Between January and February 2018, South Africa has been gripped with stories of armed men blatantly walking up to a village, abduct albinos and disappear with them into the bush.
By Phalandwa Abraham Mulaudzi & Martin Revayi Rupiya
Several weeks later, as happened in north-eastern province of Mpumalanga on 22 February, two bodies of mutilated children were found in shallow graves with several parts of their bodies missing. Everyone is now clear why the people living with albinism were abducted and why the bodies have missing parts—taken for purposes and belief that, these parts mixed with muti and other charms, can bring stupendous good luck—either scoring at horse racing and other betting events, success in business or even winning elections.
Furthermore, the preliminary evidence emerging from this incident is that, the traditional healer who had recommended to clients that they bring body parts of an albino comes from across the border, in Swaziland. The same may have escaped justice this time as the modalities to seek for justice in these seemingly low-level crimes across borders do not lend themselves to support the complex legal systems.
This myth and belief continues to run deep and strong amongst communities, fuelled by unethical community healers.
The myth-driven abduction and murder of people living with albinism, using pangas, machetes, axes and guns has grown as a phenomenon. Statistics in the last half-decade have shown that over 200 deaths and over 500 serious injuries have been documented in 27 Sub-Saharan countries. On this, Tanzania tops the list with over 170 killed and forcing government, working closely with the United Nations and other international non-governmental orgnisations, to create special villages and security enclaves where families take their affected children for protection.
Researcher Martin Caddihy (2014) notes the belief that albino body parts play an important role in bringing people wealth, power and economic success has been going on for a long time. This had its root in Central Africa and spread to eastern, western and southern parts of Africa. The strings of albino fetishisation began in 2007 and took the form of killings influenced by the sale of albino body parts to traditional healers in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania. This is also confirmed by Mswela (2016:32) when she notes that these traditional healers use albino body parts to create potions and charms that claim to bring wealth and success to those who purchase and consume them.
According to Mgwabati (2010), the introduction of Nile perch, which is a predatory fish, into Lake Victoria in the 1950s had a negative effect because this led to the mass killing of indigenous fish and algae species in the lake. As a result, there was illegal trade, overfishing and fish scarcity in Tanzania. The depletion of fish in Lake Victoria threatened the livelihoods of around 40 million people in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
However, in South Africa’s north-eastern Mpumalanga region recently, left behind is an 18 month-old child with albinism and with a young mother whose plaintive cry was, “they are going to come back for him—where do I keep my child safe? Am I expected to lock up my child for safety? Please help me.”
A state representative claimed that efforts to protect those living with albinism will be re-intensified and asserted that “we have all the data on the individuals.” The point is therefore that, in spite of the South African government having ratified the November 2007 UN Convention on Rights of Persons living with disabilities (CRPD) and having created a data base to enhance measures towards the protection of people living with albinism, the system has failed.
The mounting frequency and almost unfettered abduction of these individuals by armed men for profit has continued to occur without restraint. Only afterwards are the South African Police Service able to extract confessions from arrested perpetrators who then guide them to the shallow graves of the victims.
The cultural beliefs are used as an excuse to kill persons with albinism in order to alleviate poverty which has been caused by economic hardship. In addition, power also plays an important role in the killing of people with albinism. For example, the hair, bones, genitals and thumbs of people with albinism are said to possess distinct powers. In order to address these challenges South Africa and other countries in the continent should tackle the problem of unemployment and poverty by working together with non-government organisations to create jobs.
Furthermore, very few people in South Africa understand the causes of albinism and it is unfortunate that the majority who are poor and not highly educated are made to believe that albinism is a punishment from the gods for somebody who has already passed on but committed wrongdoings such as engaging in sexual intercourse during menstrual period.
The trafficking of body parts from people with albinism must urgently be addressed. Clear national policies are needed. The community must be effectively educated about albinism to demystify this genetic condition. And as a result the myths surrounding albinism should be corrected in order to restore human dignity.
At a minimum, the South African government needs to undertake an urgent but comprehensive review of the existing system—that has failed to work and come up with stringent and equally urgent interim measures. Lives are being lost while we wait and watch! Furthermore, because the phenomenon has been noted in Tanzania, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. In this case, the issue is actually prevalent in southern Africa and therefore requires the regional body to take responsibility and action.
Consequently, Pretoria, the current chair of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) since August 2017, should lead the debate within the region for a comprehensive and long-term solution. To continue to respond at national level for a problem that clearly has sub-regional implications is to miss the point and allow the evil profiteers to continue to harass and hound those living with albinism. We must respond to the young parent’s desperate cry: “What shall I do with my baby? They are going to come and take him away.”
Professor Mulaudzi and Dr Rupiya are with the Institute of Renaissance Studies