The rise of the witch smellers

Norman McFarlane

King Shaka, legend has it, distrusted igqirha elinukayo (witch smell-ers), and he went to great lengths to protect those close to him from their evil attention.

Whereas he could not be accused of witchcraft by igqirha elinukayo, those close to him could, so he declared himself “Dream Doctor” – which afforded him spiritual dominion over igqirha elinukayo.

During the Salem witch trials, so vividly portrayed in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail Williams emerges as the chief witch smeller, aided and abetted by Betty Parris and the Barbadian slave, Tituba.

The carnage that ensues, redolent of accusation and counter accusation, destroys the community of Salem – for to be accused of witchcraft, even on the flimsiest of evidence, means that your life is forfeit.

One of the favourite means of establishing witchery, was to bind the accused hand and foot and throw them into water.

If the accused floated, it proved they were witches, and resulted in execution by hanging.

If the accused sank, it meant they were not witches, but they were just as dead anyway.

During the Spanish Inquisition (1478 to 1834), an accused heretic was subjected to torture to extract a confession.

If the accused did not confess to being an heretic, they were in any case put to death for refusing to confess.

If the accused did confess, and accuse others of heresy, they would be allowed to recant – and, if lucky, were released; if not, served a lengthy prison sentence.

To save yourself in those times, everybody effectively be-came a witch smeller.

In South Africa today, racism is the new witchcraft, and much like these three periods in history, the merest whiff of suspicion leads to strident denunciation and the equivalent of a public bloodletting at the hands of self-appointed witch smellers.

How else does one describe what has transpired since Zap-iro’s (Jonathan Shapiro) organ grinder and monkey cartoon appeared in print a few weeks ago?

Here we have a man who was arrested and interrogated by the security police, for his principled and very public stand against the apartheid regime, in overt support of the struggle for freedom, which eventually led to the emergence of our fledgling democracy.

He was a card-carrying member of the United Democratic Front, the alter ego of the ANC in South Africa during the struggle years. His credentials are unquestionable.

Since the storm broke, Zapiro has been vilified on social media platforms as a racist, and in numerous radio interviews, he has been challenged to confess to his obviously latent racist tendencies.

Radio talk show host John Robbie, for example, vilified Zapiro on air the day after the cartoon appeared, conveniently forgetting that he had participated in a sanctions busting British Lions rugby union tour to South Africa in 1980, at the height of the international sport boycott, which amounts to little other than hypocrisy.

If you engage with Zapiro on the matter – I took the trouble to do so – it becomes evident that what has transpired has affected him deeply.

Much like an accused witch, he is damned if he admits to being a closet racist, and damned as a denialist if he demures.

Yes, there are sensitivities around the characterisation of black people as monkeys, but Zapiro is clearly no Penny Sparrow.

He admits that the cartoon was a mistake, but the reason he sees it as a mistake is an indictment of where we are intellectually as a society.

Rather than seeing the cogent metaphor the cartoon represents – the NPA head mechanically doing Jacob Zuma’s bidding – we seize on the obvious characterisation it represents, which conveniently draws attention away for the real issue at hand – Jacob Zuma’s continued, and largely successful efforts, to bend to his will, every state institution.

If anybody needs to stand accountable for this diversion, it ought to be those who have set themselves up as witch smellers, rather than the man who, although he may on occasion offend with his caricatures, has consistently held up for public scrutiny the perfidy of those elected by us to rule.