Historical essay
Femininity and Legitimacy: Policing Women and “Witches” in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Femininity and Legitimacy: Policing Women and “Witches” in Post-Apartheid South Africa

One night in the late spring of 2008, in the South African town of Mondlo, an assembly of neighbors brought 72-year-old Ntombikayise Zulu to tribal court. The neighbors suspected she wanted to kill them after they had killed her “familiar” — a squirrel who hunted chickens. Zulu, who tearfully claimed that she never practiced witchcraft, fit the South African stereotype of a witch — she was, after all, an elderly black woman. The court’s presiding officer believed that her plot to murder her neighbors was indeed a rumor and advised tribal elders to protect Zulu from any further community vitriol.

Similar misunderstandings, however, have often ended more violently. In 2007, a group of unnamed students from Soweto’s Mahnlenga High School suspected two elderly women of practicing witchcraft. In the middle of the night, the children kidnapped Mangubane Msaba Zungu and Qibile Thabitha Thusi from their homes and dragged them to a nearby sports field. There, they doused them in petrol and set them alight. The students said that they killed the women because they believed that one of them, known to practice herbalism, had bewitched their high school to give her granddaughter an advantage.

As in the case of Ntombikayise Zulu, these allegations seemed easier for the community to believe because the women were elderly, black, and lived in a rural area. Witch hunts like these have long been a part of the landscape of violence against women in South Africa, especially after Apartheid ended in 1994. However, the prevalence of witch hunts today results not just from recent political events but rather from a near century long national struggle to come to terms with traditional healing and the women who practice it.

Post-Apartheid Violence Against Suspected Witches

Both Zungu and Thusi died because of the pervasive belief amongst South Africans that women who practice herbalism or divination may be witches and that witches are inherently malicious. Sometimes the victims of witch-hunts participate in indigenous practices of divination or herbalism, but not always. Victims are typically elderly, targeted by youth who see these women as likely to rely on traditional medicine or divination. Surprisingly, many of the killers are young adults, particularly poor young men raised by single mothers.1

Some scholars have suggested that these renegade youth are motivated by generational issues, but I argue that the age of witch-hunters is tied more to economic and social standing than anything else. Perhaps, these men see themselves as compensating for something, providing their communities with a safety their fathers couldn’t. As the cases of Zulu, Zungu, and Thusi suggest, older black women are almost always the victims of modern witchcraft accusations. As historian Ralph Austen argues, this is tied to the increased stigmatization of female traditional healers since the end of Apartheid (1948-1994), and not a rise in the number of women in traditional healing fields.2

A printed certificate with a "Traditional Healers Associattion" seal at the top depicting Africa with a red cross over it. The certificate certifies the bearer as having completed the TPHC five-day training course.
A Traditional Healer Certificate for Nkuta Maureen Thobekile, 2016. (Faith Bennett/Nursing Clio)

In South Africa, trained diviners and spiritual healers who believe themselves chosen by ancestral spirits are known as sangomas. They specialize in the incorporeal and offer their clairvoyance services. Inyangas, on the other hand, specialize in herbalism (typically prescribing indigenous medicine known as muti). After the regulation of the inyanga in the 1920s, and the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957, many men left the field because it was less profitable and they were subject to government persecution. Without the presence of as many male gatekeepers, more women started working as inyanga and sangoma, enough to change the public perception of what witches looked like.

Witchcraft accusations and related episodes of violence against women in sub-Saharan Africa have roots in 19th-century European colonialism. My own research on South African gender violence and witchcraft accusations shows that legislation first passed in the colonial era, and enforced under Apartheid, served to deepen South Africans’ spiritual insecurity and fear of witchcraft. In fact, Apartheid practices of certifying traditional healers effectively delegitimized the act of herbal healing, causing men to leave the field. The influx of women into the work of clairvoyants and herbalists resulted in communities taking violent actions against these newcomers to the profession.

Certification of Sangomas and Inyangas

Afrikaners are the primarily Dutch colonizers who first settled on the Cape in 1652 and later led the Apartheid regime. In the early 20th century, they often perceived the indigenous healing practices of the inyanga and sangoma as witchcraft. In 1920, the all-white government founded the Native Affairs Department to regulate the practices of indigenous Africans within South Africa. The Department soon introduced a certification process. Traditional healers had to apply to the Native Affairs Department to receive a certificate that stated their legitimacy as an inyanga. The authorization allowed the government to record the number of traditional medicine practitioners, but the process also gave the Department grounds to crack down on unlicensed herbalists.

A printed certificate with the photo of a dark-skinned man in a suit and tie stapled to it. The certificate certifies that Shake Duma is a Ngaka and as such is a properly registered and approved member of the African Dingaka Association by whose authority the Certificate is granted in the Union of South Africa, 1955.
Shake Duma, Dingaka Certicate, 1955. (South African National Archives Pretoria)

The Afrikaner government only approved licenses for herbalists who practiced in areas with concentrated indigenous populations and without “sufficient” (read, Western) medical help. In the early years of the regulation process, when most hopeful inyangas were still men, they learned the trade from their fathers, bypassing the authorization process. Black women, however, didn’t have a similar apprenticeship system, and so they resorted to the government’s regulatory framework. Because the Afrikaner men who vetted the applications bought into the idea that doctors should be male, they often denied certification to women, undermining their religious practices and delegitimizing female sangomas and inyangas.

Following the Native Affairs Department’s inyanga certification, the African Dingaka Association, started by native African healers, also began to grant certificates. Again, these certificates were granted by and almost entirely to men. However, since these licenses didn’t have governmental authority, they were useless in the eyes of the ruling state. In some ways, the certification process changed how South Africans thought about herbalism and herbalists. After all, the government granted these licenses only if the region had no other medical infrastructure. Inyanga used to be respected men prevalent all over the country, but after the government introduced this process of containment, the numbers of practitioners decreased dramatically.

The government soon rejected traditional medicine altogether. In 1957, the government passed the Witchcraft Suppression Act, modeled after acts from 18th-century England.3 The Act not only outlawed acts of witchcraft and sorcery, but also made related actions punishable by fines.4

A typewriter-written letter on yellowed paper with a variety of officla seals and stamps.
Refusal of Application for Inyange License, 1948. (South African National Archives Pretoria)

After the Act, Apartheid-era policies continued to marginalize black healers. In 1959, the Apartheid government passed the Bantu Self-Government Act, which forced black South Africans into self-governing “homelands” based on ethnic grouping. It also relegated inyanga certification to these regions (Bantustans).While the government alleged it was improving healthcare systems, it is clear that inyanga certification only operated as a system of containment. After the forced migration of herbal medicine into the Bantustans, the lines between herbalism, divination, and “witchcraft” blurred like never before.

As their licenses were invalidated, men left the field, and the proportion of women sangoma and inyanga practitioners increased. Even as the number of men healers decreased, many South Africans still viewed them as the most trustworthy traditional healers. After all, men had the longest legacy of training in this field, and men had more licenses. One of the lasting effects of the certification process was the construction of a notion of male superiority in the fields of divination and herbalism, a notion which carried directly into the witch killings of 1995.

In the final decade of Apartheid, as crime, disease, and political unrest soared, many South Africans sought scapegoats for the devastation that surrounded them. They turned towards the women who now dominate the fields of sangoma and inyanga. Even now, the feminization of divination and herbalism contributes to a societal devaluation of the cultural value of these practices and the women who engage in them. Black women are still those most likely to practice divination, and therefore the most likely to be targeted as witches. The African National Congress (the governing party in South Africa since the end of Apartheid) and the Constitution of 1996 promised liberty to these women, but they have not made good on this promise.

Women and girls are commonly assaulted on the way to school, in the classroom, and when they are known to be “prudish” or homosexual. And in 2019, many South Africans still suspect rural women who fit the cultural stereotypical image of a sangoma or inyanga of witchcraft. The problem of witch killings in South Africa can only be properly addressed if it is recognized as gender violence.5

The end of Apartheid should have signaled a new era for black women in South Africa, but many women still feel left in the dust. Since 1994, male-on-female violence in the country has been higher than that of any other non-warring country in the world, correlating with a rise in instances of persecutions of women in witch hunts, trials, and killings.6 As long as witchcraft is feminized and women are mistreated, the treatment of women as witches will continue.


  1. Johannes Harnischfeger, “Witchcraft and the State in South Africa,” Anthropos 95, no. 1 (2000): 99-112. Return to text.
  2. Roy Richard Grinker and Christopher B. Steiner, Perspectives on Afrique: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). Return to text.
  3. Muriel Howelled, A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa, 1956–1957 (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1957), 84–85. Return to text.
  4. 25/30A-Inyanga licenses 1960. Box DG0389, Box DG0360, Box NTS 336, Box NTS 1128, Box NTS 9465, Box GES 1782, Box GES 1789, South Africa National Archives, Pretoria, South Africa. June 22 2016. Return to text.
  5. Tshisalive, “I’m Tired of Being Told How to Avoid Rape,” Sowetan Live, March 24, 2017; Bogani Fuzile, “‘Witch’ Killings Target Elderly,” Dispatch Live, September 19, 2016. Return to text.
  6. Helen Moffett, “‘These Women, They Force Us to Rape Them’: Rape as Narrative of Social Control in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 32, no. 1 (2006): 1. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Yemba Witch Doctress, South Africa. (Courtesy Wellcome Library)

Faith Bennett earned her bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in African Studies from the University of Florida in August 2016. She is a graduate student in the PhD Program for American History at UC Davis starting in fall 2019. Her research interests include gender, labor, and the service industry.

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