For generations, the rainy season in this desolate land of towering cactuses and waist-high anthills signaled the time for plowing and sowing the fields, school vacation, and deadly witch hunts.
People considered witches are thought to control lightening and direct it against their enemies. So when summer skies open and lightening sets thatch-roofed huts ablaze, as it does with bewildering frequency this time of year, the search for a culprit begins - in village after village.
While this tradition of blaming unexpected misfortunes on black magic is found throughout rural Africa, in few places has it taken more victims than in South Africa's rural Northern Province. More than 500 people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft and killed by mobs here between 1990 and 1995. Even more lost their homes and their possessions when they were either run out of town or had their homes torched.
But in a remarkable and little-noted law-enforcement initiative, the new South African government has almost completely halted the practice over the past three years.
Since 1997, only one person suspected of witchcraft has been murdered here. Remote outposts like this village, which have served as refuges for accused witches for decades, say no new victims have arrived in years.
Triumphant authorities credit greater police presence in troubled areas, aggressive prosecution of witch hunters, and a stern warning to traditional healers and village chiefs: If they accuse someone of being a witch, they will be held responsible if the person is murdered.
Some locals, however, do not share the government's elation at this law-enforcement success story. The crackdown may have stopped the public lynching, burnings, and stoning of people accused of sorcery, but it also illustrates the difficulty of confronting age-old beliefs. Many people here are convinced that witchcraft, emboldened by the protection afforded by the government's new policy, is booming.
"The witches here have been freed by the government," says Joseph Lesoalo, a London-trained doctor who adds that he sees many witchcraft-related illnesses in his patients, illnesses for which modern medicine has no explanation. "The result is that witchcraft is dominating this area."
Even Sgt. Prince Makgoshing, head of the provincial police department's "witchcraft desk" shares this view. A university graduate fluent in more languages than one can count on one hand, Sergeant Makgoshing says that the government's new policy harbors "witches."
To illustrate the current system's unfairness, he recounts one incident from three months back.
An old woman had been found hiding naked under a bed in a house, 30 miles from her home. She admitted that she was indeed a witch and recounted how she flew to the village on a plate (the preferred form of transport for witches in South Africa). Finding the door and windows of her victims' home locked, she changed form and crawled in under the door. She then waited under the bed for her victims to fall asleep to cast a spell on them, she said.
Both the villagers and Makgoshing thought the woman should be punished. But a court psychologist and other officials said she was obviously mentally ill and released her from custody for treatment.
"We can't deal with these people by saying they're crazy," says Makgoshing. "There are witches killing people and people killing witches. My worry is that we [the police] are only concentrating on people killing witches."
But in 1957, the apartheid government passed the Witchcraft Suppression Act that barred tribal leaders from passing judgement on "witches."
Villagers then began to mete out mob justice. By the early 1990s, the violence had increased so dramatically, this province appeared to have descended into lawlessness. Academics and other nonbelievers offer a number of explanations.
The chaotic transition from an apartheid state to a democracy put strains on rural areas, which found an outlet in witch hunting, says Pinkie Rajuili-Mbowane of South Africa's Commission on Gender Equality, which hosted a conference on witchcraft violence in 1998.
Emerging class differences within close-knit villages also seems to be a key factor.
Many of the people accused of witchcraft were relatively prosperous members of otherwise poverty-stricken communities. In addition, successful women were often targeted. How else can uneducated villagers explain an independent woman's success, asks Rajuili-Mbowane.
That was Ester Rasesemola's downfall. Her practice as a traditional healer was so profitable, she was able to loan money to neighbors in need. Resentment grew. When lightening struck her village in 1990, rival healers, even jealous relatives, pointed to her as the cause.
"The whole village came, and they threw my belongings out of my house and said they would burn me," she says.
Instead they allowed her, her three children, and husband to flee. A sympathetic chief later allowed Ms. Rasesemola and other accused witches to settle on this particularly inhospitable plot far from the nearest paved road. More than 100 adults - all of them suspected of being associated with witchcraft now call Helena home.
"I'm sure even our village has a witch," she says. "Every village has at least one."
Meanwhile, South Africa's House of Traditional Leaders is struggling to write a new law that will ban both the practice of witchcraft and the pointing out of witches.
"Witchcraft will be outlawed," says Matthew Bopape, Director of Community Policing in Northern Province. "But I can tell you that it will be very difficult to prove something like this. In a court of law you need evidence. How can you tell that someone flew on a plate?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society