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Sunday, June 19, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In S. Africa, They Still Burn `Witches'

AP

NOBODY, South Africa - Three months ago, 12-year-old Modike Mamoropene was forced to douse her mother with gasoline and set her ablaze.

Modike saw a mob burn the rest of her family to death and flames devour her home before she, too, perished with the rest of her kin and their property.

The crime: Modike's mother was accused of being a witch.

Such tragedies may seem out of place in the new South Africa, but belief in witchcraft and the practice of tribal justice are on the rise. How to respond is one of the problems facing Nelson Mandela's government as it strives to combine traditional African culture and modern democracy.

At least 65 people accused of witchcraft have been burned to death since January in Lebowa, an arid northeastern area whose harshness inspired this village's name: Nobody came to live here until 50 years ago.

Several possible reasons are given for the burnings:

-- When people are struck by lightning during the stormy summer season, witches are blamed.

-- Lebowa and other tribal homelands, which had a large degree of autonomy under apartheid, rarely had to answer for such killings.

-- Violence of all kinds, from political to criminal, has been increasing in South Africa.

"Before 1976, if a person was accused of being a witch, an inyanga (traditional healer) would be asked to cast a revenge spell on them," said Maimolela Boloyi, a resident of Nobody. "But after the '80s, people started to exact violent revenges, in the traditional manner of burning witches."

Belief in witchcraft and the supernatural leads to other bizarre happenings in Lebowa. Frogs believed by residents of Nobody to be zombies, for example, were kept in a cage in the jail until they died.

Inyangas working in dim huts toss animal bones into a pile and read them to determine whether a journey will be successful. Sangomas, or witch doctors, are called on to resolve dilemmas, prescribe love potions and expose witches after a death has occurred.

"The question of witchcraft is deeply rooted in this society," said Lt. Ernest Setati of the Lebowa police. "People don't believe that people just die. They think that they must be bewitched."

Whoever the witch doctor names is set upon and burned by villagers, who also burn the house. Relatives often are attacked.

"It's just jealousy," said Maria Mametja, who lost several relatives in a witch burning and said envy of the family's wealth was the reason.

"We worked our hands and heart to build this house," she said. "That was our only crime. This notion of witchcraft is just a smoke screen."

Mandela's African National Congress has pledged to end violence, but ANC spokesman Thomas Flatela acknowledged that reconciling traditional beliefs and mainstream justice will be difficult.

"The ANC will have to do something to put an end to it. We just don't know what yet," he said.

"The difference will be that we won't just leave the problem like the National Party government did," Flatela added, referring to the previous white administration.

Setati, the police lieutenant, said his officers were "virtually helpless in this matter."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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