The fruits of superstition in South Africa.

In most African cultures boys must be initiated into manhood (by having circumcision performed).  This often takes place in ingoma (initiation schools) and often without the most sanitary of instruments.  Recently a story broke of a particular school where 28 boys died following the procedure.  To a mind unchained by traditional beliefs formed free from the burden of science or critical thinking, the solution is simple.

But when you have grown in a culture steeped in explanations that fall back to “magic”, it’s not so easy.  Those deaths are now being blamed on witchcraft, which is taken very seriously in South Africa (and much of the rest of Africa):

The office of King Mabhoko III of the Ndebele tribe has blamed the deaths of 28 initiates in Mpumalanga’s highveld area on witchcraft.

Ndzundza Tribal Authority (NTA) spokesperson Prince Dumisani Mahlangu told a Sapa correspondent this week the number of deaths was unusually high.

“These deaths are not normal, kune buloyi la [there is witchcraft here],” said Mahlangu, who was also critical of the House of Traditional Leaders (HTL).

So strong is the belief in witchcraft in that culture that the MEC in charge of health and welfare for the province, Candith Mashego-Dlamini, won’t touch the issue.

“I can’t really move beyond tradition and the (circumcision) schools,” she admitted when asked whether her department would consider shutting some illegitimate circumcision schools.

Just days before, Mashego-Dlamini had to fend off a barrage of criticism about this powerlessness to intervene in the ingoma (traditional circumcision schools). Now, she reaffirmed her stance: the ingoma was uncharted territory for her.

“There are issues that are cultural – that don’t need me,” she said.

Whether it’s using goats to cast magic spells over jealousy of a fruit garden, or people ignoring gangrene because they saw a faith healer instead of a doctor, or when faith-healers are killed so their brain can be converted into magic powder, South Africa is a grand (well, not exactly grand) example of what happens when people searching for answers settle upon “magic”.

Maybe the Catholic Church can help them with an exorcism.

Or maybe, just maybe, the solution is education, critical thinking, and valuing the products of those things over tradition.  I don’t merely condemn the use of barbaric procedures that results in the deaths of 28 boys (and more, this was just one occasion), but I also condemn the strict adherence to tradition and the mindset that allows human beings who care about those children to submit them to that procedure.

So many of the apologists for magic (when it goes by the name of religion) insist we should condemn the acts but not the beliefs and the thought-processes that lead to them.  They must learn that the two are inseparable.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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