Pagan Identity Politics, Witchcraft, and the Law: Encounters with Postcolonial Nationalism in Democratic South Africa

Dale Wallace


On the winter solstice of June 1996, a small group of individuals who had engaged in private Pagan activities during apartheid gathered to endorse their draft constitution for the Pagan Federation of South Africa (PFSA) and to vote in its first president, Donna Vos. Ranging in age from their 30s to 60s, the males and females who negotiated the public emergence of Paganism1 identified primarily with the religions of Wicca and Witchcraft as developed by Gerald Gardner in Britain in the 1950s. In full anticipation of the challenges they could face in a religiously conservative country, the PFSA set two goals. One was the correction of misinformation about Paganism through the media that primarily focused on the stereotypical assumption that it was a branch of Satanism. The second goal was to facilitate the national networking of practitioners of a plurality of expressions of Wicca, Witchcraft, and magic practices that have remained the heart of South African Paganism.

D. Wallace (*)

University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa © The Author(s) 2017

K. Rountree (ed.), Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56200-5_9

The increased availability of Pagan literature following the lifting of apartheid censorship policies and the rise of the global Internet from the late 1990s facilitated a rapid growth in the local Pagan community. In a short period of time, new groups emerged to represent diverse Pagan interests, alternative Pagan traditions were explored, teaching modules were developed, and valuable contacts were made with government institutions. The Paganism publicly presented was of traditions that celebrated the immanence of the divine in the natural world, recognized the masculine and feminine aspects of divine reality, and drew on western2 systems of magic in their practices. The new Pagans, who were predominantly politically liberal individuals, fully celebrated a new nonracial nation founded on universal principles of equality. Accordingly, the fact that they were white proponents of a group of Eurocentric religions was not envisaged as becoming a potential obstacle in the public articulation of their religious identity.

Reassured by constitutional guarantees of religious freedom in a newly democratic South Africa, the Pagans of 1996 embraced their future relatively unaware of the extent to which the history of meanings associated with the terms “pagan” and “witchcraft” would shape their identity politics in ways uniquely different from their global counterparts. The semantic congruence between the terms “Africa” and “paganism” has its history in the global projects of imperialism and colonial expansion when the religious and cultural practices of African peoples were constructed as being “pagan” through their association with practices such as animism, divination, sacrifice, and ancestral veneration. These practices have acquired academic attention in the context of a postcolonial turn toward the recognition of indigenous traditions and, not least, within Pagan Studies. In developing his argument that Paganism is a world religion, Michael York (2003: 38) extends this umbrella term to include “the paganism of indigenous tribal religions.” Such assumptions can be criticized for denying Africans the opportunity to choose their own terms of identity and to reject the neocolonial reimposition of terms without consultation. Attention to the politics of language highlighted the colonial legacies of racism and prejudice in words and labels ascribed to “others,” and their decolonization is integral to postcolonial nation-building processes. Contrary to widespread conjecture, in the postcolonial context, the term “pagan” was not revitalized and/or appropriated by South African blacks who did, however, engage in formal processes to decolonize witchcraft and magic. Pagan involvement in the intercultural conflict that these processes engendered cannot be understood outside of factors in South Africa’s colonial, apartheid past and post-1994 changes in South Africa’s nationalist vision.

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