Zimbabwe: Witchcraft Act Amendment Hailed

Harare, Zimbabwe - THE amendment of the Witchcraft Suppression Act has been welcomed as resonating with Zimbabwean culture and tradition.

The new amendment that is set to take effect in July this year is a culmination of years of intense negotiations, now recognises that there is, indeed, the practice of witchcraft that had been deliberately downplayed by the successive colonial governments. Traditionalists say the recent amendments show that the country was finally waking up to calls from the people who felt the Witchcraft Suppression Act was stalling the genuine development of African culture in the country.

Until the amendment, it was a criminal offence to brand anyone a witch or wizard or to accuse someone of meddling in the supernatural, even where there was tangible evidence. The Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Cde Patrick Chinamasa, told The Herald that the President had already assented to the amendments and criminals would be charged for breaching certain sections of the Act beginning of July this year.

"Yes, the Witchcraft Suppression Act was amended and is now at the criminal co urts. Judicial officers are currently being trained so that they can easily implement it," Cde Chinamasa said. The amended sections now read: "Whoever accuses a person of witchcraft means to indicate that the person (is possessed by a spirit or) used non-natural means (witch-finding) to cause death, injury, disease or inability in any person. "Any person who engages in any practice knowing that it is commonly associated with witchcraft, shall be guilty of engaging in a practice commonly associated with witchcraft if having the intention to cause harm to any person. "Such practice inspires in the person against whom it was directed, a real fear or belief that harm will occur to that person or any member of his or her family, and be liable to a fine not exceeding level ten or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or both."

In the new amendments the spoken words shall not constitute an act of witchcraft for the purpose of this section, unless accompanied by or used in connection with other conduct commonly associated with witchcraft. "For the avoidance of doubt, it is declared that any person who assists another person to commit the crime of engaging in a practice commonly associated with witchcraft, by giving advice or providing any substance or article to enable that person to commit the crime, shall be liable to be charged as an accomplice to the crime.

"A court shall not take judicial notice of any practice that is said to be commonly associated with witchcraft, but any person who, in the opinion of the court, is suitably qualified to do so on account of his/her knowledge, shall be competent to give expert evidence as to whether the practice that forms the subject of a charge under this section is a practice that is commonly associated with witchcraft, whether generally or in the particular area where the practice is alleged to have taken place," reads part of the Act.

The amendment also criminalises the hiring of witch hunters an d those convicted will be fined or jailed for periods of between one and five years. Analysts said it was good that the new amendment disqualifies murder, assault or any other crimes against an accused as it could be used to mete undue punishments on people before they could be tried in the courts of law. The president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers' Association (Zinatha), Professor Gordon Chavunduka, applauded the Government for recognising a genuine call by traditionalists over the relevance of the Act on the country's cultural landscape. "We are grateful with the recent amendments to the Witchcraft Suppression Act since we have been calling on the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs to redraw the Act to reflect on the thinking of the majority of Zimbabweans.

"This is a giant step in recognising the cultural belief of the majority of the people in the country. As custodians of the country's culture, we see the amendment as a step in the right direction towards asserting our culture that has been trampled upon by successive colonial governments," he said. Prof Chavunduka said Zinatha could now perform its function effectively as the amended Act would help the organisation deal firmly with bogus traditional healers, exorcists and witch-hunters or tsikamutandas. The chairperson of the Traditional Medical Practitioners' Council, Professor Claude Mararike, said he was pleased with the amendments made to the Act as it now recognises that witchcraft exists and was in practice in the country.

"This is a milestone by the Government as the law now recognises an important cultural aspect of our lives. "It is a great victory towards recognising African values by our leadership though more still needs to be done. "We had been made to follow and use foreign world-views to describe and articulate our positions, but such a move clearly shows that Zimbabwe has begun to underscore its culture. "We have been advocating for the rec ognition of witchcraft as a social phenomenon that is in practice in the country and that it should never be recognised in the negative sense but also in the positive," Prof Mararike said. He said the use of magic, for example, in the protection of property and crops should be seen as positive witchcraft. Some said that amendment of the Witchcraft Act exposed colonialists who wanted to present themselves as the ones who had come with unity and development in Africa.

"By rejecting the existence of witchcraft, whites managed to destroy one of the tenets of African traditional beliefs as a way of disenfranchising the blacks of their religious bedrock," said one analyst. Many Zimbabweans have been pressing for the amendment of the Witchcraft Suppression Act so that the country could recognise the existence of this phenomenon which was made illegal by colonial governments. It now remains to be seen whether the amended Act would bring out or not, some of the traditional values that have been suppressed for many decades under the colonial Witchcraft Suppression Act for the good of the society.