Witchcraft means the practice of and belief in magical skills and abilities exercised by witches and cultic groups. Witchcraft is a broad term that differs across cultures and societies making it difficult to accurately define.
The subject of witchcraft in Zimbabwe is a controversial Subject. They are people who believe in witchcraft and those who do not believe in witchcraft. Whenever the discussion on this issue begins people usually fall into two groups. In the first group are those who say witches do not exist, and in the second group are those who say witches do exist.
In Zimbabwe, this difference of opinion extends to the courts of law. There is conflict on the subject of witchcraft between the traditional courts and the formal courts.
Traditional courts agree that witches exist while the formal courts say witches do not exist.
Traditional courts, accept the view that witches exist In the past, once an individual was found guilty of practising witchcraft, he or she was sentenced by the court the sentence took various forms In extreme cases the witch was beaten or even killed. Other witches were ordered to leave the village and had their houses destroyed. Ostracism was the mildest form of punishment Some witches were cured. In such a case a doctor was ordered to neutralize or eliminate the evil spirit that possessed the witch.
Although many traditional courts, as well as family gatherings, still try certain cases of witchcraft, legally they are no longer permitted to do so. According to the law of Zimbabwe, such cases must be referred to the formal courts. Cases of witchcraft fall under the Witchcraft Suppression Act [Chapter 9:19]. The Witchcraft Suppression Act was regarded by the traditional courts as a very unjust piece of legislation because the aim of the Act was not to punish witches but those individuals who named others as witches. In 1899 the legislature made it clear in the Act that, although certain people may genuinely believe in witchcraft, it regarded the whole practice of witchcraft as a pretence and a sham, something which in actual fact has no real existence at all.
In the Act witchcraft is referred to as 'so-called witchcraft'. The Witchcraft Suppression Act is aimed at five categories of persons. Firstly, any person who names or indicates any other person as being a witch is guilty of an offence. The second category of persons affected by the Act are persons referred to as 'witch-doctors'; any person who names or indicates any other person as being a witch and is proved at his trial to be by habit and repute a 'witch-doctor' or witch-finder faces a heavy sentence. Thirdly, it is an offence to employ or solicit any other person to name or indicate thieves and other wrong-doers by means of witchcraft; similarly, a person who employs someone to advise him or any other person how by means of witchcraft such thieves or wrong-doers may be identified commits an offence. The fourth group of persons affected by the Act are those who claim to have a knowledge of witchcraft or of the use of charms; it is an offence to advise someone how to bewitch any person or animal or to supply someone with what the Act calls pretended means of witchcraft'. Lastly, anyone who, 'on the advice of a witchdoctor or witch-finder or any person pretending to have the knowledge of witchcraft or the use of charms, or in the exercise of any pretended knowledge of witchcraft or of the use of charms, uses or causes to be put into operation such means or processes as he may have been advised or may believe to be calculated to injure any other person or any property, including animals, shall be guilty of an offence. In other words, anyone attempting to practise what the Act refers to as 'so-called witchcraft' is also guilty.
Officials of the formal courts of Zimbabwe see their job as eradicating the belief in witchcraft which some people hold. To them, the witch does not exist,and any person who purports to locate him and render him harmless is the real public enemy. Officials of the formal courts agree completely with the Witchcraft Suppression Act. Some African lawyers appear to have some doubts in their minds concerning the correctness of the Act.
Conflict between formal and informal courts
This conflict on the subject of witchcraft between the traditional courts and the formal courts is due to a number of reasons. The first reason concerns the definition of witchcraft. In the Witchcraft Suppression Act, witchcraft is defined as, "the throwing of bones, the use of charms and any other means or device adopted in the practice of sorcery'. As a matter of fact, this definition, which has remained unchanged to this day, says nothing about witches and witchcraft. Throwing of bones is not necessarily done to identify or drive out witches, as many court officials now realize. Throwing of bones is a means of divination, that is to say, a means by which a diviner or medical practitioner determines or attempts to determine, who or what caused an illness or other misfortune complained of by an individual or a group. Another widely employed means of divination in traditional medical practice is spirit possession. Illnesses or misfortunes are not always attributed to witchcraft. There are other possible causes of illness such as ancestor spirits, angered or aggrieved spirits, bacteria and germs. Once the cause of the illness is discovered, treatment may be with medicines, ritual, or a combination of medicines and ritual. In some cases no medicines or ritual may be recommended.