Witchcraft and Statecraft: Liberal Democracy in Africa

54 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2007 Last revised: 8 Aug 2008


This Article addresses the prospects of liberal democracy in non-Western societies. It focuses on South Africa, one of the newest and most admired liberal democracies, and in particular on its efforts to recognize indigenous African traditions surrounding witchcraft and related occult practices. In 2004, Parliament passed a law that purports to regulate certain occult practitioners called traditional healers. Today, lawmakers are under pressure to go further and criminalize the practice of witchcraft itself. This Article presses two arguments. First, it contends that the 2004 statute is compatible with liberal principles of equal citizenship and the rule of law. Second, it warns against outlawing witchcraft as such. Subjecting suspected sorcerers to criminal punishment based on governmental determinations of guilt that many will perceive to be unprincipled would work too much damage to individual autonomy and national unity, among other values. These arguments are designed to contribute to a wider discussion about the capacity of liberalism to respond to the global resurgence of religious traditionalism, especially in countries where traditionalists may comprise a large majority of the citizenry.

Keywords: South Africa, witchcraft, religious traditions

Suggested Citation

Tebbe, Nelson, Witchcraft and Statecraft: Liberal Democracy in Africa. Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 96, p. 183, 2007; Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper No. 84. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1010148

Nelson Tebbe (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
United States
(607) 255-3506 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics