Witch burnings in S. Africa homeland linked to political upheaval


SHAYANDIMA, Venda -- An emotionally disturbed teen-ager committed suicide in this little village two years ago, and the young men of the village decided he had been bewitched.

They held a meeting, decided the witch was a young man named Albert Manyaga, bought a can of gasoline and a rubber tire and confronted the man on his way home from work. He protested his innocence, but the mob burned him alive. Someone threw the tire over him and rolled the blazing body in the road.

"I saw everything from the time of the meeting, even when he was burned," recalls Action Mmbobo, the young man who ran the meeting that convicted Mr. Manyaga.

"I believe he was a wizard, but I was not in favor of his death," he said. "I tried to convince the crowd that other steps should be taken. But most people wanted him to be killed."

The incident wasn't entirely out of the ordinary. For a while here, authorities say, many people were being killed by witches for body parts for their rituals. And many suspected witches were being burned.

A predominantly rural region in the northeast corner of South Africa, Venda is a place of deep superstitions handed down through generations and undisturbed by modern life. Most people in the towns and villages around here believe there are witches in their communities, practicing black magic and causing suffering and death.

It is an area where people think drought is caused by a failure to appease the ancestors and where they visit a tribal healer, known as an inyanga, to cure aches and pains. The inyangas like to distinguish themselves from the deadly witches.

"In Venda we believe in witchcraft, and witchcraft does exist," said Mr. Mmbobo, an unemployed 25-year-old who was acquitted late last year on murder charges arising from the burning death of Mr. Manyaga.

Mr. Manyaga was a well-known spiritual healer in Shayandima, a poor village of small stucco houses and thatch-roofed huts on the outskirts of Venda's capital city, Thohoyandou. The 16-year-old suicide victim was his nephew.

One day in January 1990, the boy set himself on fire, and as the flames engulfed him, he cried out his uncle's name. The young men of the village decided that that was proof Mr. Manyaga was the witch who had caused the teen-ager's death.

"These people are very superstitious," said police Commissioner Dirk Genis, a white South African who is retiring this year from the Venda police force. "It's not just the lower-class ones, it's the educated ones, too. They are invariably superstitious."

But while witchcraft is an integral part of life in Venda, experts say witch-burning is relatively new. Ironically, the phenomenon seems to have been a brutal product of political changes to bring South Africa into the modern world.

In the months after the release of Nelson Mandela, a leader in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, from prison in February 1990, Venda police reported a dramatic surge in witch-burnings. Authorities say they handled 217 witchcraft-related cases between January and April of that year.

The witch-burnings were viewed as an uprising by a frustrated young generation against a corrupt regime whose officials were known to use black magic to enhance their political stature and ** financial wealth. The South African government declared Venda an independent homeland in 1979 and installed a puppet government that was eventually overthrown in May of 1990.

"They were called the government of ritual murderers," said Victor Ralushai, vice chancellor of the University of Venda and an anthropologist who has studied Venda traditions.

Professor Ralushai said the public knew that government officials were taking part in murders to obtain human body parts for rituals, but no one was ever punished.

"People who were known to do certain crimes were just cleared," said Professor Ralushai, "so the people took matters into their own hands."

A large photograph of African National Congress President Mandela, clipped from the front page of a Johannesburg newspaper and preserved in cellophane, gazes down from the living room wall of Mr. Mmbobo's simple stucco home.

Mr. Mmbobo said, "The release of Mandela raised the morale of the people, and they realized they could do something on their own to stop whatever bad things were happening."

The worst of the "bad things" in Venda were the ritual murders, which became increasingly common during the years after South Africa's white authorities turned over the government to a backward and bankrupt group of black leaders, according to Professor Ralushai.

"The type of people Pretoria chose to lead the homelands were not acceptable to the public. This was the most backward group of traditionalists," he said.

In cases that came to trial late last year and others set to be heard this year, several prominent businessmen and government officials were charged in connection with murders in which the victim's body was dismembered. The parts were used for a kind of ritual "medicine," known as muti, that was supposed to have special powers.

"They would bury a hand under a new establishment to fetch business, or an eye to watch over the place," said Lt. Benno de Klerk, legal adviser to the Venda police. "The witch doctor would tell a person what parts were needed to take care of a certain problem."

Venda Attorney General Bruce Morrison said a former Cabinet minister, a former state intelligence chief and three or four other government officials were accused of ritual murders but acquitted because of inadequate evidence or because no one would testify against them.

But times have changed. The new government launched a crackdown aimed at stopping both the ritual murders and the witch-burnings.

Since the new government took over and embraced the new South Africa, hoping for reincorporation, the Venda witch-burnings have stopped.

"With Venda on the brink of reincorporation, the people are happy with the political situation," said Mr. Morrison.

"People aren't being cut up like chickens anymore," says Tshaveni Mauhunyu, an inyanga, who lives surrounded by the paraphernalia of his craft. "Those who practice witchcraft have been dealt with."

But the police and courts are still prosecuting old murders such as the 2-year-old case of Mr. Manyaga's death. Almost every case on the docket of the Venda Supreme Court session that opens Feb. 3 involves witchcraft or witch-burning.

Yet even now the culprits seem to be the beneficiaries of the old ways. "We have extreme difficulty finding witnesses," said Attorney General Morrison.

In the case against Mr. Mmbobo and 14 other defendants, the only man convicted was one who confessed.

Witnesses testified that Mr. Mmbobo was the spokesman and chairman at the witch-burning meeting held in a soccer field and attended by more than 400 people.

"He sent people off to buy the petrol" to douse the witch, the attorney general said, "but we couldn't prove who poured the petrol on the deceased or who lit the match."

Mr. Mmbobo says he expected to be convicted of murdering Mr. Manyaga: "Everybody was saying I was the instigator of the whole thing. Everyone was implicating me. Even the other defendants were implicating me."

But he visited an inyanga before going to court.

The inyanga produced a snake that licked Mr. Mmbobo's body, then he boiled a stone and instructed Mr. Mmbobo to inhale the steam. He gave him "medicine" to put in his sock and a bottle of liquid to drink before going to court.

"Nobody else implicated me, and I was acquitted," Mr. Mmbobo said. "I was protected by the inyanga."

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