Remember that movie Practical Magic? Like many Hollywood movies it features a scene that is key to any witch-themed movie- the inevitable persecution. In a flash back to their youth the two main characters of Practical Magic remember children throwing rocks at them screaming, ‘witch’. It looks almost innocent and most Pagans watching it will shake their heads with a light ‘tsk, tsk’; some may even express a passing sentiment of gratitude that the ‘Burning Times’ are in the past where they belong. To that I have to shake my head and exclaim ‘tsk, tsk- don’t you know they still go on?’
Witch-hunts may be a relic of the past in Europe and North America, but in African countries they are starting to gain momentum. When Christian missionaries first reached Africa’s shores and started to preach to the indigenous peoples from their own theological perspectives, they labelled indigenous magical practices as ‘witchcraft’ and the practitioners ‘witches’. And over the centuries those words have been incorporated into indigenous languages just as Christian beliefs have mingled with indigenous religious beliefs to create religions that both venerate Christ and maintain a deep respect for ancestral spirits; and keep alive a belief in magic.
In the townships and rural villages of South Africa, a whisper of ‘witch’ can incite an entire community to lash out at a family or an individual, with the victims of false accusations being stabbed, stoned, hacked or burnt to death. The victims of false accusation are usually elderly women, but the path to the original victim is all too often littered with the bodies of more victims- children; some as young as a few months old. Lives violently snuffed out because of jealousy and fear.
However the inhumanity doesn’t end there. There are survivors of witch-hunts; those who manage to survive the assault or flee in time. Others survive stoning or burning by being expelled from their homes and communities by community leaders, traditional leaders and traditional healers, after being tried in traditional courts and found ‘guilty’ through divination. Those who have been expelled find themselves refugees in witch camps; their plight and very refugee status blatantly ignored by the South African government.
But why should this concern you, you may wonder. The accused are not even witches, let alone Pagans, so there is no religious discrimination you possibly could relate to; so why should Pagans of all people be standing up for the victims of witch-hunts?
Here in South Africa we have a saying: “Ugogo wami, ugogo wakho nawe” [My grandmother is your grandmother]. Within Paganism there is the predominant belief that we are all connected; we are all woven with the same, single thread of life and by it, bound together. By that regard, atrocities happening to others, no matter how far away, should be spoken out against.
The victims of witch-hunts, the elderly and the young who have violently lost their lives to fear and jealousy, deserve to have their deaths recognized and justice served to the murderers. The victims of witch-hunts who survive deserve to be treated with dignity and not live their lives in shame, fear and guilt, away from their homes and families. All victims of witch-hunts deserve to have their plight recognized by government, and government institutions and representatives have a responsibility to curb witch-hunts. At its very core, witch-hunts are not about religious discrimination, they are about the violation of basic human rights.
Are you moved to help? Join the South African Pagan Rights Alliance in their annual 30 days of Advocacy against Witch-Hunts Campaign- talk about witch-hunts, speak out against witch-hunts and sign the petition. Together we can help put an end to witch-hunts not just in South Africa, but globally.