By Kylie Walker

A Witchcraft suppression bill, currently being drafted by the Mpumalanga legislature, has struck fear into the hearts of South Africa's witches, who fear the dark days of medieval witch-hunts may soon return.

The bill, leaked in June to the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (Sapara), threatens to undermine the freedoms and rights of a religious minority by criminalising and prohibiting their right to exist and practise their religion, says Sapra convener Damon Leff.

Full time Durbanville witch and high priestess Donna darkwolf Vos said news of the bill spread like wildfire through the witch community.

She said witches were determined to quash the bill but terrified of revealing themselves by signing a petition of opposition.

"Witches know they cannot let this bill be passed, but at the same time it means exposing ourselves, and most people are closet witches, they are still in the broom cupboard," she said.

According to Andi Fisher, chief director and priestess of the Correllian Nativist Church International, the draft bill is so restrictive that a Catholic lighting a candle and praying with the aid of a rosary in Mpumalanga could be charged with witchcraft.

"The bill makes it illegal for self-defined witches to admit to being witches or to practising witchcraft," said Fisher.

"We will be unable to cast spells, do divinations or light work and crystal healing, or even advertise."

The draft, titled the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill 2007, states in its introduction that it is "to provide for the suppression of witchcraft in the province".

In Chapter 6 it states any person who "professes a knowledge of witchcraft or the use of charms" or "for gain pretends to exercise or use any supernatural powers, witchcraft, sorcery or enchantment" shall be guilty of an offence.

The Mpumalanga provincial government says the new law is necessary to counteract the practice of people accusing members of their community of being witches.

This month, in the fourth such incident since March, pupils at a school in Mpumalanga refused to attend classes after allegations that teachers were bewitching them.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a member of the Mpumalanga department of local government and housing, which is writing the bill, said the Mpumalanga advocates were "extremely annoyed" that the national body Sapra had made public a document given to them in confidence.

The director of communications, Simphiwe Kunene, said he was unable to comment on the bill because it was still being worked on.

But Leff said their organisation felt justified in publishing the draft bill because it was in the interest of Western pagans.

He believes the bill could potentially direct the superstitious fear of witchcraft manifesting itself in isolated but ongoing incidences of communal violence against suspected witches in rural South Africa towards "actual" witches.

Communal violence against witches, a serious problem in Mpumalanga, is also common in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, where the mere suspicion of witchcraft activity has led to accusation, assault, enforced exile and murder.

These provinces have also been the scenes of so-called "muti murders" where children were killed for body parts.

South African Human Rights Commission chairman Jody Kollapen, when asked if legislation is enough to combat people's superstitious fear of witchcraft, said he believed the help of communities, organisations and traditional leaders was needed if long-standing attitudes and beliefs were to be changed.

The Traditional Healers' Organisation said in a meeting with Mpumalanga government advocates that the bill displayed "elements of divisiveness", and "failed to address the core challenges of our community which result in witchcraft violence and displacement of innocent individuals".

One of the major causes of the Western pagans' upset, according to Leff, is the failure of the bill to recognise the doctrinal and ethical gap between Western pagan and some forms of traditional African witchcraft.

And according to Vos, by lumping the two religions together the bill has overlooked how differently they approach the issue of ethical responsibility.

"While in rare cases (some in Mpumalanga) murder has been committed to get hold of human tissues, such as hearts and genitals for muti practices, the furthest a Western pagan would go is to collect human hair and nail clippings," he claimed.

Another serious criticism Western pagans in the country harbour is the bill's stereotyping of witches and witchcraft as being harmful and dangerous to their community.

The bill defines witchcraft as "the secret use of muti, zombies, spells, spirits, magic powers, water, mixtures, etc, by any person with the purpose of causing harm, damage, sickness to others or their property".

Leff has asked the Mpumalanga advocates to replace it with the definition: "a religio-magical occupation that employs the use of sympathetic magic, ritual, herbalism and divination".

Western pagans expect to defeat the bill on the issue of civil rights by arguing it denies equal citizenship to South Africans who define their religion as witchcraft.

Leff said Sapra estimated there were between 3 000 and 5 000 Western pagan witches in the country.

Paganism is recognised as a nature-based religion that embraces ancient and new forms of spiritual and magical practice, including the veneration of ancient gods and goddesses.

"We see divinity manifested in nature," explained Vos, "a beautiful spider web, a crow flying at a strange angle, mice in the house when no mice live there."

Sapra and the Traditional Healers' Organisation have already submitted formal objections to the Mpumalanga government, arguing that the bill contradicts 11 clauses enshrined in the Bill of Rights.