Superstition has afflicted all peoples at one time or another. During the Middle Ages not even Europeans were immune, and the Church encouraged the fear of witchcraft as a means for controlling the population. Blacks, however, always have been more strongly in the grip of superstition than any other race, with a deeply ingrained belief in witches, charms, spells, and the like. This is true even of Blacks who have been under White influence for an extended period.
Before they turned their government over to the African National Congress earlier this year, White South Africans were able to restrain the more savage manifestations of Black superstition in their country. Blacks could believe in witchcraft, but they still were subject to the White man's law: they could not sacrifice babies or burn witches without the likelihood of being caught and hanged by White policemen for doing it. Now, with a Black government, Blacks in South Africa are more or less free to act on their superstitions, except in the larger cities.
One of the consequences of this new religious freedom has been a huge increase in the incidence of "necklacing": the Black practice of wiring a person's hands behind his back, placing a gasoline-soaked tire around his neck, and igniting it. This treatment, which results in an especially agonizing death as the burning rubber eats into the victim's flesh, had gained popularity among South Africa's Blacks as a means of terrorizing dissidents and encouraging Black political solidarity. Now the same treatment is being used on suspected witches, and on a far larger scale than it was used on political dissidents by the African National Congress. The same people, however, are the perpetrators: young Black militants, the so-called "comrades."
An accusation will be made: "My neighbor caused the lightning which killed my cow during the thunderstorm last week. I know he is a witch, because once when he did not know I was watching him I saw that he had no shadow."
Then the "comrades" will appear and drag the accused from his house. They will chant and dance a "toyi-toyi," a traditional war dance, before lighting the "necklace." Anyone who attempts to interfere risks being treated similarly. In many cases the victim's entire family will be subjected to the same punishment whether or not they attempt to protect him, because it will be assumed that they must have known about his witchcraft.
Observers suspect that jealousy sometimes lies behind accusations of witchcraft: a disproportionately large number of victims of "necklacing" recently have been the most prosperous or successful or well-educated Blacks in their communities.
In any event, the popularity of the practice is growing, and it should have a significant impact on the social and political climate in Black-ruled South Africa. Although the controlled media in the West prefer to say as little as possible about it, the few reports which have appeared suggest that the number of "witches" now being "necklaced" in South Africa is much larger than the number of political dissidents who met the same fate earlier. For example, the police in the formerly autonomous region of Lebowa, near Pietersburg in northeastern South Africa, say that they know of 73 persons who were burned to death in that small area in the first four months after the change of government this spring. They estimate that the number for the whole country may be more than a thousand.
There are signs that "necklacing" may be emerging as the preferred Black method around the world for enforcing conformity--at least in Africa and Haiti.
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