I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I’ve struggled to believe in things like witchcraft. I’ve had debates with myself. One voice said witchcraft isn’t real, and that if people got sick, for example, there was usually a good medical explanation for it. The other voice in my head kept asking: “How can you not believe in witchcraft when you’ve grown up hearing and seeing a whole lot of strange things?”
A friend of mine doesn’t like these little debates I’ve had with myself. He says witchcraft isn’t real, and that there shouldn’t be any debate about it. In his mind, if people stop believing in witchcraft then we’d have less people in South Africa being abused or misled by corrupt religious leaders. We’d have less people giving their lives to churches in search of miracles or blessings, for example. Less churches would be able to continue their con of demanding money in exchange for those miracles or blessings.
For my mother, though, witchcraft has always been real and will never be anything less than that. No debates. She’s always been worried about how witchcraft could be used against her and the people she cares about. And to convince me that it was real, she told me many weird stories throughout my childhood.
One story I remember is about how she was once invited by an old neighbour of hers, a woman called Buyiswa, to go and enjoy a feast at Buyiswa’s house. My mother recounts how she first hesitated to accept the invite, because the two of them weren’t exactly the best of friends. My mother couldn’t help but wonder why Buyiswa was inviting her over for this feast. Was it a trap? Did Buyiswa want to poison my mother?
When my mother finally did decide to go, she found four other women at Buyiswa’s house, with Buyiswa being the fifth one. They’d laid out a rug on the floor in the living room and were all gathered around a huge enamel bowl they’d placed right there on the rug with them, eating pap and mutton from it with their hands. The five ladies looked friendly and relaxed, sitting with their legs outstretched, barefoot. Seeing this immediately brought back images of the Eastern Cape to my mother. (The one thing you have to know about her is that she loves her Eastern Cape upbringing. So the sight of fellow Xhosa women congregated around a huge bowl of pap and meat just reminded her of what life was like in the Eastern Cape. She remembered the closeness between neighbours that she wasn’t getting in Cape Town at the time.)
After greeting everyone, she sat down to eat. She told me that in sitting down to eat, she felt huge relief that everyone was eating from the same bowl. She felt pretty assured that there was no way the neighbour could poison her without poisoning everyone else that was eating from the bowl.
The story didn’t have a happy ending, unfortunately. A day later she was sick, down and out, basically, with a severe stomach bug. In the end, she told me only a mixture she got from a sangoma (or traditional healer) she knew helped make the problem go away.
Now, tell me, when you grow up hearing stories like this, would no part of you start believing that maybe witchcraft is real?
Well, in the case of my eleven-year-old self, her stories were very convincing. I did start believing. Things only changed as I grew older.
Here are some of the things I think about nowadays to convince myself that witchcraft isn’t real:
Every time something good has happened in my life, it’s usually because I made the right moves – talked to the right people (Connections are important!), listened to their good advice, and had patience and respect. The good things didn’t happen because witches forgot to bewitch me or because a traditional healer protected me. They didn’t happen because I gave money to a pastor.
Every time something bad happens to me (like failing a subject at university, not doing my job properly at work, or even accidentally breaking or losing something important to me) it’s usually because I was maybe not careful enough, that I allowed laziness to get in the way, that I didn’t ask for help, or that I wasn’t confident enough. It’s not because I’m Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort has got his knife out for me. It’s not because I didn’t pay the pastor the money he asked for. And it’s certainly not because I was bewitched or cursed.
So here we are. Now you know how I feel about the relationship between witchcraft, traditional healers and religion.
But how is my mother taking the news that her son doesn’t really believe in witchcraft, you ask? Well, to put it simple, she’s not happy.
And I kind of get why she’s unhappy. In her mind, anyone who doesn’t believe in the existence of witches is in danger. Also, when you believe in something, you want people to respect what you believe in. And maybe she doesn’t feel like I respect her beliefs. But I actually do. The constitution does, after all, protect people’s freedom of religion, belief and opinion, so she and everyone else are allowed to be religious and to believe in witchcraft, as long as their beliefs and practices don’t harm anyone.
One thing I think is very important, though, for people with any beliefs is that they must also respect the beliefs of anyone who doesn’t share theirs. One example of this is from 2016, during the first two and half months, when I’d finished my law degree in the previous year and was still unemployed. My mother, even though she knew I no longer believed in traditional healers, wanted me to spend the last bit of money I had travelling to her in the Eastern Cape, so we could go see a traditional healer. I kept explaining to her that I’d made connections with important people, that I had a good CV, that I was great at job interviews, and that no traditional healer would be able to improve my chances of getting a good job. But she didn’t really want to listen. Eventually, when I did get a job, she said it’s her prayer that got me the job. She didn’t acknowledge any of the things I said would eventually get me a job.
Ultimately, though, no matter what she says, I have a right to choose what to believe in. And so does she and everyone else. I just hope that all our beliefs and opinions don’t make our lives or the lives of those around us more difficult. I hope that we get to a day in South Africa where all the beliefs and opinions we hold, no matter what they are, make us and the country we live in great.
Tell us: are you, like Sicelo, able to accept other people’s beliefs, even if they are different from yours?