One of the catchy slogans from Zimbabwe’s former information minister Jonathan Moyo’s propaganda factory was “Zimbabwe shall never be a colony again”. The wheel he set in motion continues to turn with the amendment of a section of the Witchcraft Suppression Act from 1899 that said witchcraft does not exist.
From this month, the law that made it an offence to accuse someone of bewitching you has been scrapped. The Act, passed by British settlers, has been an anachronism in a country in which the majority of the people believe in witchcraft.
With the economy in free fall and hard times befalling the citizenry, they are turning toward the supernatural to explain their circumstances and also to plead with the spirits for a better life. The churches are also enjoying a boom.
Claude Mararike, a sociologist at the University of Zimbabwe, lauded the amendment of the Act. “We as Africans recognise the existence of witches and witchcraft,” he said.
While in the past one could not accuse anyone of being a witch or wizard without risking being dragged before the courts, it is now possible to accuse someone of bewitching you.
The sticking point, of course, will be proving before a court of law how someone whom an autopsy report says died of heart failure was, in fact, bewitched by an envious relation.
“It is up to you to prove that someone has bewitched you,” said Mararike, adding that,“if you can’t prove it to the courts, then you can’t accuse him.”
Mararike said because of this difficulty, a lot of cases “will go to the chiefs’ courts”. He said the chiefs’ traditional courts have less stringent burdens of proof, adding, “We are trying to remove the Eurocentric way of looking at issues.”
He defines witchcraft as medicine that is used to harm other people intentionally. This includes wishing other people bad luck. Expanding his working definition, Mararike noted that “if a doctor gives you medicine that damages your organs, that is witchcraft”.
Mararike argued that by using powerful muti, a stock thief or even a car thief could be thwarted. “Either he won’t see them or he will get lost. It’s like electrifying the fence round your house,” he explained.
He said it is possible for someone with powerful muti to fly to and fro between Harare and South Africa in a reed basket, and we need to “develop the science, patent it and market it”.
But Michael Mateta, a clergyman in the Family of God Church in Gweru, Zimbabwe’s third city, is worried that the legal repeal could see family members turning against each other and accusing relations of being witches with abandon.
Mateta noted that there has been a huge increase in people “going back to ancestral worship so that the departed spirits can do something for the nation”. He said the only true protection against witchcraft was faith in God.