Harmful beliefs that undermine human rights must be reevaluated

Picture Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

There are many beliefs, some ancient or others recently invented, held to be true by large numbers of black communities or groups, about others, the causes of their life circumstances and the turn of events, which undermine human rights, dignity and ultimately development.

Such dangerous beliefs, which often cause unspeakable harm to others or themselves, must not only be re-evaluated, but firmly rejected at individual, societal and legal level. Muthi has generally come to be known as a term for African traditional medicine prepared for plants or animals. However, the concept of muthi has now morphed into a number of harmful beliefs. A case in point is that many wrongly belief that because former President Jacob Zuma has so far escaped prosecution from the countless allegations, investigations and inquiries into corruption, mismanagement and patronage, he must have “strong”muthi.

Over the years, Zuma has used every legal loophole to escape prosecution, have “captured” prosecuting authorities, oversight bodies and regulators by appointed loyalists to protect him, and has often manipulated the truth to portray himself the victim, rather than the perpetrator. Yet, instead of holding Zuma accountable for his actions, which have often resulted in countless losing their lives, jobs and opportunities, the gullible, the naïve and mistaken, praise his supposedly strong “muthi”. This type of false belief means that many cynical African leaders such as Zuma can get away with corruption, mismanagement and abuse – which keeps their supporters, voters and countries poor, without being held accountable.

Similarly, when former SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, ran the SABC into the ground, making many journalists unemployed, collapsing suppliers and destroying countless families in the process, many whispered he got away with it because his mother is allegedly an sangoma, and supposedly gave him “strong” muti, to “protect” him from being held accountable.

Motsoeneng and the ANC leaders who appointed him to protect their interests, give them uncritical “sunshine” media coverage and vilify their critics, should have been held personally accountable for the terrifying damage they wrought. At the grassroots level, corrupt traditional “healers”, “sangomas” and “shamans” and “shawomans” are profiteering from providing “muti” to the desperate by promising the “muti” will solve their personal problems, win the hearts of lovers and give them instant riches. Such false promises to the desperate must be treated as crime.

Increasingly, body parts of humans are now also being used to make muthi. A typical incidents is the arrests in 2015 of two sangomas implicated in the disappearance of three-year-old Leticia Nkentjane in Boschfontein, Mpumalanga. The Nelspruit Regional Court then heard that two sangomas, Jabulani Ndlovu and Themba Mnyambo allegedly used the girl’s body for muthi. The two sangomas denied the allegations.

Communities accusing people who they deem acting differently has also caused terrible harm. Again, a typical case was in 2015, when twelve people were arrested after a KwaMashu resident was beaten and burnt alive by a mob who had accused him of witchcraft. Jabulani Nkunzikayibekwa Nxumalo, was asleep in his shack at the Qhakaza informal settlement when a mob of people stormed into his house and he was severely beaten, after they accused him of practicing witchcraft in the area. He died following the attack.

Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), has estimated as many as 500 “witches” are lynched every year in that country, saying that around 3 000 people killed between 2005 and 2011 there after being accused of witchcraft. Again, a typical case was when seven people accused of witchcraft were burned alive in 2014 in the village of Murufiti, in Tanzania’s western Kigoma region, by a mob which included the local traditional leader.

In Tanzania, many mistakenly belief that witchcraft is behind every their individual misfortune, whether not being able to get a job, a wife or being poor. Again, rather than holding local leaders accountable for poor governance which causes widespread joblosses, poverty and loss of opportunities; and taking responsibility for individual decisions, actions and self-improvement, supposedly malevolent forces, such as “witches” are blamed.

In 2015, then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe astonishingly blamed his then rival, former Zimbabwean vice-president Joice Mujuru of being a witch for daring to challenge his leadership. Not surprisingly, Mujuru laughed out the allegations that her challenging of Mugabe’s incompetent leaders was reduced to witchcraft.

Zimbabwe has a Witchcraft Suppression Act, which criminalises the belief in witchcraft, it is often still widely acceptable in that society to blame one’s misfortune on witchcraft. Malawi has saw a wave of killings of people with albinism, the inherited condition, in which people have a lower rate of melanin production. Melanin is the pigment responsible for the colour of the skin, hair, and eyes. Lack of melanin may cause a person to have light colored hair and skin. 

Since 2014 more than 22 people have been murdered in Malawi because of their albinism. People with albinism are targeted for their body parts in the mistaken belief that they contain magical powers. The cruel belief that HIV/Aids can be cured by sleeping with a virgin that took hold in South Africa and many parts of Africa caused untold harm. It lead to the epidemic of rape of young girls. Off course, responsible sexual behaviour, dropping beliefs that encourages multiple sexual partners and using medically prescribed medicines, will reduce the spread of HIV/Aids.

Such harmful beliefs cause deaths, terrifying pain and poverty. Publicly talking about harmful beliefs in African communities are often also taboo. Yet, speaking about it, prohibiting such wrong beliefs socially, culturally and legally are crucial to stop their

William Gumede is the Chairman for the Democracy Works Foundation and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).