By Louise Flanagan

Witches are not criminals, but have religious and spiritual rights too.

That's the argument the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (Sapra) wants to use to protect the belief of witchcraft against a newly proposed bill.

"How are they going to prove it in court?" Sapra member Enmarie Potgieter asked on Thursday.

"Are they going to throw us into the water and see if we float?

"They're launching a witchhunt on witches."

Witches themselves need protection from violent attack, Sapra said.

"Practitioners of natural magic (witchcraft) throughout the country have rallied together to oppose the passage of the proposed Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill on the grounds that the bill will criminalise men and women who practise witchcraft or who claim to be witches," Sapra convener Damon Leff said.

Sapra has even submitted an alternative bill - the Mpumalanga Witchcraft Protection Bill - for the Mpumalanga Legislature to consider instead.

Leff said Sapra had already submitted "substantial objections" against both the Mpumalanga bill and the 50-year-old national law - the Witchcraft Suppression Act - arguing for religious freedom for self-defined witches.

In a letter earlier this month to the Justice Ministry and SA Human Rights Commission, Leff warned of the ongoing violence against people accused of being witches and said there was an urgent need to prevent more such violence.

Leff wrote that there were about 3 000 to 5 000 self-defined witches in the country.

"Witchcraft is described by these South African citizens as a spiritual occupation and religion closely associated with the practice of natural (sympathetic) magic, herbalism, divinations and pagan religious ritual," he wrote.

In rural areas such as Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, attacks on people accused of being witches - particularly elderly women - are not unusual.

Potgieter said those who attacked people they accused of being witches were the criminal element that needed addressing, not witches themselves. She warned that the bill also affected traditional healers and "disempowered" them.