n Acta Criminologica: Southern African Journal of Criminology - Violent enforcement of traditional beliefs : witchcraft, vigilantism and state legitimacy

Volume 27, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1012-8093



In this article, the author seeks to use the concept of legitimacy to explain the phenomenon of collective violence against suspected witches in South Africa. While victims of spiritual attacks perceive witchcraft as exceptionally harmful, the state does not view the right to be free from occult violence as an interest that is worthy of legal protection. This dissonance between state and community beliefs regarding witchcraft's potential harmfulness may precipitate and perpetuate vigilantism, inducing victims to take the law into their own hands to protect themselves from spiritual attack in the face of state apathy. Anti-witch violence is in effect a demonstration of an erosion of state legitimacy, and is aimed at filling the crime-fighting gap left by a virtual absence of state protection against witches. Vigilantes portray themselves to their communities as an alternative provider of 'criminal justice' by brutally eliminating the witch as a common enemy or scapegoat. Strengthening state legitimacy in this context is crucial, and various approaches for doing so through addressing witchcraft evils are considered. It is emphasised that any potential strategies for reconciling incongruent state-citizen 'law-enforcement' beliefs, so as to minimise the likelihood of witchcraft-related vigilantism, should not occur at the cost of the state's primary role as human rights guarantor.

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