-related violence, and other traditional practices harmful to women.
In light of these definitions of violence against women, acknowledging that violence women face takes on different expressions, it can be stated that there is an urgent need to address different expressions of violence against women in South Africa. An example of the different expression of violence against women in South Africa is witchcraft accusations which affect the lives of many women and some men (Stark, 2003; Leff, Fontleve & Martin, 2008). Although it is assumed in many parts of the world that witchcraft beliefs have given way to westernisation in Sub-Saharan Africa, the belief in witchcraft is widely held still (Miguel, 2005). Serving a variety of purposes, belief in witchcraft and the supernatural has shown no tendency to lose its salience (Moore & Sanders, 2001). Of course, in contexts where belief regarding these religio-cultural expressions abound people are unlikely to acknowledge these violent encounters women experience as violence (Douki, Nacef, Belhadj, Bouasker & Ghachem, 2003). Rather, it will be framed in a manner that perpetuates its existence, need and expression. Ultimately, this indicates understanding the role such beliefs serve within these contexts.
The violence associated with witchcraft, described in various texts (Briggs, 2002; Levack, 1995; Barstow, 1995; Stark, 2003) found expression in a video that was anonymously sent to the researcher (unknown author, witchcraft-related violence, video, 2009). This video showed a group of people, chanting and screaming while a fire burnt in broad day light. Images from the video appear below:
The chanting and screaming of the group were foreshadowed by the screams of accused ‘witches’ burning (Unknown Author, witchcraft-related violence, 2009). These persons, tried fleeing the violence, but individual members from the group kept kicking them and dragging them back into the fire. One man from the group runs and kicks one of the accused – already burning in the fire – in the back while another man, having cut a thick branch from a tree, beats another accused repeatedly and severely all over the body and head. The end result of a witch-hunt is death, evidenced graphically in a picture below.
The video and pictures obtained alludes to two important points. Firstly, violence is the outcome faced by those accused of witchcraft. This simple deduction has seen to the persecution of many people throughout history (Burne, 1914; Maxwell-Stuart, 2005), in some of the most brutal expressions known to man.
The second consideration stemming from the video and pictures and also documented in witchcraft texts, is that the violence faced by the accused is group-based. Rose (1982) for example, supports this, indicating that the threat posed by ‘evil-doers’ like witches creates the condition to mobilize an ‘effective collective action against a group of such enemies’ (pg. 142). Indicative from this, is that despite the possibility of a strained interpersonal context, giving rise to the accusation; once this has been levelled, the fear of witchcraft which stems from belief of witchcraft as responsible for harm and destruction, misfortune and illness, mobilises a community to protect itself from potential harm.
Baroja (1964) supporting the notion of belief in witchcraft and the supernatural states that “much more is known about witchcraft from the point of view of those who believe in witches… and we have to analyse the mentalities of … whole communities gripped by a specific fear…”. Webster’s (1932) view accentuates on the belief in witchcraft in South Africa and he says, “no one” in his senses “dreams of doubting its [witchcrafts] tremendous power”. Implicit to Webster’s (1932) and Baroja’s (1964) understandings, is that witchcraft must be understood from within the reality of those who believe in it.
The understanding of the belief in witchcraft and the supernatural becomes even more urgent in light of the violent consequences faced by those accused of witchcraft. In evaluating the 17th 18th century witch hunts in Europe and America (Evans-Pritchard, 1931; Harwood, 1970; Larner, 1974), as well as recent studies in South Africa (Bornman, van Eeden & Wentzel, 1998), it became clear that witchcraft accusations manifest mostly in violent consequences. From burning to drowning, stoning, hacking and even being purged, those accused of witchcraft meet with torture and death (Stark, 2003; Briggs, 2002; Roy, 1998; Bornman, van Eeden & Wentzel, 1998; Hole, 1914).
In this paper, we locate witchcraft beliefs from within the reality and perspectives provided by community members in South Africa. Insight to how witchcraft is understood within a particular reality which justifies the violence faced by those accused of the craft will thus be gained. Further located within a feminist psychological framework, the gendered implications posed by witchcraft beliefs within these contexts will be explored. We conclude with suggestions for violence prevention interventions for witchcraft-related violence, as it is a continued reality within some South African communities. The following section explores the belief in witchcraft.

READ  Role of Cardiac Tissue Stiffness


Any investigation of witchcraft must consider its origins. Many religions and various cultures incorporate supernatural beliefs like spirit possession, the Devil, angels and of course witchcraft (Abdussalam-Bali, 2004; Ashour, 1993; Dein, 2003; Eldam, 2003; Stafford, 2005). Many African cultures and religions believe in supernatural forces too, including spells, invisible forces, ancestral spirits and ditlhare, moriane or umuti (meaning medicine with magical powers) (Ivey & Myers, 2008a; Meyer, Moore & Viljoen, 2003; Mkhize, 2004). These beliefs in supernatural forces become a part of the everyday worldviews held by an individual or a community. Swartz (2002) says that the belief in supernatural entities stemming from religious or cultural texts and unwritten stories, are transposed to the relations people forge with others and provides one with a model of health, illness and misfortune. Fortes (1953) contended that witchcraft is an ideology for daily living. The belief in witchcraft thus derives its existence from religious and cultural systems that allow for the larger belief in the influence from supernatural entities.
To simplify the understanding of witchcraft2, which is dense, we categorise it into three types.
The first type of witchcraft refers to the capacity of some individuals to manipulate objects in nature as well as through incantations, charms and spells to harm others. Larner (1974) informs us that this form of witchcraft is released through power activated by hatred. Interpersonal quarrels, jealousy at the success of others and even beauty may thus be motivating factors to harm another person (Evans-Pritchard, 1937; Glickman, 1944; Fortes, 1953).


Chapter 1: Witchcraft Accusations in South Africa as a Feminist Psychological Issue
Chapter 2: News Portrayals of Witchcraft Related Violence in South African Print Media: A Feminist Psychological Exploration
Chapter 3: An Exploration of Belief in Witchcraft in a Sample of Community Members: A Feminist Psychological Study
Chapter 4: A Feminist Psychological Exploration of Women Accused of Witchcraft in South Africa

Related Posts