Whatever We Believe, We Cannot Ignore the Impact of Religion and Spirituality

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BYLINE: Duncan Brown

A very small piece in the Weekend Argus in February caught my eye: traditional healers should be prohibited from using "psychic or divination powers to cause disputes in communities". Effectively, the proposed legislation by the Gauteng Health Department was trying to legislate the realm of the invisible.

Many people assume that we are on a one-way journey to reason and secularism, but there is much evidence to the contrary, especially in Africa. As the census statistics for South Africa show that we are overwhelmingly a religious society, it is important to consider how this affects governance.

The anthropologist Harry G West writes about how Frelimo in Mozambique, because of its thoroughly Marxist ideology, dismissed all traditional religious beliefs as mere superstition (ironically close to the colonial view), and that because of this, such beliefs simply "went underground". But post-independence they have resurfaced, and West recounts a fascinating case of a district administrator who was requested by his constituents to arrange for the killing of lions which had been created by a sorcerer to cause havoc in the community.

If this sounds a little remote to some readers of this newspaper, I was in a university meeting recently, and one academic had a piece of stone on the table in front of him. When asked about it, he said it was a piece of volcanic rock which he had picked up walking in Jonkershoek. An African colleague commented that this question and response were telling: in her community, she said, people would have asked "Who are you trying to bewitch with that piece of stone?"

Another author and political scientist Adam Ashforth argues that unless we understand that for many, life in South Africa is governed by a pervasive "spiritual insecurity" and that everyday issues - from love, relationships, employment, housing, sport, security - are managed through a complex system of spiritual practices, we will never make sense of our country.

Of course, part of the problem is precisely with legislation around these issues, which often lumps together under the term witchcraft very different spiritual belief systems, from traditional African beliefs to forms of paganism. And there is the related problem of whether legislation should try to protect people from the adverse effects of "witchcraft" or protect people from accusations of "witchcraft", which have led to some terrible deaths of innocent people. …