Witch Persecution: Are Pagans Against Enlightenment in South Africa?

By Leo Igwe
image credit: Humanist International
image credit: Humanist International

A recent post urging black and white South Africans to rally against witch persecution and muti killings has elicited some reactions from the pagan community in South Africa. While it has never been my intention to join issues with the pagan community, I would like to address the concerns that they raised. It is pertinent to take this opportunity to clarify what seems like some confusion and misunderstanding of the campaigns, positions, and activities of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW). These mistaken statements and insinuations are contained in the posts and comments that were published here . And here is my brief response.

First, I am aware that the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) has an advocacy campaign against witchcraft accusations and witch hunts. However, I do not know enough about the SAPRA campaign to comment on it. I welcome any initiative that could help tackle the menace of witch persecution in the region. Again, the AfAW campaign is much more than this writer and his views. To reduce the AfAW campaign to the position and perspective of this writer is to discount the important work that other advocates are doing in various parts of the region and beyond. The AfAW network has continued to grow. While I initiated this advocacy group, many others work and volunteer with AfAW and help in furthering the goal of ending witch persecution in the region. AfAW has advocates in Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Liberia, Zambia, and other African and non-African countries who support its mission.

Yes, I am a humanist, and as stated on its website , AfAW's position is humanist, skeptical, and human rights-based. Some advocates are religious or theistic. In fact all who have benefited from AfAW's interventions are religious and theistic persons. Thus it is absurd and misguided to associate AfAW's campaign with religious bigotry.

AfAW's advocacy is against witch persecution, not against pagans or the pagan religion. In fact across African countries, the term pagan is largely seen as a pejorative word that western Christian missionaries and their African converts introduced to describe African traditional religion. They used it to mean fetish and idol worship as opposed to 'true' religious observance as encapsulated in Christianity. The term witch or witchcraft is alien to the target cultures in Africa. Witch or witchcraft is an Anglosaxon term for a local phenomenon that predates Africa's contact with Western anthropologists. In its campaign against 'witch' persecution, AfAW speaks to a sociocultural issue that predates the pagan religion and conception of 'witchcraft' in South Africa. So the term witchcraft or witch as understood by pagans in South Africa comes with conceptual and cultural baggage that pagans in South Africa should acknowledge or ignore at their peril especially when engaging or criticizing the positions and activities of AfAW.

As stated in AfAW's Decade of Activism, the campaign uses a two-pronged approach to combat 'witch' persecution. It defends, protects, supports, and empowers victims of witch persecution. It also educates and enlightens actual and potential accusers and abusers. As part of the public enlightenment of the accusing parties, AfAW critically evaluates narratives and ideas that are used to justify witch persecution, witch hunting, and killing. These narratives include notions that some individuals can turn into birds or insects and fly out at night or that some persons can appear and harm others in their dreams or use some 'supernatural' means to cause accidents, illness, and death.

Such an approach helps in reasoning witch persecutors and hunters out of their ignorance of nature and how nature works; it clarifies misconceptions of misfortunes and how misfortunes are caused. So why should pagans in South Africa have issues with this approach? Look, AfAW is not interested in what pagans believe. It is not the goal of AfAW to affirm or deny the pagan articles of faith. Pagan faith or belief is pagans' business, not AfAW's. AfAW is only interested and concerned about the narratives that witchcraft accusers, witch persecutors, and hunters use to justify their criminal activities and atrocities. AfAW campaigns to dispel these superstitious notions and practices that sanctify and legitimize witch allegations and bloodletting. It is not of interest whether these harmful beliefs form a part of the corpus of pagan, Hindu, Christian, Islamic religious, theist, or atheistic beliefs.

Pagans in South Africa should try not to misrepresent the campaign of AfAW or the positions of advocates. When AfAW declares that witches, as conceived by accusers, are imaginary, and do not exist, it is not an exercise in denial, it is a statement of fact. When advocates state that alleged witches do not turn into birds and fly out at night as their accusers claim, that is a position based on evidence. Isn't it? That is not imposing atheism on Africans- as condescending as that sounds. What do pagans in South Africa have against campaigns based on facts? Why are they opposed to evidence-based positions and propositions? In the face of horrific abuses in the name of witchcraft, pagans in South Africa should be interested in calling out witch hunters and their mistaken propositions.

Witch persecution persists in Africa mainly due to a tongue-in-a-cheek approach of campaigners, and a lack of firm and unequivocal stand against superstition-based abuses. This trend must stop. I mean how does SAPRA expect to succeed in the advocacy against witchcraft accusations and witch hunts when it cannot critically engage and expose the mistaken beliefs and assumptions that inform the abuses?

Challenging the superstitious belief in witches is one of the hallmarks of the European Enlightenment. Skeptical rationality is one of the markers and moments of western modernity. Europeans and people of European descent look back to the era of Enlightenment with a sense of pride. And this should not be different in the case of advocacy against witch hunts and the furtherance of African modernity and Enlightenment. Pagans in South Africa should rise up to this challenge; they should come forward and cooperate with AfAW in dispelling the mistaken assumptions and superstitions that enable witchcraft accusations and witch hunts in the region.