A look at Paganism in South Africa
Encompassing over 470,000 square miles and boasting close to 1,750 miles of coastline on two oceans, South Africa is the 25th largest nation by area, also 24th largest by population. The expression “Pagan” was unknown there before 1994, at which time the same constitution that raised the apartheid system of racial segregation additionally provided for freedom of faith. Since that point minority religions, like those within Heathenry, Wicca and many others related to Paganism, have been embraced by an increasing number of people, modelling – and occasionally adapting – practices prevalent in the northern hemisphere.
One team that is active in boosting Paganism in South Africa is the Pagan Assistance Network, that has been putting on a rising number of yearly events. A glance in PAN’s calendar reveals how adapting wheel-of-the-year vacations for the southern hemisphere does not always lead to a complete reversal. While their Midwinter Fairy Festival occurs during the northern summer solstice, the Samhain event, that has since been cancelled, has been set for October 29. This scheduling indicates that cultural influences – such as trick-or-treating – apply just as much of a pull these comparatively new practices since the changing of the seasons.
Ryan and Luna Young, regional organizers for PAN in Johannesburg, explained the theory:
We have four days a year that we celebrate and gather Pagans and like-minded people for a day of fun and give our community the opportunity to meet other like minded people.
The first day on our calendar is Pagan Freedom Day. This is celebrated on the 27th April of each year, on our National Freedom Day represents the first post-apartheid election that was held on this day in 1994. As Pagans we celebrate on this day as it is a day also given to all South Africans no matter race, gender, or any other classification. They are free to be. The event was started with unity in diversity in mind, and is the biggest day on our calendar. It is celebrated with live music, archery, medieval sword fighting, ancient games and activities. The day is ended off with a fire display and a drumming circle.
Medieval-style activities are utilized frequently in celebration. Ryan Young provided some details regarding the essence of the regional customs that have contributed to that overall tone. .
Drawing together individuals from many different avenues to get a public gathering demonstrates just how much has changed in the ten years since Pagan Freedom Day was adopted. From 1997-2007, Annika Teppo studied South African white Neopagans. She discovered this group mostly avoided public rituals and frequently avoided even interacting together. In her paper, “My House is Protected by a Dragon: White South Africans, Magic and Sacred Spaces in Post-Apartheid Cape Town, she explains her own interviewees as preferring to meet online, to gather in private houses, or most often to go it alone:
A ‘solitary pagan’ is someone who practices alone. They do not ask others to join their rituals, nor are they willing to give detailed descriptions of their own practices. They are wary of pagan circles, as they fear that some individuals might want to benefit from them financially, or might want to involve them in power struggles —- a phenomenon globally connected with neopagan movements and known as “witch wars.”
Some of my informants divulged that they were or had previously been solitaries simply because they found ‘pagan politics’ too difficult in Cape Town. My informants’ unanimous opinion was that organized neopagan groups or covens are prone to squabbling —- which can be both fierce and malicious. I could seldom conduct an interview without the issue of ‘pagan politics’ surfacing. Those working in covens were also aware of the dangers involved and wanted to avoid them.
Continuing with the description of the four PAN events, Ryan Young said:
The second day on the calendar is Midwinter Fairy Festival, and it is celebrated on the first weekend after the midwinter solstice.
Our third day on the calendar is Pagan Heritage Day and is organized by PAN in conjunction with Blossoming Tansy. Otherwise, the day’s activities include live music, medieval sword fighting, ancient games and activities like Viking chess, toss the kaber and so forth, and as always ends with a drumming circle and fire display.
Like Pagan Freedom Day, Pagan Heritage Day is part of a wider celebration, in which “all South Africans across the spectrum are encouraged to celebrate our culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people.” Then, finally there is “All Hallows Eve.” Although it was ultimately cancelled for this year, Young had already provided a description of the final of the four events:
Our last and newest day is Old Hallows Eve. This is a new one that we have started and will be held on the 31st October and will be slightly different from the others, in that we will be starting later in the day and will be having trick or treat, an outdoor theater showing old horror movies, and on the other side of the field a drumming circle and fire display. And what is Halloween without costumes?
Halloween, at least as it’s celebrated in the United States and other northern countries, presents endless opportunities for Pagans to confront familiar stereotypes of witches as ugly, malicious women, known for terrorizing children and duping peasants in European fairy tales. In Africa, however, the word “witch” is not so easily dismissed as myth by the overculture. Damon Leff, a former director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, explained:
In every African country, including South Africa, the word ‘witchcraft’ refers to the negative use of magic to cause harm. It has no positive usage or definition amongst Africans. South Africa is the only African country that I know of where the term’s negative usage and definition is being contested by actual Witches. We (SAPRA and the SAPC) are also legally challenging the constitutionality of the 1957 Witchcraft Suppression Act which (although it does prohibit accusations of witchcraft) also prohibits any knowledge or practice of witchcraft.
Teppo found this to be the case, as well:
The distinction between healing and witchcraft is of fundamental importance in this worldview. In the wrong hands, knowledge of invisible forces and muthi, traditional medicines, can cause death and destruction, but in the hands of a benevolent healer, or a sangoma, this knowledge can cure illness and protect people from harm. Witchcraft holds no such ambivalence: it is always evil, an antithesis of everything sacred or commendable. A witch is any person who uses muthi or his knowledge of the occult to harm others.
Moreover, Leff suggests that many Pagans are not interested in readily accepting this widespread definition of “witch” and continue in their attempts to reclaim the term. This particular issue also points to a cultural and racial divide that is, in part, specific to this country. Teppo explained:
Many Wiccans prefer to call themselves ‘witches’, which has been a root of confusion and misinterpretations, and has divided them into two different camps in the United States. In South Africa, the term is even more controversial. In most of the African cultures, a witch is a malevolent character, truly feared. Among black South Africans, witchcraft means something irrevocably evil and horrifying. This perspective also prevailed for centuries in Europe and the United States, where being a Wiccan is still rather marginal despite Wicca’s recent popularity. … In the African systems of belief, a ‘good witch’ does not exist.
Teppo follows up with an observation by one of her Wiccan informants, who explained the problems with terminology:
In Wiccan terms witches are light-workers, terms that we are proud to use (…) However, our neighbours in this same country, the traditional African pagans, use the same terms in a very, very different, horrible connotation. A witch is often the person that all sorts of misfortunes are ascribed to… It is most unlikely that we are going to change … it is too deeply ingrained in the language, you cannot take it back any more… The white witches of this country, who are proud of the term, are also not prepared to give up these terms. (Female, 37)
While, as Teppo notes, the controversy over the word “witch” is not as intense in the United States, it still remains a challenge the two Pagans communities share to some extent. Another is the relationship with indigenous practitioners. In both countries, there are some people who cross that cultural boundary with mixed reactions, and there are those with a desire to include indigenous traditions under the Pagan umbrella, which is not typically welcome. Teppo quotes a member of one Pagan group who wishes to bring two paths together:
“The cornerstone of this temple is rooted in a futuristic idealism to marry and integrate aspects of African pagan paths’ tradition with those of the current practice of Wicca. Everyone who joins our temple knows that they should not join the temple if they do not prescribe to the idea.” – Andi Fisher, Temple of Ubuntu.
Fisher’s usage of “pagan” with regard to African religions does not seem to be the standard. Leff observed that “… people engaged in African traditional religion/s do not self-identify as Pagans, nor as pagans, through their own choice; the term ‘pagan’ was used to label African religious practices under colonial and National Party rule, and it’s a term practitioners of indigenous religions refuse to embrace. In the South African context, Paganism (neo-Paganism) and Traditional African Religions are two separate religious identities. This, despite the very obvious similarities between them in both belief and ritual and magical practice.”
Additionally, it is very important to note that, due to the scope of Teppo’s work, her informants were largely white. As an outcome, the explanations for why black South Africans may not be attracted to contemporary Pagan religions might just be inferred.
Despite sincere efforts to rise over the racial divide that split South Africa for decades – including a radical Truth and Reconciliation Commission to fix those wounds – there remains quite a bit of self-segregation within this nation, and Paganism has mostly fallen on the white side of the fence. It’s a simple fact that Leff is also reluctant to deny. However, he is quick to point out that it is not the entire picture.
I think there is lingering “racial tension.” Although the system of apartheid has been removed, the effects of the system remain ever present in society. We changed the political system, not people’s prejudices. That said, many South Africans of all ethnicities have and do work together to make our country better than it was.
In some ways, Paganism in South Africa is surprisingly similar to what is found in other areas of the planet, which includes lots of the very same anxieties and talks, such as spiritual respect and liberty; cultural appropriation and influence; cultural and racial disparity and inclusivity – to mention a few. At the same time, this developing community has been birthed in both a distinctive socio-cultural climate and specific geographical environment, which informs it and enables it to flourish in its own manner.