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A Limpopo man who chased his mother with an axe as he believed her to be a witch, and who was sentenced to a three-year jail term by a lower court, has been given a reprieve by the Pretoria High Court. It found the sentence too harsh and halved it.
Lazarus Mohlala was earlier convicted under a section of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957. This act states it is an offence to accuse someone of being a witch or of using these powers to harm others.
It emerged during the trial in Limpopo that Mohlala accused his elderly mother (her name was not stated in this judgment) of being a witch. He had also told others in the community that she had caused the deaths of her husband and children.
This was not the first time that Mohlala had turned against his mother – a similar case was pending against him at the time he tried to hack his mother to death.
Mohlala was on his way back from court following a hearing in that case, when he chased her with an axe and threatened to kill her.
The reason was that he did not want her to testify against him in that case because he believed her to be a witch. The terrified mother told the court that she was so afraid of her son that she did not go home but slept in the bush.
The matter came under review at the high court and Judge Bert Bam asked the presiding magistrate in Limpopo for his reasons in sentencing Mohlala to a “harsh” three years’ imprisonment.
The magistrate responded that this offence was prevalent in Limpopo. Many victims had often been killed or maimed by their accusers, he said.
Many people living in rural areas were susceptible to rumours of others being involved in witchcraft. In this case, the victim’s own son accused her of killing her husband and children. The community believed this, as the accusations were made by a person whom they believed would have inside knowledge.
The magistrate told the judge he thought “it would be better to remove the accused from society so that his mother may have some breathing space and peace of mind”.
Judge Bam said the fact that Mohlala named his mother as a witch was serious. A person could be jailed for up to 10 years for such an offence. It was aggravating that Mohlala, although he already faced similar criminal charges, did not relent calling his mother a witch.
He also seemed to be a person with a violent tendency, the judge said, as he had four previous convictions of assault. But three years in jail seemed “disturbingly inappropriate”. The office of the director of public prosecutions agreed.