Professor Gordon Chavunduka, the late president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, who was laid to rest at his farm Wednesday, in his lifetime fought hard to get the Witchcraft Suppression Act amended. After massive pressure from the late traditionalist and academic, president Robert Mugabe was in 2006 forced to begin measures to repeal a century old Rhodesian legislation that criminalized anyone who accused another person of practicing witchcraft. The president eventually bowed down to Chavunduka’s pressure to recognize the existence of supernatural powers and witchcraft.
Professor Chavunduka who passed away last Friday after succumbing to throat cancer’s goal was to have all people caught practicing witchcraft prosecuted.
In an increasingly changing world, the likes of Chavunduka and members of the 50 000-strong ZINATHA group wanted the traditional practices to move along with the changing world. Even though it might have taken a hundred years for witchcraft to be recognized officially by the state, it was a major victory for Chavunduka but hardly enough.
“Witches are the same as murderers.”
In this modern world, traditional beliefs and practices are losing a place in today’s world. Professor Chavunduka was determined to make parliament pass legislation that would result in the criminalization of witchcraft. His ultimate goal was to make and push for parliament to make both formal and traditional courts try cases of witchcraft.
To the late former UZ vice-Chancellor, witches were seen in the same context as murderers and thus he wanted people caught practicing witchcraft to receive the same fate as that of murderers and any other such extreme criminals. As a full fledged member of the MDC-T family who joined the MDC at its formation in 1999, his dreams of prosecuting witches were largely pinned on the MDC-T coming into power as some of his ideals are entrenched in the MDC-T manifesto.
Professor Chavunduka blamed the rise in witchcraft in Zimbabwe on the economic hardships the people are facing. “Witchcraft and tokoloshis
are making a comeback. It’s obvious that the cause is economic. The worse the economy gets, the more political tension there is in
society, the more frustrated and frightened people get, they turn to witchcraft to gain riches or hurt their enemies,” he said when the
Witchcraft Suppression Act amendment was signed by the president in 2006.
Who is a witch?
Whilst those thoughts of prosecuting witches might have appealed to some quarters within his MDC-T, the same cannot be said to the rest. Witchcraft is nothing but a name-calling game and under our current laws how do you go about proving that indeed one was bewitched?
It is unfortunate that Professor Chavunduka died before the MDC-T got into power, going to the grave with his ideals of prosecuting witches.
There is no denying that in our tradition, supernatural powers are there and rife in the rural areas but where can we put them in our current legal system? In the rural areas you will hear these stories of people dying mysteriously, getting sick, losing or alternatively getting fortune and we have gotten accustomed to that and taking such incidents to the courts is problematic. The law of evidence is literally inapplicable to such cases. The reason why the settlers criminalized witchcraft in the first Witchcraft Suppression Act was because many people had been burned in Europe in the earlier centuries when people accused them of witchcraft.
It makes the job of the police hard because it is impossible to determine how one is a witch. Commenting on the Witchcraft Suppression
Act in 2006, police spokesman, Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said the proving witchcraft is not something that the police can do.
“Witchcraft is not an area that lends itself to police scrutiny. How do you verify an evil spell? This is a matter of spiritual faith, not
a matter of empirical faith,” he said.
If witches are to be prosecuted for their witchcraft activities, a whole new debate is certainly to spring following such judgement. That alone will automatically puts prophets and faith healers in just about the same pot. It will thus be a crime for prophets or faith healers who proclaim wrong prophecies.
Cases of witchcraft mostly come out when one visits prophets, faith healers or the traditional healers and thus, if it cannot be proven that one is indeed a witch, then it would be fair to prosecute those who make the false prophecies.
Whilst Professor Chavunduka’s ideas of prosecuting witches in Zimbabwe might have sounded revolutionary, it was nothing but more
than a dream, a dream that unfortunately was never fulfilled in his time. Whether his peers in the MDC-T will make his dreams come true
when they come into power, if they ever do, remains to be seen.
At the time of his death, Chavunduka was the Chairman of the MDC-T Guardian Council. Addressing mourners on Monday, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai paid tribute to one of its great sons. “At MDC-T Chavunduka was an invaluable reservoir of political advice. MDC has lost a real champion.”
David Hwangwa is a Human Rights Activist and Political Commentator