S.Africa witches fight for rights

Johannesburg, South Africa - A group representing South African witches says it wants their beliefs protected against a proposed law to suppress witchcraft in the country, often called a model of human rights.

The South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) -- an organisation representing what it says are between 3,000-5,000 witches in the country -- said on Friday it would fight a proposed bill to criminalise witchcraft in one of the country's nine provinces.

"We think that this is a serious violation of our constitutional rights and in fact the bill is in contradiction with at least 11 clauses in the bill of rights," SAPRA convenor Damon Leff told Reuters.

The clauses, Leff said, include the right to equality, freedom of association, choice of occupation or profession and the freedom to choose a religion or culture, among others.

The proposed Witchcraft Suppression Bill -- which has been put forward by the legislature in the northeastern Mpumalanga province, seeks to "provide for the suppression of witchcraft in the province."

It also seeks to set the code of conduct for traditional healers -- sometimes called witch doctors -- and to "provide for the responsibilities of traditional healers."

According to the draft bill, witchcraft is defined as "the secret use of muti (traditional concoctions), zombies, spells, spirits, magic powders, water, mixtures, etc, by any person with the purpose of causing harm, damage, sickness to others or their property."

SAPRA says its members are disciplined members of society who understand the power they have over the forces of nature and how to use it.

It also argues that there is no clear way of defining witchcraft or identifying a witch except by their own admission.

The actions of traditional healers, wizards and witches have been a cause for concern among locals across the country, which is reputed in southern Africa for its muti -- which can be herbal remedies but in the most extreme cases involve the use of human body parts.

Traditional healers, along with witches, in South Africa have been widely accused of using dangerous muti to cause harm to other people.

Leff says there is nothing sinister about the practice of witchcraft by his organisation's members.

He said SAPRA had submitted objections to the bill to the minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), though no response had been received.

In a letter to Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla and SAHRC, Leff said that:

"Witchcraft is described by these South African citizens as a spiritual occupation and religion closely associated with the practice of natural (sympathetic) magic, herbalism, divinations and Pagan religious ritual."

Apart from its objections, SAPRA has also forwarded a draft "Witchcraft Protection Bill", which it says the provincial government is considering.

SAPRA has been joined by the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) in criticising the law. The THO -- made up mostly of African healers -- says the Mpumalanga bill amounts to a "denial" of the existence of witchcraft.