Thursday, March 31, 2011

SUVs Are The New Broomsticks

In South Africa witches have apparently traded in their brooms for Yukon Denalis. At least, that's according to the latest gossip fueling angry mobs. On the surface I suppose it makes sense - I have yet to see a broom with heated leather seats, though the mileage on a Yukon leaves something to be desired.

Back in 2008 I commented on a speech given by a religious leader in Uganda, who claimed that the practice of witchcraft was contributing to widepread poverty among the Alur people. My impression was that this sounded more like fundamentalist propaganda than any sort of real plan to improve the standard of living among the Alur. "Trusting in God" may sound all fine and good, but it's not exactly helpful to someone who is so poor that they are barely surviving.

In the Limpopo region of South Africa, though, a related dynamic can be seen in action. It's not the actual practice of magick or witchcraft that is causing the problem, but rather the rumors and accusations spread by jealous neighbors. Here the economic side of witch persecutions is plain to see, in that if someone becomes more successful than his or her neighbors charges of witchcraft are often not far behind.

Recently empowered rural people are increasingly being accused of witchcraft by jealous neighbours, sometimes with grave consequences, Limpopo police said on Wednesday.

"Now you are a witch because you are driving a four-by-four. This is the mentality that people have," said provincial police spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi.

Grandmother Mupala Motopela, 81, and her grand daughter, Cynthia Lemaho, 26, were stoned to death and then set alight by a mob in Maake village outside Tzaneen at the weekend after being accused of witchcraft. Lemaho is survived by two children, aged two and 12, who managed to escape unharmed.

Mulaudzi said this was the fourth incident in villages in Limpopo in the past three months where people were either assaulted or killed after being accused of witchcraft.

"Once people start amassing wealth, getting bigger houses and sending their children to better schools, it means you are engaging yourself in witchcraft.

"People think something is helping you do that [amass wealth] and then they accuse you of witchcraft."

The grain of truth behind this is that upward mobility is so difficult in most societies that without a lot of luck it just isn't possible, especially in a society such as South Africa which has a level of income disparity that is among the highest in the world.

While it might be statistically true that a more successful person is more likely to practice magick, or at least more likely to be good at it, on the whole lucky breaks tend to be randomly distributed throughout any population and can only be influenced by spells to a certain degree. Somebody always eventually wins the lottery, magick or no magick.

But this sort of persecution presents an enormous challenge to anyone hoping to improve the lives of people living in these rural communities. Nobody is going to move back to one of these villages and start up a small business, for example, if it means risking their lives. Such businesses create jobs and over time prosperity can spread throughout the whole area as more employment options become available.

Mulaudzi said this had become a real concern for people wanting to return to their villages after building better lives for themselves.

Many people who earned good money wanted to buy themselves better houses in their villages, but they were afraid of being attacked and accused of witchcraft, he said.

"It has become a challenge to people. It is really disturbing."

South African authorities are taking the murders of Motopela and Lemaho very seriously, hoping to set an example for others. With many of these traditional beliefs, though, this is often an uphill battle. The crackdown on albino killings in Tanzania and Burundi back in 2009 resulted in many arrests and executions, but the murders go on there, fueled by the belief that albino body parts have magical properties.

He said the police decided to launch a massive manhunt for those responsible for the killing of Motopela and Lemaho on Sunday. First they were dragged out of the house, before being stoned to death. Their bodies were dragged back into the house and set alight.

"It is nonsensical. We still have a long way to go in educating people."

Worst was, said Muluadzi, those arrested in the Maake murders were all aged between 18 and 25.

"These are the leaders of our future. We expect them to lead a responsible life."

By Wednesday morning, nine people had been arrested.

"This must also serve as a warning to others. Enough is enough. We are not going to allow this thing to happen in the province. They must know, we will hunt them down," said Muluadzi.

"This thing is very depressing. Innocent people are losing their lives."

With such a group of young people involved one I will say that I'm left wondering about the degree to which the witchcraft accusations resulted in the mob's behavior and to what extent it was simply a convenient excuse for violence. After all, in developed countries without widespread belief in witchcraft a significant percentage of violent crimes are committed by people in the same age group. If somebody has a natural propensity for violence, young adulthood seems to be the point at which they are grown up enough to start doing serious damage to those around them. The only difference is that nobody bothers accusing convenience store clerks of witchcraft before robbing and sometimes killing them.

Here's hoping that the arrests will be effective in curbing the violence in Limpopo. People should be able to drive whatever kind of vehicle they want without risking death at the hands of a bunch of deluded idiots.

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Hypnovatos said...

It's truly atrocious. I lived in a Greek village for a while, quite a few years ago. While there, you would hear similar gossip going on. Anyone doing well was either "doing magic" or having sex with the mayor. It was almost always aimed at women as well. Their mentality is that men work hard and earn their good fortune, women find ways to work around the system, cheating. Mind you, the second you want to know your future, you go to the "cafetsou" and she reads your coffee grounds to tell you if your gonna have a boy or make any money. She tends to be the same person that arranges marriages too... go figure.
My take is that it is all due to a lack of education and experience. The scary part is that the US, through its de-funding of education, is heading in that same direction.... likely within one generation... just look at the Diesel Jeans "Be Stupid" commercial... case in point.

Scott Stenwick said...

It's basic human nature to try and make sense of the randomness of privilege and success. The idea that "people are poor because they're lazy" is the form it tends to take here in the US, when in reality the working poor work at least as hard as the more financially successful.

I don't know that my predictions regarding the state of education in the US would be as dire as yours, but I agree that the current defunding trend is a serious problem. A society that glorifies stupidity is only undermining its own future potential for success.

nerinedorman said...

Speaking as a South African with esoteric leanings, I can report that the Satanic panic is alive an kicking throughout all the income groups. It's really quite sad. I tend to avoid discussing religion with people. It's just not worth bashing my head against that wall.