Vicky Malefo

I was pleasantly surprised during the recently held 1st Pan-African Psychology Congress (PAPU 2017), to discover the wealth of scientific research output by researchers from the continent and various countries of the world that espouse the much needed transformational approach to psychological practice towards attainment of the public good of the society in general, and the African communities in particular.  What stood out for me from the various abstracts read, and presentations attended during the congress, was the unequivocal demonstration of some positive outcomes of collaborative efforts between “Western” and African traditional therapies towards a better understanding of health belief systems of our clients who come from diverse and multicultural communities.

The present article aims to contribute to the ethos of PAPU 2017 through a review of an article that was recently published in a legal newsletter (DE-REBUS – MAY 2017, p. 51), with the permission of the author.  Titled “Witchcraft as Misconduct”, the article provides a comprehensive legal interpretation of witchcraft in the workplace setting. The article further highlights pertinent legal interpretations of witchcraft in relation to workplace policies on misconduct.  It provides useful insights for not only medico-legal practitioners, but also those who may be called to intervene in cases of reported harassment and intimidation in the workplace.

Specifically, the article focuses on a case where one employee allegedly used witchcraft on the other, and provides graphic details of the alleged witchcraft.

The point of departure stated in the article is that by using muti on the complainant, the accused or perpetrator, in an institutional position of power, had an “intention through the practice and belief in witchcraft to cause either spiritual, mental or physical harm…” to the complainant, and was therefore summarily dismissed from employment on account of intimidation.   The author indicates at this point of the article that “whether the witchcraft is in reality effective or not, was not to be adjudicated on” and cites what may be described as cautionary legal position against courts “making pronouncements on spiritual or cultural matters”.

The first part of the cited legal opinion states: Our courts are familiar with and equipped to deal with disputes arising from conventional medicine, which are governed by objective standards, whereas questions regarding doctrine or cultural practice are not…”  With the latter assertion made by a court as recently as 2014, it is felt that the latter poses a challenge to the psychology profession to increase the response to questions pertaining to “conventional” and “objective” nature or assumed absence thereof in African health belief systems.

Parts of the author’s cited legal opinion states that it “… of necessity involves an investigation of the grounds advanced to demonstrate that the belief exists”.  The honors of proof therefore lies with the practitioner to provide compelling argument towards convincing the courts that witchcraft is, indeed, part of a way-of-life for many communities of the world.

With reference to the excerpt cited above, the relevance of the article to psychology practice therefore hinges on (i) the practitioner’s insight into nuances of African health belief systems; (ii) the extent to which the practitioner is able to provide unconditional positive regard to a client presenting with witchcraft-related matters, and (iii) the extent to which institutional policies are in tandem with- and therefore supportive of broader professional and social transformational agenda.

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