Time of the signs: Muti could actually undermine democracy

2013-05-12 10:00

There are certain muti practices some wealthy and powerful people like to pretend they would never engage in, even though they may admit to knowing of “other people” who do them.

I am talking about things like “ukuthwala”, not the Xhosa marital custom, but the practice where people use human blood or spirit in a ritual exchange with a dark spiritual force in order to secure wealth or political power.

This is not an easy topic to write about. It would be easier to stick to the narrative of the constructive and uplifting ways in which people evoke spirituality. But the invocation of darker forces is equally prevalent. It is not uncommon for a traditional healer to be approached to perform these rituals, and, when the healer turns away people seeking power, you know for sure they will seek help from someone else.

Many of us may have heard a story of someone in our villages or townships suspected of using ukuthwala to acquire their riches and success in whatever sphere – or the person is feared in the community for whatever reason.

And stories have always gone around about the tokoloshe, who can even steal police dockets, or people who use human body parts in magic rituals for power and prestige.

These scenarios sound like farcical urban legends, because we are taught to dismiss the intangible and relegate tales of the mystical to the realm of superstition and fantasy.

Yet, the mystical realms continue to play a huge part in our cultural imagination.

In the 1990s, we saw a Setswana drama, Lesilo Rula, along with the muti wars portrayed on isiZulu drama Kwakhala Nyonini, both on SABC.

More recently, we have witnessed our favourite Isibaya star – on DStv’s Mzansi Magic – being captured and imprisoned by a sangoma. And, of course, we also have the Nollywood films from Nigeria and, everyone’s favourite, the Daily Sun newspaper.

The tabloidisation of these kinds of stories may have created the impression that the working class is preoccupied with these “outlandish tales”, and the middle class, whose success is measured in terms of their good English and good credit, is above this kind of “mass delusion”.

But consider this: when you see luxury cars parked outside a house of a known inyanga or mthandazi (spiritual healer) at night, whether in Joburg’s Leondale or KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal, surely people driving them are not your typical Daily Sun readers. Some may be there for healing, but, in most cases, they may be seeking interventions that cross an ethical boundary.

The reality is, many powerful and successful South Africans regularly seek these services to secure business success, fame, tenders and political victory.

Those colourful pamphlets advertising interventions such as “binding your lover to you”, “avenging yourself against enemies” and “luck at work” exist because there is as an actual demand for such services.

Whether people see it or not, the demand for these services is high among the powerful, too. Some cannot even step into a boardroom or government meeting unless they have consulted their spiritual healer to ensure that things go their way.

The outcome of this in our political culture is that those in power don’t believe they owe their high positions (izikhundla) to the people they lead, but to these dark practices.

It is my view that some people are so brazen and unrepentant in their political or professional misconduct because they believe they are untouchable and invincible. This, because they think powerful muti can protect them from scrutiny.

This is the kind of laundry it is difficult for a spiritual practitioner to air. It is hard to write about these things in a way that does not create misconceptions about spirituality.

But there may be more to the incorrigible behaviour of those with prominent public profiles.

By seeking rational, political frameworks to understand the disgraceful things they do, one may be missing out on hidden explanations concerning the dark use of muti and its contribution to beliefs about securing uncontested popularity and power.

»?Mkhize is a sangoma

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