Black Magic or Murder?

This is a post that I have been cooking up for some time and I must warn you, it will not be lighthearted. Last year I wrote an article about demonic rape and the South African cultural phenomenon known as the tokolosh. After researching and writing that article I have felt that there is more to say on the subject; a lot more. You see, the tokolosh is just the tip of the iceberg, Southern African traditional societies (and some recent additions) seem to be trapped in a pre-scientific era. The most shocking facet of which, and the subject of this article, is the widespread belief in black magic and the perpetration of human mutilations for muti.

Yeah, I told you this was going to be a serious one.

My exposure to the concept of muti murders started when I was very young. My Wonderful Parents ™ have always subscribed to the notion that what I don’t know might kill me and so they started educating me about the dangers faced by South African children from the minute I could read. Don’t run away from a snake in the veld, just stand still and call for help. Don’t stand under a tree during a lightning storm. Don’t accept sweeties from strangers, they will steal you and chop you up for muti. I am very grateful for those lessons, the one time a stranger actually did offer my nine year old self candy I told him “NO” and got my butt into my nearest friends house as quickly as I possibly could.

It wasn’t until almost twenty years later that I started to understand the true horror of what my parents were protecting me from. “Muti” is the Southern African term for traditional medicine and it is used to describe medicinal herbs and other preparations as collected, concocted and dispensed by a traditional healer – either an inyanga (a herbalist), or more rarely a sangoma (a traditional healer more concerned with the spiritual life of the community). Now, I have nothing against traditional medicine, that is, I accept that there are many powerful herbs and medicinal plants known to indigenous communities and that many of these plants may have medicinal properties. Asprin is a very good example of how knowledge of medicinal plants can lead to discovery of highly effective medicinal compounds which can be synthesized by chemists and sold at your local pharmacy. Fine. Nothing wrong with that.

Most of what sangomas do is pretty harmless stuff, not too different from what western societies have been exposed to by Sylvia Brown and John Edward, their primary function is as a kind of counselor for the troubled people in their society. They occasionally throw in a little superstitious mumbo jumbo to keep the people entertained, but as good skeptics we can recognize the lame cold reading for what it is and call it out accordingly. The following video is a reasonable representation of sangoma-style cold reading. Apart from the fact that it is well staged, the reading given is incredibly lame and John Edward would be embarrassed if that was the best his spirits could give him (luckily they are all making it up anyway, so the only restriction on these spirit mediums is the creativity of their imaginations).

I’m not really writing this article to debunk the spiritualists though, that has been done often enough that I don’t believe it is necessary for me to go into it again. The change in outfit does not change the result all that much. No, I want to look at the dark side of this tradition, I want to turn the beast over and expose its pus filled underbelly. Maybe I will be able to cause a little damage in the process.

Now, herbal medicine and cold reading alone do not pose a mortal threat to anybody. These traditional practices become problematic when people start to mix superstitious thinking in with the medicinal herbs. For instance, take people starting to believe in supernatural concepts such as the spirits of ancestors and the power of those spirits to influence our daily lives in the real world. Then, add a shamanistic desire to appear mysterious and powerful and the result is people being mutilated, their stolen body parts added to potions in a misguided attempt by a complete stranger or, more terrifyingly, a family member to increase their personal fortune by appealing to the blood thirsty ghosts of their stone age ancestors.

If this sounds like an exaggeration to you, I am very sorry to say that it is not. Just this morning I read the following horrific news article on on of our local web based news outlets, news24:

Boys tongue, penis cut off

2010-07-19 10:04

Durban – A 2-year-old KwaZulu-Natal boy is in a critical condition after his tongue and penis were cut off, police said on Monday.

He was found in eZimangweni in eNanda late last Wednesday after he disappeared while playing with his friends, Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Mdunge said.

No arrests have been made.

Police are investigating a case of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and have appealed to local residents to come forward with information about the attack.


As shocking as this particular case is, the deeply disturbing fact is that this kind of mutilation is commonplace in my part of the world. A 2009 report, entitled Trafficking Body Parts in Mozambique and South Africa (.pdf), compiled by the Mozambican Human Rights League reveals the scope of muti related attacks and murders in Mozambique and South Africa. This report shows that mutilation for harvesting of body parts in South Africa and Mozambique is “a deep rooted problem with no solution”. The report was compiled after the Human Rights League in Mozambique conducted a 7 month research project, 4 months of which were active field work.

Between May and September 2008, a research team carried out qualitative and participatory regional research in Maputo city and in the provinces of Maputo, Sofala, Nampula, Niassa,Cabo Delgado and Tete in Mozambique and Limpopo, Free State, Kwazulu-Natal andMpumalanga in South Africa.

The researchers hosted a series of workshops which allowed them to create an environment of trust and this led to people feeling comfortable enough to open up and talk about the mutilation and killing for muti. The results make me scared and angry.

Fig.1 from the report on Trafficking Body Parts

The personal experiences contained within the report confirm the nature and motives of these attacks. The woman who related the following incident paid R4000.00 for a belt made from the fingers and penises of children. At least three little boys were mutilated because this one woman could not accept the fact that she had suffered the misfortune of a miscarriage.

Location: Bloemspruit South Africa
Interview date: August 2nd 2008
This interview was conducted in Bloemspruit with a woman who confirmed she was instructed by a “Sangoma” (Traditional Healer) to use children’s fingers and penises, which she wore as a belt under her clothes to solve a problem she had with a pregnancy. Previous to the visit to the Sangoma, she appeared to be pregnant and then suffered a miscarriage. However, she seemed not prepared to accept this and despite visits to hospitals and clinics who confirmed she was not actually pregnant, she instead visited a Sangoma who made a belt for her. From the belt hung two fingers and three penises from children. She was also instructed to drink a concoction she believed contained human blood and fat and she was given a piece of flesh which she believed to be a human organ, perhaps a heart. She sliced small pieces from the flesh each night and fried them on a stove. She followed these instructions for about one month and became ill, burnt the items prescribed by the Sangoma
and went to hospital.

In her own words:

Then the Traditional Healer, he gave me a belt with fingers and penises of children. It looked like a necklace with penises and fingers hanging.

Another informant watched from her border-side stall as numerous traffickers were caught by the South African Police.

Location: Ressano Garcia Village, Ressano Garcia District, Maputo Province

Interview Date: November 9th, 2008

This interview was conducted in Ressano Garcia Village with a woman who works at a “halfway house” (LN) for victims of trafficking in persons and a woman that works as a stall holder at the South African border (LB) but lives in Ressano Garcia in Mozambique. LB spoke about the cases of trafficking body parts she witnessed while she was selling her products at the South African border. In September/October 2008, she witnessed 3 cases. In the first case, the Border Police caught a woman who was trying to cross the border carrying a bag with “male and female sexual organs from adults hidden in the middle of matapa leaves”. In the second case, a woman “was caught carrying a head and the sexual organ of a male child”, thought to be around 10 years old. The “material” was inside a plastic bag in the middle of ice and food. In the third case a man was caught “carrying meat inside a freezer bag” with “5 male genital organs from adult men” hidden at the bottom. LB also spoke about a case of a woman who crossed the border in a car and was caught by the Police when they discovered “several children’s heads inside plastic bags and she had covered them with capulanas” (traditional clothing). This incident is significant as it was also

mentioned in the rationale and was the catalyst for this research.

This interview provides further motivation as well.

LDH: So how many cases can you say that happen per year or month?

LB: I can say that at least three to four cases per month. And it does get a lot worse at the end of November and in December. People want more money on these months. […] In December there are a lot more people crossing and the control is much worse. […] The people that cross these things have their schemes they know who is going to be working and at what time they will be working to let them cross. […]

Shall I repeat that?

People want more money on these months.

This is murder and mutilation for person gain, inspired by superstitions carried down from tribal ancestors. When will we grow up? When will we realise that this barbaric practice does not influence the cash flow of anyone except the witchdoctors and murderers? Only widespread education can hope to make any difference. But I fear that will be a long time in coming because the people who have the resources are part of the same tribe and have the same ancient beliefs as the perpetrators of these crimes.

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6 responses to “Black Magic or Murder?

  1. I’ve been doing a lot of research on this subject, not bcoz i found it interesting or anything like that, i had no choice but to face it.
    Witchcraft is very real and they have power over us coz we don’t know nothing and we burry our heads in the sand whenever theres a slight chance that it might actualy be true, and when things happen that we can’t explain we just brush it off as coincidence.
    Deep down we all know it exists but we deny its existance out of fear and feeling powerless when we should actually be looking into how we can perhaps empower ourselves.
    I have a lot of information i wanna share and actually look to work with people coz i wont live the rest of my life in wonder and fear.

  2. This whole issue has burned for me since I was a teenager. The majority of South Africans, I would guess from conversations with a variety of people, believe in black magic. And it’s not just a traditional thing (see Caroline’s comment above). Remember the Satanic Panic?

    Look, I’m not going to ignore the reports, but I still want to see the hard evidence that this practise exists. Qualitative stuff does not cut it. Again, remember the Satanic Panic – with people wrongly convicted all over the place on mountains of “evidence” that turned out to be total BS.

    There’s a logical conundrum here for me: if black magic is so reviled, how is it that these people are able to find clients without communities finding out and lynching them? I’m not saying it’s not true, I’m saying it’s curiously unproven, from what I’ve read, for something acknowledged as this terrifying crime epidemic.

    Where are the cases of convictions of a career mutilator, along with a series of clients? Because one mutilation sold to one client is merely evidence of two nut-cases – not of a tradition of body parts in medicine.

    What was the consequence of these interviews? Presumably arrests must have been made swiftly on the people that sold the interviewees these items – since they are reports of particularly gruesome murders for profit?

    Do you guys see my problem here? I’ll repeat: I’m not saying it’s not real, I’m only saying that there seems to be curiously little evidence presented to show that it is. Why is that?

    European witchcraft – universally believed real at one point, turned out to be so much hysteria based on anecdotal evidence. We can’t ignore that thinking about this issue.

  3. It is the case, that we with a Christian , Western viewpoint dismiss witchcraft and traditional medicines, as not working.
    I am going to ask a question nobody will like. What if witchcraft works? What if spells work? Nobody wants to even think of this possibility. I grew up in the oldest wealthiest white area of town, and over time many sons of families in the area, died prematurely in accidents.
    I often wonder why? Was it coincidence?
    Was it witchcraft aimed at destroying the young males which would be the next leaders; the next to, in those days, uphold apartheid?
    I really don’t know the answer, but I can’t help having a vague uneasiness about it all.
    I also know the case of the young son and heir of a white farmer, who hanged himself after displaying bizarre behaviour.
    Was it witchcraft over land claims?
    Nobody ever looks any further when people die prematurely. Perhaps we should. Are we adequately protected from the effects of witchcraft if we are Christian and Westernised?
    Again, I don’t know the answers, but I suspect that we have only scratched the surface when it comes to the truth about this.

    • Here’s the thing, Caroline, nobody can rule out with any degree of certainty the possibility that witchcraft does, indeed, work.

      But it’s also true that nobody can rule out with any degree of certainty the possibility that there is a porcelain teapot orbiting the sun between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn.

      What we can do, however, is evaluate the probability of it. Given that any given phenomenon attributed to witchcraft has another plausible and mundane explanation (people who are depressed and suicidal tend to behave strangely, to use your example), why would we make the leap and propose that some mysterious power exists that is beyond the reach of science? Why look for an exotic explanation when an everyday explanation works just as well or not better?

      I’d suggest looking into the notion of Occam’s Razor.

  4. “…the people who have the resources are part of the same tribe and have the same ancient beliefs as the perpetrators of these crimes.”

    Think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. The average decision-making government official would likely not be the sort of person who would seek out this kind of muti themselves (this is me giving them more credit than they probably deserve), but they do still subscribe to the over-arching system of belief of which these practices are a part.

    In much the same way as moderate Muslims and Christians can be said to pave the way for violent extremists, so too do those in power in both SA and Moz create an environment where this sort of thing can flourish.

    I blame not only the Sangomas and Inyangas themselves, but also those like Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema, Gwede Mantashe and the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang who make a big public deal about demanding respect for their superstitious, tribalistic belief systems. And, in so doing, infer a sort of social currency upon the batshit insane and murderously dangerous people who pull this kind of thing. The ones with the silly hats.

    It’s a toxic cycle, and we can only hope that improved education (should that ever happen) might put a dent in it for generations to come.

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