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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Gay > Rubrieke | Columns > Christina Engela: Fundamentally Speaking

There is in prejudice no fairness, nor equality


Christina Engela - 2011-12-07

We are all losing a little bit of our equality and freedom, a little bit at a time. All of us, in every social grouping, whatever the basis for discrimination or differentiation, are affected. We all belong to a race group, a gender, a sexual orientation, a personal expression, and have our own religious beliefs. How long before all of us are equal only in our disenfranchisement, powerlessness and despair?

The looming Secrecy Bill is, I am certain, designed to cushion the State and ruling party from ongoing media criticism and scandals resulting from numerous and plentiful allegations and revelations of corruption, fraud, mismanagement and gross incompetence, and it seems some newspaper editors enjoy indulging in a little secrecy of their own.

The Sunday Tribune based in Durban on the south-eastern coast of South Africa has taken it upon itself not only to defame a whole religious community, but to ignore their protests and objections to such defamation and stereotyping as well.

A few months ago the furore around the so-called "satanic" killing of a man in a cemetery by a woman and her boyfriend in the town of Welkom boiled over into a frenzy of "satanic panic" articles written by sensation-seeking journalists who used coincidental occult connotations and accusations of "satanism" and "witchcraft" to good effect in lining the bottom of their readers’ bird cages. The accused, a teenage girl – who was subsequently convicted of the murder based on evidence linking her to the deed, and not her religious associations – was inappropriately and repeatedly labelled "the Welkom witch" – much to the dismay and ire of real practising witches and Pagans in general. As could be clearly seen when evidence was led in court, and from the text of the guilty verdict, there is nothing linking this person to actual Paganism or the actual practice of witchcraft – in fact, newspaper reports indicated that this girl was found to have severe mental and psychological issues which indicated that she enjoyed "experimenting" and would most likely be a repeat offender. She was convicted for her crimes, which is something I can agree with. What I cannot agree with is the use of the term "Witch" to describe such a murderer. It associates the act of murder, and the acting out of cruelty and violence, with real witches, and this is totally inappropriate and woefully inaccurate.

One would not expect the media to entertain the use of labels such as "the Welkom Jew" or "the Welkom Christian" – so why is it perfectly acceptable to call the killer "the Welkom witch" and then to react with complete surprise and disbelief when actual witches object? Really?

Paganism as a religious entity was legalised and formalised at the dawn of our new democracy in South Africa, after many years of persecution, secrecy and mystery under the oppressive racist and Christianist white Christian apartheid regime. The fact that some practitioners of Pagan religion or spiritual paths in witchcraft use the name "witch" to describe themselves  was fairly well documented at the time. It took numerous depositions by Pagan leaders and representatives before Parliament in the early 1990s to get Pagan worship – and the practice of the religion of witchcraft – recognised and legalised in South Africa.

As a matter of interest, back in 2007 the passing of an anti-witchcraft bill – seriously pushed by the ACDP, among others – was narrowly avoided. This bill would have made a large portion of the expression of Pagan religious beliefs in public or private a crime punishable by law. This goes to show the lengths to which opponents of religious freedom will go in this country to ensure the continued dominance of their own religion.

Considering national law and the South African Constitution, it is not illegal – nor a crime in and of itself – to be either a practising Pagan – or even to be a Satanist or Luciferian. However, Satanists and Luciferians are not Pagans. Crime is still crime, though, and where people commit heinous acts they should face the full might of the law – no matter what their motive was, be it religious or not. But how fair is it to blame the crimes of a person not even associated with a specific religion on that specific religion? Especially when the media try to convict the accused on unsubstantiated claims of "satanism" and "witchcraft" and plays on profits from the religious hysteria that follows? 

Charne van Heerden is no witch; she is in fact not even a Pagan. The court found no concrete evidence even to back up the use of the word "satanism" in the case – but I suppose that word gets applied to anyone these days whom certain religious groups disapprove of, such as gay people – and, of course, anyone from any other religion apart from Christianity.

Despite this legality, and the intended (and under-promoted) equality and non-discrimination clauses in the Constitution of South Africa (and in Act No 4 of 2000, the Promulgation of Equality Act), there still exist much prejudice and stigma to being out and open about one's religious affiliations if you are Pagan.

Pagans and Pagan culture and religious beliefs are regularly demonised and insulted by other religious groups, and especially by religious fundamentalist Christians – and often not simply in their own religious spaces, but in broad public daylight. This hostility is not simply limited to a little public hate speech, but is also expressed in frequent intimidation and victimisation of Pagans and non-Christians in the workplace, in schools, and in the business arena.

This all highlights just how skewed our sense of fairness and equality and non-discrimination is in South Africa. It says quite loudly and clearly that all religions in South Africa are equal – but some religions are more equal than others. Oh, and ours is more equal than yours, so sod off. Weh-weh-weh.

The issue brought up by the Sunday Tribune articles is the unfair and inaccurate depiction of real witches as dangerous and violent killers with mental disorders and antisocial behaviour, and the fact that this serves to sell their newspapers, while also bolstering the negative stereotype which sees so many innocent people murdered each year in South Africa.

Notably, this is done without the involvement of the law, or any reports of follow-ups in the press. We may read a headline about a person murdered in a rural area – rather conveniently accused of "witchcraft" – but we never read about the killers being arrested, identified or even tried or convicted for these abhorrent kangaroo-court and jungle-justice-style murders. Often these articles will also feature the words "witch" or "witchcraft" to describe the victims, even though no evidence is presented to substantiate any of the suspicions of the killers – and the stereotype  that "witches" are dangerous and hostile and that their killings are justifiable, forms a message that is difficult to dismiss – unless one is patently stupid or agrees with it.

The Sunday Tribune received complaints about this association and misuse of the word "witch" in the Van Heerden case, and a complaint was logged with the press ombudsman (PO) to this effect. The response of the ombudsman? “Unfortunately this office will not entertain your complaint.” Joe Thloloe. Very nice attitude, that.  

This is not a new thing, it seems, as the PO appears to have a long-standing indifference to complaints against the defamation of the Pagan community in the media. In e-mail correspondence with one complainant, a Ms Martin, the PO responds:

Dear Ms Martin

Unfortunately this office will not entertain your complaint.

May I refer you to a 2009 decision by this office, upheld by the chairperson of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Zulman? For clarity I will:

Over a considerable period, Mr Leff has complained against a number of publications – among them Die Burger, The Witness, IOL, Dispatch Online – alleging that they defamed “self-styled witches”. The latest complaint is against Die Burger for an article by Marlene of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Neethling on March 25, 2009 headlined Kat dalk in heksedaad bedwelm. Zulman, to review it.

This complaint follows the pattern of all the others. The articles he submitted to this office, from titles across the country, are from the web and not from actual newspapers. We can fairly infer that Mr Leff trawls the web looking for South African newspaper references to witches and uses his “hits” as bases for his complaints.

Reference is made to a report on complaints about similar offending articles in South African papers made by Damon Leff of the SA Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) and a report on the issue by the PO dating from 2009. Comments in this piece by the office of the PO imply that in essence "it is just fine to ignore these complaints, because they are all about the same thing anyway". It says that it is fine to ignore a complainant, because these people are always complaining about the same old silly thing, and that we're really not interested enough to investigate anyway. Besides, references on the web to online articles also published by a newspaper in that same newspaper, somehow "don't count".

Here in South Africa, just as in the rest of Africa, we have traditional healers who are a firmly rooted part of black culture – and the name "witch doctor" unwisely applied by missionaries in the past appears to have stuck. As a scathing example of the misapplied label and woefully inaccurate stereotype (as well as the potential for harm), another article provides clarity: 

Interviewed after his church service yesterday, the leader of the Sword and Spirit Ministries alleged that it was a known fact that witches were hired to perform certain rituals at cultural events which, however, he did not specify. "All I am saying is I do not want my money to pay witches in the name of culture," said Thwala. 

These so-called "witches" do not identify as actual witches, because they aren't witches! They are traditional healers. They also have absolutely no association or affiliation with Pagan religion, religious bodies, or culture – and in fact they often object to such association being made.

According to the Press Ombudsman any notion that actual witches should wish to appeal against the defamatory stereotyping of witches in the South African media is ridiculous and can never merit anything but contemptuous scorn. 

But of course – didn't you know that there is no such thing as ordinary, law-abiding, good-natured witches? That's right, the Sunday Tribune is clearly a "family newspaper" ... can't have "satanism" promoted and made to look like an acceptable lifestyle choice now, can we? Praise the Lord, pass the collection plate – and for God’s sake, will somebody please think of the children? Facepalm, as they say online these days.

It seems that the editor of the Sunday Tribune and the PO do not realise the role the media plays in forming public perception – or that they do not care. I don't know which is worse – this fact, or the question surrounding the PO's supposed impartiality, fairness and integrity. Hmm. 

This past week a number of very well-written letters of objection and complaint about this matter were sent to the Sunday Tribune and the PO by members of the Pagan community. No response was received from either, and not one of these letters was placed in this Sunday’s Tribune. Silence, as they say, is also an answer.

Given all of the above it's ironic and disturbing that the Sunday Tribune seems to care so much about "Black Tuesday" and the Secrecy Bill silencing the SA Media – splashed all over their Facebook page - while at the same time the Sunday Tribune indulges in silencing the community of practising witches by refusing to print our letters of objection and defaming us in their articles about convicted criminals who have nothing to do with the Wicca, Paganism or any actual religious practice related to Pagan witchcraft!

Surely this hypocrisy and double standards have no place in a free democratic society – or in the principles and ethos of those who claim to cherish such freedoms?