We are all losing a little bit of our equality and freedom, a little bit at a time. All of us, in every social grouping, whatever the basis for discrimination or differentiation, are affected. We all belong to a race group, a gender, a sexual orientation, a personal expression, and have our own religious beliefs. How long before all of us are equal only in our disenfranchisement, powerlessness and despair?
Given the looming Secrecy Bill which is, I am certain, designed to cushion the State and ruling party from ongoing Media criticism and scandals resulting from numerous and plentiful allegations and revelations of corruption, fraud, mismanagement and gross incompetence, it seems "some" newspaper Editors enjoy indulging in a little secrecy of their own.
The Sunday Tribune based in Durban on the South-East coast of South Africa has taken it upon itself to not only defame a whole religious community, but to ignore their protests and objections to such defamation and stereotyping as well.
A few months ago, the furore around the so-called "satanic" killing of a man in a cemetery by a woman and her boyfriend in the town of Welkom boiled over into a frenzy of "satanic panic" articles written by sensation-seeking journalists who used coincidental occult connotations and accusations of "satanism" and "witchcraft" to good effect in lining the bottom of their reader's bird cages. The accused, a teenage girl - who was subsequently convicted of the murder based on evidence linking her to the deed, and not her religious associations - was inappropriately and repeatedly labelled "the Welkom Witch" - much to the dismay and ire of real practising Witches and Pagans in general.
As could be clearly seen when evidence was led in court, and from the text of the guilty verdict - there is nothing linking this person to actual Paganism or the actual practice of witchcraft - in fact, newspaper reports indicated that this girl was found to have severe mental and psychological issues which indicated she enjoyed "experimenting" and would most likely be a repeat offender. She was convicted for her crimes, which is something I can agree with. What I cannot agree with, is the use of the term "Witch" to describe such a murderer. It associates the act of murder, and the acting out of cruelty and violence with real Witches, and this in fact is totally inappropriate and woefully inaccurate.
One would not expect the Media to entertain the use of labels such as "the Welkom Jew" or "the Welkom Christian" - so why is it perfectly acceptable to call the killer "the Welkom Witch" and then to react with complete surprise and disbelief when actual Witches object? Really dude?
Paganism as a religious entity was legalized and formalized at the dawn of our new democracy in South Africa, after many years of persecution, secrecy and mystery under the oppressive racist and Christianist White Christian Apartheid regime. The fact that some practitioners of Pagan religion or spiritual paths in witchcraft and use the name "Witch" to describe themselves was fairly well documented at the time. It took numerous depositions by Pagan leaders and representatives before Parliament in the early 1990's to get Pagan worship - and the practice of the religion of witchcraft recognized and legalised in South Africa.
As a matter of interest, back in 2007 the passing of an anti-witchcraft Bill - seriously pushed by the ACDP, among others - was narrowly avoided. This Bill would have made a large portion of the expression of Pagan religious beliefs in public or private a crime punishable by law. This goes to show the lengths to which opponents of religious freedom will go in this country, to ensure the continued dominance of their own religion.
Considering national law and the SA Constitution, it is not illegal - nor a crime in and of itself - to be either a practising Pagan - or even to be a Satanist or Luciferian. Crime is still crime though, and where people commit heinous acts, they are to face the full might of the law - no matter what their motive was, be it religious or not. But how fair is it to blame the crimes of a person not even associated with a specific religion on that specific religion? Especially when the Media tries and convicts the person accused on unsubstantiated claims of "satanism" and "witchcraft" and plays on and profits from the religious hysteria that follows?
Charne van Heerden is no Witch, she is in fact not even a Pagan. The court found no concrete evidence to even back up the use of the word "satanism" in the case - but I suppose that word gets applied to anyone these days, whom certain religious groups disapprove of, such as gay people - and of course, anyone from any other religion apart from Christianity.
Despite this legality, and the intended (and under-promoted) equality and non-discrimination clauses in the Constitution of South Africa (and in Act No4 of 2000, the Promulgation of Equality Act), there still exists much prejudice and stigma to being out and open about one's religious affiliations if you are Pagan.
Pagans and Pagan culture and religious beliefs are regularly demonized and insulted by other religious groups, and especially by religious fundamentalist Christians - and often not simply in their own religious spaces - but in broad public daylight. This hostility is not simply limited to a little public hate speech, but also to frequent intimidation and victimization of Pagans and non-Christians in the workplace, in schools, and in the business arena.
In some workplace environments, non-Christian employees are shunned, intimidated or badgered to convert. Christian prayer-groups operate openly, and Pagans are publicly embarrassingly and insultingly "prayed for". At the very least, Pagans are often encouraged to keep their religious beliefs, practices and affiliations secret for fear of this intimidation and harassment - while Christian practitioners are clearly given an advantage.
The same can be said for Schools - and particularly in areas where there are no alternatives (due to travel distance) but local Christian schools. Some Pagan children are sent to attend Christian schools, and despite the fact that they privately laugh up their sleeves at the irony of it all, they are nevertheless forced by circumstances to keep their mouths shut. Even in public schools, there is very often a prevailing atmosphere of "everybody is or should be a Christian - and that includes YOU". Imagine the furore that would erupt should a Pagan-centred school open its doors, briefly. Yes, I can see where the equality clauses in our Constitution are so clearly adhered to.
Then there is the business sector, where it appears religious communities like to indulge in slitting each others throats. Christian extremists (aka Christianists) have "Christian business forums" where people list their businesses in order to get the support of the Christian community - or to indicate that they are part of the fold, and it is up to "real Christians" to support only them. Consequently, pressure can be applied to any member business that engages with other communities of whom the body does not dogmatically approve of. However, when Pagans attempt to form a business collective, these businesses suddenly find themselves marked for protests, victimization and sometimes even eviction.
New Pagan-centered businesses opening in shopping complexes often come under the scrutiny of local fundy pastors and their flocks - sometimes even including visits to "inspect" the premises, the stock and the intent of the owner - as if we require approval from other religious groups to conduct business in the same way they do!
Why would Pagans open business to supply Pagan services or goods? Well, to make money, earn a living, and spread a little Pagan culture, duh. No, this will simply not do - we can't have that in a shopping center - children might see it and Christians might be tempted to buy their books, soap, candles and incense here instead! Oh dear.
One day, when you have the time, count how many Pagan shops you know of inside a local shopping mall. Know of any? The closest one I can think of is in Knysna - 300km away from here - and PE is a pretty big city with definitely more than ten shopping malls, with practically one in every suburb. Yes, there is one Pagan business selling Pagan wares that I know of in PE - and it's in a private residence in Richmond Hill. I'm not sure exactly why they don't set up in Walmer Park or Greenacres, but I do know how much trouble the shop in Knysna had - after they were refused space in numerous malls in the Garden Route area. And yet in almost every mall in town, there is at least one Christian bookshop or Christian-themed shop - and in almost every other shop - especially music and book stores, there is a section devoted to "Religious" - which is just fine, so long as your religion happens to be Christianity.
Then we have the human rights groups who allow themselves to get side-tracked from their core-business by religious frivolities. Instituting Christian prayer and preaching in a civil/human rights group? Why? If you start bringing religion into civil rights work, pretty soon it becomes about religion and not civil rights work... I don't agree with it.
Some people seem to forget that not everyone is a Christian, and they seem to think that those who aren't, "should" be. They don't seem to care that involving one religion in a group makes others who aren't part of that religion, uncomfortable and to feel excluded. They sometimes also say that others are free to bring their own religion into the group as well - but then this would make others uncomfortable also - and in the end the whole thing would become uncomfortable for everybody - AND the group would be distracted from its actual purpose - HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISM. Not so?
It is only logical to keep things in such a group secular - meaning absent of any particular religious influence or procedure. So I ask again, what does Christianity and "god" - or any god - have to do with how a group is run and the business of fighting for human rights and equality as people?" The very same can be said for the law of the land - and the SA Constitution.
This all highlights just how skewed our sense of fairness and equality and non-discrimination is in South Africa. It says quite loudly and clearly that all religions in South Africa are equal - but some religions are more equal than others. Oh, and ours is more equal than yours, so sod off. Weh-weh-weh.
The issue brought up by the Sunday Tribune articles is the unfair and inaccurate depiction of real Witches as dangerous and violent killers with mental disorders and anti-social behavior - and the fact that this serves to sell their newspapers - while also bolstering the negative stereotype which sees so many innocent people murdered each year in South Africa.
I suppose it is a moot point to mention that those doing the killing very often do it out of superstition, ignorance - and mostly CHRISTIAN religious zeal, but I will mention it anyway. As in the Burning Times in ages past, where lonely old women and men were randomly accused, mis-tried and murdered by the Church (be it Catholic or otherwise), today villagers in remote regions are accusing innocent people - typically elderly women living alone, of "witchcraft" - based on no evidence whatsoever, other than their suspicions - and summarily killing them.
Notably, this is done without the involvement of the law, or any reports of follow-ups in the press. We may read a headline about a person murdered in a rural area - rather conveniently accused of "witchcraft" - but we never read about the killers being arrested, identified or even tried or convicted for these abhorrent kangaroo-court and jungle justice style murders. Often these articles will also feature the words "witch" or "witchcraft" to describe the victims, even though no evidence is presented to substantiate any of the suspicions of the killers - and the stereotype that "witches" are dangerous, hostile and that their killings are justifiable, forms a message that is difficult to dismiss - unless one is patently stupid or agrees with it.
The Sunday Tribune received complaints about this association and mis-use of the word "witch" in the van Heerden case, and a complaint was logged with the Press Ombudsman to this effect. The response of the Ombudsman? “Unfortunately this office will not entertain your complaint.” Joe Thloloe. Very nice attitude, that.
This is not a new thing it seems, as the PO appears to have a long-standing indifference to complaints against the defamation of the Pagan community in the media. In email correspondence between one complainant, a Ms Martin - the email in which the Press Ombudsman responds "
Unfortunately this office will not entertain your complaint.
May I refer you to a 2009 decision by this office, upheld by the chairperson of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Zulman? For clarity I will:
Over a considerable period, Mr Leff has complained against a number of publications – among them Die Burger,The Witness, Vaal decision, you may request the chairperson Weekly, IOL, Dispatch Online - alleging that they defamed “self-styled witches”. The latest complaint is against Die Burger for an article by Marlene of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Neethling on March 25, 2009 headlined Kat dalk in heksedaad bedwelm. Zulman, to review it.
This complaint follows the pattern of all the others. The articles he submitted to this office, from titles across the country, are from the web and not from actual newspapers. We can fairly infer that Mr Leff trawls the web looking for South African newspaper references to witches and uses his “hits” as bases for his complaints."
Reference is made to a report on complaints about similar offending articles in South African papers made by Damon Leff of the SA Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) and a report on the issue by the Press Ombudsman dating from 2009. Comments in this piece by the office of the PO infer that in essence "it is just fine to ignore these complaints, because they are all about the same thing anyway". It says that it is fine to ignore a complainant, because these people are always complaining about the same old silly thing, and that we're really not interested enough to investigate anyway. Besides, references on the web to online articles also published by a newspaper in that same newspaper, somehow "don't count".
"Interviewed after his church service yesterday, the leader of the Sword and Spirit Ministries alleged that it was a known fact that witches were hired to perform certain rituals at cultural events which, however, he did not specify. "All I am saying is I do not want my money to pay witches in the name of culture," said Thwala."
These so-called "witches" do not identify as actual Witches because they aren't Witches! They are TRADITIONAL HEALERS. They also have absolutely no association or affiliation with Pagan religion, religious bodies, or culture - and in fact they often object to such association being made.
"According to the Press Ombudsman, any notion that actual Witches should wish to appeal against the defamatory stereotyping of witches in the South African media is ridiculous and can never merit anything but contemptuous scorn."
But of course - didn't you know that there is no such thing as ordinary, law abiding, good natured witches? That's right, the Sunday Tribune is clearly a "family newspaper"...can't have "satanism" promoted and made to look like an acceptable lifestyle choice now, can we? Praise the Lord, pass the collection plate - and for God sakes, will somebody please think of the children? Facepalm, as they say online these days.
It seems that the Editor of the Sunday Tribune and the Press Ombudsman do not realize the role the media plays in forming public perception - or that they do not care. I don't know which is worse - this fact, or the question surrounding the Press Ombudsman's supposed impartiality, fairness and integrity. Hmm.
This past week, a number of very well written letters of objection and complaint about this matter were sent to the Sunday Tribune and the Press Ombudsman by members of the Pagan community. No response was received from either, and not one of these letters was placed in this Sunday's Tribune. Silence, as they say, is also an answer.
Given all of the above, I think it's ironic and disturbing that the Sunday Tribune seems to care so much about "Black Tuesday" and the Secrecy Bill silencing the SA Media - splashed all over their Facebook page - while at the same time the Sunday Tribune indulges in silencing the community of practising Witches by refusing to print our letters of objection, and defaming us in their articles about convicted criminals who have nothing to do with the Wicca, Paganism or any actual religious practice related to Pagan Witchcraft!
Surely this hypocrisy and double standards have no place in a free democratic society - or in the principles and ethos of those who claim to cherish such freedoms?