Understanding our culture

2013-11-07 00:00

WHEN my editor, Andrew Trench, raised in his editor’s column recently the challenge of reporting on the complexities of our society that includes practices like ukuthakatha (witchcraft) or mthakathi (wizard), I felt I had to respond.

I am no expert on the subject, but I’d like to share my understanding of the concept of witchcraft and wizardry growing up as an African child.

As an African child, you are confronted with terms like ukuthakatha and mthakathi at a very early age because African families don’t believe in having bad luck and doing nothing about it.

When things are not going well in your family or work life, an African traditionalist will say “Ufulathelwe abaphansi ”, which roughly translates to “the ancestors have turned their back on you”.

When a person believes this to be the case, and has means to consult a sangoma or inyanga (traditional healers), that’s what they will do without thinking twice about it.

Africans believe that traditional healers have a gift from God and the ancestors that enables them to communicate with the spirits to help change their luck.

It is in these consultations with traditional healers that witchcraft and wizardry are mentioned by the sangoma. This is often when they believe that your rough patch in life is a result of someone bewitching you or of a spell cast long before you were born.

Most believers in these practices will tell you that there is also something called ukuphehla amanzi amnyama , which means to turn one’s ancestors into evil spirits or to curse one’s ancestry.

We believe this is done to destroy the family by cursing even future generations with endless bad luck in whatever they do in life.

Certain rituals are conducted to try to cleanse this curse from our ancestry so as to purify the spirits again.

As a result of these long-held beliefs, many in townships and rural areas still firmly believe in these practices even though others see them as mere superstition and outdated with no place in modern society.

The majority of people in South African society, particularly black people, still hold these beliefs.

In fact, Africans in general believe in such phenomena.

As a newspaper, we have a duty to appreciate the communities we live in and to understand how what seems to be backwards or superstitious to some, can be a firmly held belief for others.

These beliefs are not confined to rural people or those who are less educated. Many highly qualified, academic people who hold African culture in high regard are also strong believers.

Former KZN premier Dr Zweli Mkhize and his wife Dr May Mkhize, who come from Willowfountain, are a good example. In a recent People of the South television interview by host Dali Tambo, the Mkhize family mentioned that their second daughter, Nokulinda, who has a politics degree, is also a qualified sangoma.

For South Africa to work, we as journalists must be careful about declaring what we don’t understand as superstition and dismissing it as outdated.

This could be one of the reasons why English newspapers in general are declining, while new kids on the block, like the Daily Sun, have increasing numbers of readers and Zulu publications are booming. These papers don’t shy away from reporting on these beliefs.

It’s important to understand the diversity of our society without being seen to undermine any culture.

Newspapers can help shed light on or further perpetuate certain misconceptions depending on how they cover stories on these practices.

Sphamandla “Lazarus” Gcabashe, who claimed to be the late maskandi artist Mgqumeni Khumalo returned from the dead, is an interesting example.

Thousands flocked to Nquthu to witness their beloved Khumalo. They were fascinated by Gcabashe’s tale of having escaped from a wizard who had been trying to turn him into a zombie.

It was a fascinating story that captivated many of those who believe in such practices.

Our duty as journalists is to report on such issues like we do on any other, without contaminating our reporting with our own views.

Reporting on wizardry or witchcraft will go a long way towards educating those who are still unclear about the ways and thinking of the majority in this country.

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