The Observer

Black magic

With a teenager for a guide, Andy Martin discovers a curious vision of modern South Africa – where devilish creatures do wicked things in townships, adolescents observe ancient initiation rites when they’re not surfing and witches fly on loaves instead of broomsticks

The fact that Simphiwe happened to be sitting outside a bar on the main street in Hankey when he saw the tikoloshe was strictly coincidence. He hadn’t had a single drink; he was only 12 then. He was sitting with his friend Michael and the tikoloshe went by on the other side of the street, right outside the bank, and Simphiwe turned to Michael to say, ‘Look! A tikoloshe !’ By which time the tikoloshe had vanished. ‘But he was there, no doubt,’ Simphiwe assured me.

A tikoloshe is a mischievous creature with magical powers, about half the size of a man, naked, ugly, extremely hairy and, perhaps just as well, generally invisible. He is the consort of witches and will do their bidding. He lives among the reeds of the river, but regularly comes to town to steal eggs and terrorise the population.

Simphiwe (pronounced ‘Simpeewe’) was now 19 and fully conversant with what Harry Potter would call the ‘Dark Arts’. He lived among witches (igqwira in the Xhosa tongue) and witch doctors (igqira), spirits and mermaids. ‘You think a witch rides around on the broomstick? That is ridiculous!’ he laughed, amused by my naivety. ‘No. A witch goes on a flying loaf of bread.’ The loaf is, in fact, a snake or serpent which only looks like a loaf, as a kind of disguise.

Simphiwe, who tended to wear his baseball cap sideways, had both a sharp sense of humour and a serious respect for the supernatural. We met in the legendary Jeffrey’s Bay. Surfers come to these far-flung shores in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa for classic waves that sweep up out of Antarctica during the winter, and come here to die spectacularly. But for the week-long professional surfing contest, the waves had been, by ‘J-Bay’ standards, mediocre. And there was a strong consensus among surfers that these conditions were not unconnected with the omission of the traditional African blessing of the beach. Hard-line evangelical Christians had banned it. ‘It’s pagan, you know,’ explained Regan, an imposing white woman who was PR chief for the contest.

Simphiwe and I went sandboarding together, sliding down the huge dunes of Aston Bay, whooping and falling about like 10-year-olds. He offered to take me around his township, in Hankey, 30 miles inland, while most of the other surfers went off in search of lions. That was when he introduced me to black magic and to his grandmother, Nowaningi, who lived in a cool, comfortable house made of mud and cow dung. She reassured me that a tikoloshe cannot get into your house if you throw salt around the door and the windows.

While I was enjoying a wholesome lunch of millet ( umnqusho ) about 10 relatives dropped in to discuss a witch who had been exorcised and gone into exile in Port Elizabeth. They still didn’t trust him. ‘Once a witch, always a witch,’ said Simphiwe.

We walked along railway tracks, past orange and lemon and mango groves down in the Gamtoos valley, and clambered up a steep, rocky cliff into the caves where Simphiwe used to play as a child. On top of the heights that dominate Hankey, we gazed down in awe on the massive tripartite divide that is still the rule, if not the law, in South Africa: whites at one end of town, in smart houses with shops and schools and clinics; blacks at the other, in mud houses on unmade streets populated by goats; and coloureds in between, living in shacks.

Simphiwe pointed out a few signs of progress. Now most houses have electricity and TV aerials. ‘When television first came here, they said it was a white thing,’ he explained. ‘Blacks weren’t allowed to own a TV. It was illegal.’ The first time a black family acquired a television, everyone would crowd into the house to watch it at 10 cents a time. The first programme Simphiwe ever saw was William Tell, after which he made a crossbow out of sticks.

But Simphiwe was proud that, amid all the changes and outside influences (his aunties’ favourite singers were Mariah Carey and Celine Dion), the blacks had kept their traditions. He was desperate for his ‘initiation’. In bygone days, adolescent boys would be taken into the wilderness for six months or so. Either they learnt lessons about survival and made it back independently, or they didn’t. Now, because most of the community are hip urbanites, inexperienced at hunting and making a fire with sticks, the initiates are taken to a secluded spot a short way out of town. There they are cut off from women (and rivers, in case of mermaids) for a month and have to survive without salt or sugar or yeast, and suck their water out of a barrel of mud. And they must mount a vigil at night against witchcraft. But they are allowed regular supplies. Still, they do have to burn their clothes, live in improvised wigwams and – the scariest part – be circumcised with a spear (and without anaesthetic).

Simphiwe took me to meet four old friends undergoing their initiation. They wore catapults at their hips and blankets as loin cloths and were smothered from head to toe in white clay, which had a symbolic value and was also useful for keeping the insects off. They were drowsy with lack of sleep, but glad to see Simphiwe and went slickly through some of their old karate routines together (one of them was a black belt, and Simphiwe could kick the branch of a tree higher than my head).

But there was a lot of anxious talk of spears. Several recent circumcisions elsewhere had gone wrong and a number of deaths had occurred. There was a trend towards disposable spears, to avoid sharing. What with the slaughtered cow, the party, and the new clothes needed after graduation, the whole business was dangerous and cost up to £300. But Simphiwe wanted to go through with his initiation, otherwise he would be reviled and not be allowed to marry.

He took me to the house of the local witch doctor, a large, mesmeric woman called Gloria, whose father had been an Anglican vicar. She preferred to be known as a ‘traditional healer’. Gloria could cure various ailments, including impotence, with a cocktail of herbs and potions, and provide protection against spells. She gave me a small chunk of magic bark, which would enable me to utter ‘words of power’ and influence people. She told me my fortune, something Simphiwe shied away from, lest he learn the day of his death.

When we got back to town, the evangelical Regan scrutinised me rigorously. ‘You haven’t been listening to all that mumbo-jumbo, have you?’ she said. ‘All you need to do is open your heart to God and go forth with peace and joy.’

I never saw a tikoloshe while I was in Hankey. However, driving back to J-Bay at dusk, we did observe something black and whirling and dervish-like in the headlamps. When we pulled up and investigated, our hearts in our mouths, it turned out to be a bin bag spun about by the truck in front.

On the other hand, Simphiwe and I did have one uncanny experience which he said was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him. After a chance encounter with an Afrikaner farmer’s daughter, Agatha Schellingerhout, at the town library, she invited us back to the spacious farmhouse built by her father, Dirk, who showed me a PhD thesis (by Wendy Dilys Coetzee) about the origins of Hankey (founded by an early nineteenth-century missionary of that name who acquired most of the land from the Hottentots). Simphiwe had never been in a white farmhouse before. And they had never had a black kid to tea before either. Ten years ago, Simphiwe said, it would have been illegal.

But the Schellingerhouts were kind and hospitable, and told rugged tales of survival in storm and flood, and only once showed any sign of racism. When Simphiwe asked for five sugars in his tea, Agatha turned to me and said, as if he wasn’t there any more: ‘They’re all like that, you know.’

As we were leaving, Dirk asked me if I believed in Jesus. ‘He will come and make this place perfect,’ he said.

Driving back to Simphiwe’s home in J-Bay, he told me one final mystery was playing on his mind – a ‘very big question’ that not even witch doctors had been able to answer for him. ‘A witch can drive you mad or set you on fire, so how does it come about, when we have so much power, that the white man can come here and do what they did to South Africa?’