A campaign to save the reputation of traditional healers in Limpopo is showing positive results, with only one witchcraft-related murder having occurred in the last eight months.
Professor Mbaimbai Hlati, the president of the Traditional Healer Association in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region, realised that something had to be done to prevent the senseless killings of vulnerable, older people.
Although numbers may have dropped in recent months, it doesn’t erase the pain suffered by many families before.
During the last 17 years, Khubani Manganyi has not only mourned the loss of her mother but has also lived with the stigma of being called the daughter of a “witch”.
In 2005, Manganyi’s mother and aunt were murdered at their home at Greenfarm village, just outside of Malamulele in Limpopo.
Since losing her mother, Matsimbandlela Manganyi, 78, and 87-year-old aunt Nyanisi Chauke, she leads an isolated life filled with distrust.
The daughter recalls painful memories
Sitting on a stoop of her rondavel, the busy pensioner still vividly remembers being woken up in the wee hours one morning in July 2005 when tragedy struck.
After quickly rushing to their home, which is about two minutes away, she nearly collapsed after finding the two rondavels engulfed in flames and her mother lying helpless on the ground and gasping for air.
Her aunt had already succumbed to her severe injuries after being set alight in another rondavel.
The two older women were accused of practising witchcraft.
“What I saw that day has left me traumatised, and it’s something that will forever haunt me. My aunt’s body was burnt beyond recognition, and the forensic investigators had to be careful when they collected her remains. My mother was taken to hospital but died a day or two later,” said Manganyi.
Since her family’s murders were committed by someone who was regarded as a child of the family, she has become distrustful of others in the village. Despite this, she intends to spend her days on earth at her place of birth.
Leaving is not an option
Leaving would feel as if she’s abandoning her late mother and her children, all buried in Greenfarm village.
“I’m not going to leave my house, and if they want to kill me, there’s nothing I can do about it because I’m old,” she notes.
Her mind is alert to the possibility that, even though murders motivated by witchcraft accusations have subsided, she could also become a victim herself.
The men behind her family’s killings, Livingston Maluleke and Thomas Mathonsi were convicted in 2007 and are currently in prison for the murders, armed robbery, and arson. The third perpetrator, the late Elliot Vhukeya, turned state witness.
To this day, the pain and isolation she has endured are evident.
She and her granddaughter share the small, newly built, uncemented rondavel with a corrugated iron roof because the storm swept away the roof of the main house. The rondavel is used as a kitchen and a bedroom. Her other rondavel is in the process of collapsing, and the thatched roof is hanging on by a thread.
Making a living
Manganyi is in the process of making traditional beer again since lockdown restrictions have been eased. In and around the now unsafe main house, there are several traditional cooking pots and containers used in the making of the beer.
Manganyi sells the beer to supplement her old age grant.
Some of these pots and containers are used to catch rainwater. There is no tap inside her yard so the water helps reduce the trips and cost of buying water from some of the neighbours who have boreholes.
She hopes her traditional beer business, which had been affected by the pandemic crisis, will soon flourish so she can renovate her main house with her savings.
“Things are expensive and there is just no money to fix these houses,” said Manganyi, who also relies on her stokvel to make ends meet.
She collects cans and plastic bottles and sells them for cash to offset the crippling poverty she suffers as one of the marginalised groups in society. On a bench outside the dilapidated rondavel, are stacked washed drinking glasses as well as plastic bottles that are waiting to be sold.
It is her responsibility to handle all of her 14-year-old granddaughter’s needs after her mother passed away. The granddaughter is not a beneficiary of the child support social grant, yet another worry for the pensioner.
Family separated after witchcraft accusations
Maria Munyayi is grateful to be alive after her family was ordered to leave their home as villagers vowed to burn down the house because of witchcraft allegations against her husband.
Her family’s troubles began on 8 December 2021, when her husband was summoned to an Imbizo to discuss a serious matter.
After the meeting began, he learned that he and another man were the subjects, that someone had accused him of witchcraft, and that he had two choices.
“He came back and told me that they said he was behind the deaths of two of our neighbours and that he was planning to kill four more women,” said the 74-year-old.
As far as she knows, the two neighbours both died of natural causes, but the accusations only worsened. Eventually, traditional leaders advised them to leave with their children due to safety concerns. Maria’s husband now lives with one of their children in another province.
Traditional healers face stigma
The killings of mostly older women happened at an alarming rate from the 1980s in most rural communities.
Between 1985 and 1995, up to 312 people were reportedly killed in witchcraft-related violence in Limpopo.
The beliefs in witchcraft and traditional medicine have remained prevalent in these communities. Those who suspect that the death of a loved one is caused by witchcraft will consult a sangoma or traditional healer who usually confirms their suspicions.
In most instances, the suspected witch is a poor, older woman who is suffering from a mental health condition like dementia, which is often misunderstood.
Although the killings of people accused of practising witchcraft have become rare, stigma remains a real threat for some.
Sylvia Hlongwani, a 49-year-old traditional healer from Mulamula village has been subjected to it since her initiation in 1999.
Fewer attacks, murders
Despite believing that the stigma has worsened over the years, she feels safer than she did back then because traditional healers no longer get attacked or killed.
She further added: “It is still difficult to do this job because when someone falls ill, they point fingers at me. They tell me that I caused the illness and that traditional healers are witches.
Had it not been for her ancestral calling, Hlongwani said that she would’ve quit her job. She feels as if whatever she does, someone won’t be happy and her reputation often hangs in the balance.
According to Hlati, traditional healers had become notorious, and the campaign was meant to restore their dignity and educate healers about diseases that older people were likely to suffer from. Therefore, traditional healers needed to be cautious when people consulted them.
Some traditional healers were capitalising on people’s beliefS by not practising according to their training and lying to people.
Hlathi realised that the unethical traditional healers were putting the lives of older people at risk and felt compelled to do something about it.
“I decided to bring traditional healers, chiefs, the youth, and communities together to educate them. When you see an elder person, it doesn’t mean that they are practising witchcraft. They have just been taking care of themselves by adopting a healthy lifestyle,” said Hlati.
Through an intensified approach, which also roped in the police and various government departments, the numbers started declining.
Limpopo police provincial spokesperson, brigadier Motlafela Mojapelo, confirmed that there hadn’t been any recent witchcraft-related killings.
Mojapelo added: “I know that during the nineties, at the dawn of democracy, there were interventions such as community outreach programs. Ever since then, there is no longer talk of witchcraft-related violence.”
He said that there is no occult nor harmful religious units in the province and that officers were trained to deal with such cases.
Mojapelo could only recall one case which happened in Burgersfort in October last year. A 53-year-old woman was shot twice after being accused of being a witch by her sister.
A Gauteng family mourns
Witchcraft-related killings are not only confined to rural provinces like Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.
In March last year, 59-year-old Jostina Sangweni was assaulted and set alight by two Soweto men. They accused her of being a witch after she had wandered off to a yard in Mapetla.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, and on medication for the mental illness, Sangweni was taken to a fellow traditional healer who treated her using traditional medicine.
But while visiting the healer, Sangweni went missing on 26 March, and her family was notified.
“It was left to us to look for her,” said Sangweni’s son-in-law, Jabulani Moagi.
Moagi and his wife, Zodwa, went to the Moroka police station after searching for nearly an hour for Sangweni.
“They asked us to describe her. We showed them her photo, and I heard the constable mention that the family had arrived,” explained Moagi.
After a frantic search in the township, Sangweni was found, burnt, and fighting for her life.
She was rushed to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, where doctors confirmed that her lungs were irreparably damaged. Sadly, it was going to be difficult for the machines to keep her alive.
In search of closure
“I’m devastated, I’m not sure it begins to describe what happened. I’ve lost weight, and I was diagnosed with sugar diabetes after the funeral. It will continue to hurt until we find closure,” added Jabulani.
A video showing the scared and confused Sangweni circulated on social media. It showed unidentifiable men accusing her of witchcraft and insulting her.
The charges against the three accused men were withdrawn in March this year.
According to the spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Phindi Louw Mjobondwane, more evidence is required.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gender Justice Reporting Initiative. – Health-e News