Monday, August 20, 2012

Magical thinking leads to tragedy

Usually I like to make fun of the crazy claims the local witchdoctors make but I was reminded this week that what they do isn't always humorous.  Believing that a sangoma's magic can give you superpowers can be the death of you.

Last week, police opened fire of a group of striking mineworkers, killing 34 and wounding many more.  Now investigations into what exactly happened are still underway so details are still forthcoming and I'm certainly not going to try to defend the use of automatic rifles and live ammunition by the police.  However, belief in magic seems to have played a role in the tragedy.

According to this report:

Photo: Felix Dlangamandla
"Every morning, a group of men gathered on a hill on the outskirts of Nkaneng informal settlement near the Karee mine in Wonderkop.

There, under the instructions of a medicine man who allegedly hails from Eastern Cape, they stripped naked, stood in single file and waited for their turn to be sprinkled with herbs.

The medicine man used a razor blade on some of the men, making small incisions on their foreheads before smearing a black, gel-like potion on them.

These procedures, it is believed, were part of a process to prepare for battle to make the men invincible against the enemy.

There were stories doing the rounds that on Monday, mine security guards had tried to fire on the striking workers, only for their guns to jam as a result of the rituals conducted on the hill.

“That man over there is unbelievable,” said a young man in Setswana, referring to the medicine man behind the rituals on the hill.

“There are men who sleep on that hill at night. They never go back to the hostel or their homes. They say at night you can’t see anything there because that man has made the hill to be invisible at night.”"

So it would appear that these men fearlessly charged the police, armed with machetes, spears and other improvised weapons.  They feared no retaliation because they thought magic would make them invincible.  It did not.

Image by: Alon Skuy from The Times

This is why skepticism is important.  This is why debunking magical claims matters.  Believing in magic is not harmless and it's not something that should be left alone out of cultural sensitivity.  Believing in the unbelievable can get you killed.

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