When superstition and witchcraft control national consciousness expect nothing else but doom

It’s July 1931 and the setting is Hlathikhulu Magistrate Court in colonial Swaziland. Standing trial on charges of soliciting a witch is Sikelela Mbhamali together with his wife, Mnukwa Mbhamali. They are accused of violating the Witchcraft Act of 1889.

The presiding judge is District Commissioner, Allan G. Marwick. Born and raised in Natal, Marwick had trekked to Swaziland in 1903 and established himself as the most trusted colonial official in the eyes of the then Swazi monarchy.

He earned his stripes, so to speak, not only because he was fluent in Siswati but also because he understood our tradition and sociology. The colonial law prevailing at the time criminalised practising of ‘witchcraft’, displaying its recognised insignia and soliciting or procuring ‘witches’.

Originally from Siteki in the eastern part of Swaziland, the couple had been struggling with infertility. This condition had taken them to all corners of the country in search for a cure.

The desperation with which the couple had sought medical attention was a reflection of the value Swazis place on childbearing. For some time they had wandered about the colonial territory in search of a competent ‘native medicine man or herbalist’ without success.

At Hlatikulu they had finally found not one but two ritual specialists to help them. This was Nutose Lukhele assisted by Makubata Sikondze, a sangoma (diviner). Ritual specialisation, especially divining, was one of the few significant avenues for women’s upward mobility in colonial Swaziland.  

The suffering couple were not seeking consultation with a sangoma per se but a traditional medical cure to their problem. Whilst the use of bones among tinyanga was not unheard of, they were more often than not the provenance of a sangoma.

At the time, it was common for two specialists to work cooperatively just as a general practitioner and a specialist in Western medicine can work jointly. Evidence at the trial was circumstantial and denials commonplace.

It was clear from the facts though that LaLukhele had referred the afflicted couple to LaSikondze, the sangoma. It had been in the midst of consultation with the latter, her bones scattered on the floor, that police officers sprung up from nowhere and arrested them. As it turned out, they had been set up.

Throwing the Bones
A sangoma throwing her bones

The couple was subsequently trialled, convicted and sent to prison for three months without the option of a fine.

This case, and Commissioner Marwick’s disposition of it, gives a cameo peek into the colonial government’s commitment to stamp out ‘witchcraft’, practitioners of divination and segments of herbalists that practised diagnosis and prescription of medicines.

All the suffering Mbhamali couple wanted was a medical cure for their dreaded affliction and not recourse to the occult they were eventually imprisoned for.  

The colonial government’s commitment to wipe out ‘witchcraft’ was of course antithetical to its cherished legal tradition of due process and often times led to the killing of innocent and hapless victims.

Worse still, the government lumped divination, spiritualism, and herbalism together with witchcraft and in the process undermined African indigenous medicine practised for millennia. 

The government was right to go after witchcraft because it perceived its practitioners as a strong competitive locus of power it could not tolerate. Witchcraft’s grip on our society came in part because of how it was intertwined with the monarchy specifically and chiefly rule more generally.

The truth is that a majority of Swazi chiefs considered witchcraft, in particular the power of ‘smelling-out’ and killing off rivals or threats as batsakatsi, to be an indispensable tool in the practice and retention of power.

Worse still, it was wholly sanctioned by ‘Swazi tradition’. While the colonial regime attempted to wipe out witchcraft or superstition (however warped its understanding was) the present government is propping it up under the cover of ‘tradition’ or ‘custom’.

The effect of this is that Swaziland has remained intellectually stunted and culturally backward. For starters, why again would a vast majority of this country accept the legitimacy of a monarchy in the 21st century never mind an absolute one?

The fact that Swazis rationalize and accept monarchial rule and believe in a voodoo world or even the cult following of all these fraudulent pastors is reflective of a bigger problem.

It seems our country is still trapped in medieval thinking and facing acute paucity of intellectual rigour, scientific illiteracy and ideological malnourishment. In the final analysis, our national consciousness is a relic of feudal backwardness that was long defeated by the enlightenment period in Europe.

Instead of celebrating backwardness as ‘African’, Swazis must accept that all societies once believed or held the same set of ideas we hold dear. 

However, enlightenment thinkers in Britain, France and throughout Europe were able to question these beliefs and the power of traditional authority by persuading society to embrace the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change.

The Enlightenment produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and led to revolutions.  German philosopher Immanuel Kant even summed up the era’s motto by saying: ‘Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own reason!’

 

The late Prince Mfanasibili. He attempted a coup using muti.

Many people have posited different reasons why Swaziland has remained a semi-feudal enclave in a continent that long embraced plural democracy.  The answers, I argue, can be found in the kind of ideas that define this country not just politically but in all aspects of our lives.

Unless there is a seismic shift in thinking and our society gets bold enough to discard all manner of backward belief systems (even those justified as culture or tradition) the better for us all.

At least that is what a country with first world ambitions should do.

The problem in Swaziland is that ‘witchcraft’, or more broadly superstition, is neatly woven with tradition and monarchial rule that separating everything is as good as challenging the basis and legitimacy of the monarchy as an institution.

As to where tradition, custom, monarchy and witchcraft start and end is difficult to delineate and is in fact akin to unmasking the mythical power of traditionalism in Swaziland.

Unlike other countries in Africa, in Swaziland belief in witchcraft or superstition is part of state policy and lots of tax payer’s money is spent on it. Even worse is how this state tolerance of voodoo and a spooky world permeates into the very fibre of our society.

The result is a frustrating intellectual underdevelopment of our people… including, by the way, those with more degrees than thermometers. Living in a  country where people have a right to any belief system should not be a problem but the peculiarity of Swaziland is how backward belief systems have made it into state policy and drives the developmental agenda of the country.

 If it is not our football colonised by an obsessive belief in muti then it is government’s jaundiced beliefs that they cannot finish Somhlolo national stadium because ‘ngeke nifulatsele emakhosi’.

Even a Times of Swaziland sports reporter was once attacked at a national stadium by Mbabane Swallows fans after reporting on the alleged use of muti by the team.

The use of muti is so widespread in our football that the FIFA-donated artificial turf — worth millions — has been badly damaged by fans and team members ‘burying’ objects under the turf despite no proven correlation between success on the pitch and muti

Any rationally thinking person would have asked at some point why, if muti worked, we have not won the World Cup?

Obsessive belief in muti or any deity for that matter, is tolerable only when it does not influence the thinking of political leaders on policy and development or harms innocent people.

The experience of Mandla Hlatshwayo, the former Illovo Managing Director is instructive to show how pervasive the problem is. Hlatshwayo narrated his experience with the royal family’s obsession with superstition to former USA Ambassador to Swaziland, Earl Irving.

 

Know more about Super Eagles next opponent
The Swaziland national team. Writer says muti is rife in Swazi football

In a leaked cable the Ambassador reports of his meeting with Hlatshwayo, the former President of the Swaziland Sugar Association and also former member of the economic recovery unit established by former Prime Minister Themba Dlamini.  

As an executive in the sugar industry and also President of the Chamber of employers Hlatshwayo’s paths crossed with that of the king more often than not.

His account of the thinking within the royal family can therefore be relied upon and helps to confirm what is known by almost every Swazi. He told Ambassador Irving that King Mswati III believes in muti and that attempts to use muti to attack him are taken seriously within the royal household.

 According to Hlatshwayo, traditional leaders and superstition are the major influences on King Mswati III and that “muti people” hold great sway on what the king must eat and drink particularly when in seclusion.

Hlatshwayo emphasized that superstition is very important in the king’s and royal families’ lives; King Mswati III believes in muti (traditional medicine used to cast spells or curses), and attempts to use muti to attack the king are taken seriously,” reads the cable in part.

This can be confirmed by the bizarre announcement by the King when appointing our Prime Minister where he claimed to have spoken to his ancestors or even claims that he spoke to God who suggested that he donate a whopping  $6Million to the global fund recently. 

As Nellie Bowles rightly noted in an article for Foreign Policy,  King Mswati’s belief in his own divinity blurs his vision and disconnects him from reality. But even more worrying is the paralysing effect this belief in muti has on the nation.

How again must I convince my children that in Swaziland a duly elected Speaker of parliament was once removed from his position because he allegedly stole ‘cow dung’. 

It is common to hear people claim the stick the king normally holds can make people go mad or that he has supernatural powers that you cannot even look at him straight to the face. The sad part is that many people genuinely believe this.

To appreciate how seriously superstition is taken in the country you have to read the judgements that convicted the late Prince Mfanasibili of high treason, defeating the ends of justice and sedition. These judgments read like a Hollywood comic classic.

To imagine that in other countries a coup is defined by gunfire yet in Swaziland people like Prince Mfanasibili were charged with crimes against the state in 1989 for allegedly using muti to try to take away the king’s powers. 

To this day the ‘muti’ coup is spoken about in hushed tones.

One judgement, for example, details how the Prince had travelled to South Africa on March 26, 1985 to meet one Elliot Ndaba—an inyanga—with the sole intentions of concocting some elaborate lie about threats to the monarchy posed by another faction of the royal family.

The late Prince even promised to pay Ndaba up to R18 000 for his ‘traditional’ services.

Ndaba was expected to give false testimony against a faction of the royal family that had been arrested and accused of attempting to usurp power.

Bottles containing muti were subsequently buried at certain entrances to the Parliament Building all because the Mfanasibili group believed it had power. At some point, M Prince Mfanasibili once thought he was invisible after attempting an escape from the country.

All of this would make any rational person roll with laughter except in Swaziland it had dire consequences for so many politicians. 

The importance of this discussion is that in a few weeks time the country will again come to a standstill as we go to the incwala ceremony. The annual event is taken seriously in the country such that shops close, police take off work, and warriors camp outside the king’s palace as he goes into seclusion to perform elaborate rites — eating traditional herbs, dancing — under the supervision of inyangas, or witch doctors.

Dancing regiments
Regiments at the Incwala ceremony in 1970

A month later, the King emerges from Incwala ‘invincible’ and cleansed from the past year, and his divinity reaffirmed. Many Swazis call Incwala “our national prayer month” — the deity being Mswati III.

In the final analysis, incwala has become a ritual that renews the royal family’s power and Hilder Kuper wrote extensively about how it mutated from colonial time right up to Sobhuza’s death. At all material times it has been used to pacify the nation and spread myths about the power of muti in the country.

Kuper had an interesting description of the role of Incwala in our body politics. She writes, for example, that despite historical events and contact with other forms of government kingship in the country has become hedged with divinity thanks in part to incwala.

While in modern societies deliberate attempts are made to stimulate patriotism and develop sense of unity through the use of slogans, flag rites etc in Swaziland incwala is more deeply rooted than contrived political propaganda.

It is not so much the practice of Incwala that is the problem rather the belief that Swazis hold about its power. 

Contrary to popular belief, the so-called ‘African science’ is merely a reflection of the stage of society’s development than an essentialist badge of honour that separates Africa from the rest of the world.

You will find that everything none scientific was once believed by the most advanced societies in the industrialised west. It is nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps the most embarrassing part in all of this was when a competition of witches was announced in the country. The government quickly banned the event and promised to arrest the organisers but not before the international media caught wind of it. We became a laughing stock the world over.

It is indeed an indictment to the country as a whole that someone even thought about such an event in the first place.

The diabolic ability of witches to alter natural courses, cause harm and other negativity is the reason why many view witchcraft as dangerous and prepared to act violently against it. 

In January 2018 a mob cracked open the skull of a 27-year-old man of Dlangeni in Hhukwini after being accused of being a wizard. A month later the Swazi High Court was reportedly ‘in panic’ when an owl was seen in the building in daylight. 

‘The bird drew the attention of everyone who came to court, more so because it is known of its bad omen and some Swazis associate it with witchcraft,’ the Swazi Observer reported at the time.

The fear of witchcraft is even more pervasive in schools. At St Michael’s High school a prayer session was quickly convened after a pile of sand with a substance, which looked like vomit, was discovered in one of the offices under one of the cabinets.  At Enthandweni primary, some teachers are uncomfortable after seeing their head teacher, a self-confessed Zionist, dressed in her church garb, walking past the school to her place of abode.

This is the cultural backwardness Moeletsi Mbeki spoke about. Described as wizened and grizzled wayfarer, Mbeki had travelled the continent to see that development is not so much the skyscrapers we long for in our cities.

“Development,”  he reasoned,  “is not just bricks and mortar. Real development involves the intellect and culture. Mortar and bricks are just symbols.

 

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2 thoughts on “When superstition and witchcraft control national consciousness expect nothing else but doom

  1. Interesting and provocative read.
    It’s interesting how you talk about “Swazi tradition” as “cultural backwardness.” You cite the European Enlightenment as the force that dealt with this type of “backwardness” in that part of the world. What I want to bring to the fore is that what the Enlightenment really sought to bring was a clear separation of the religious and the secular. All along, people had always understood life as not being neatly divided into “secular and religious.” The “thinkers” of the Enlightenment brought about that division. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined the famous phrase “God is dead!” He wasn’t celebrating the triumph of rationalism, but actually lamenting the catastrophes that will follow because the religious has been removed from the public life of the society. Many philosophers and scientists have began to see the folly of rationalism in the West. What was thought to be “salvation” has actually turned out to be the very thing eating up the West at the core of its being.

    What I’m trying to say here is that rationalism is not the answer you hope it is. On the surface, the West looks like a thriving society – depending on what one means by thriving, of course. But on the inside, the society is disintegrating. My point is not to defend the practices of “witchcraft,” but to challenge you on your bold assumption that belief in the spiritual forces in the world is “backwardness.”

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