Religion and Beliefs

Christianity and ancestor worship both hold sway in Limpopo, and co-exist comfortably in many worldviews. The Zion Christian Church (ZCC), based outside Polokwane at Zion City Moria, is the largest African-initiated church ever founded in southern Africa and now claims at least five million members. Many other African churches, mainly Apostolic or Pentecostal, exist throughout the province, as well as a preponderance of Catholic and Lutheran churches. Any tour through Limpopo will invariably include your guide showing you their community church, often newly built or under construction, as well as intricate rituals demonstrating respect to the ancestors at various sacred sites, such as Lake Fundudzi or Thathe Vondo Forest.

Belief in witches is also strong in Limpopo; many people believe, for instance, that lightning is agented by witches trying to do harm. Many people regularly seek the help of traditional healers to protect themselves against witchcraft or to undo a witch’s curse.

The Zion Christian Church (ZCC)

The ZCC, which fuses African traditional belief with Christianity, was officially founded by Engenas Lekganyane in 1924, based on a vision he’d had from God 14 years before. The early ZCC was strongly shaped by the Christian Catholic Church of John Alexander Dowie, based in Zion, Illinois in the US, as well as by Pentecostal missionary John G. Lake, working around Johannesburg in the early 20th century. Established on a farm now called Zion City Moria and officially recognised in 1948, the ZCC today is led by Engenas’ descendants in two groups: the original group led by Bishop BE Ramarumo Lekganyane and the splinter group led by Joseph Lekganyane. The former wears a star pin and the latter a dove, but their beliefs and rituals are mostly the same. ZCC members are visible throughout Limpopo holding services outside under a tree, the men often dancing and women singing. Men wear distinctive khaki uniforms and police-style hats for dancing; for church services they wear green suits. Young women wear blue for church, khaki for choir practice, and older women wear green and yellow for church services. The central message of the ZCC preaches peace, addressing God through Jesus Christ. Easter is the biggest ZCC holiday, when millions of followers come to Moria to greet the Bishop and ask for blessings.

South Africa’s Only Saint

South Africa’s single saint was martyred due to his opposition to local witchcraft believers – killed on the historical day that FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other political parties and freed Nelson Mandela, 2 February, 1990. School teacher and principal Benedict Daswa, a Lemba, born Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa in Mbahe village on 16 June, 1946, was murdered by a local mob after he refused to support their witchcraft beliefs. Starting at the end of 1989, a series of lightning strikes hit the area around Mbahe, worsening in January 1990. The local elders, as many commonly believe, claimed that the lightning strikes were due to witchcraft, and insisted that all residents pay a tax to ‘sniff out’ the witch causing the storms. Staunchly Catholic after his conversion in 1963, Daswa refused, arguing that the storms were a natural phenomenon. On 2 February after taking his sister-in-law and her sick child to Thohoyandou for medical care, Daswa was driving home and found his way blocked by fallen trees and branches. A mob set upon him and started stoning and beating him, ultimately pouring boiling water in his ears and nostrils until he was dead. Based on the holiness of his life, Daswa was recommended for beatification, finally granted in March 2015. Cardinal Angelo Amato celebrated the beatification in Limpopo on 13 September, 2015, a ceremony attended by roughly 35,000 people.

Traditional Healers

Ancestors are very much part of consulting a traditional healer, which most people in Limpopo do from time to time or even regularly. I have been to three healers – sangomas in Zulu, maine in Venda – in Limpopo, all very different. It’s an experience I recommend, and is available from many of the AIR camps — but it’s not for the faint-hearted. My first consultation – bones throwing — was with well-known artist/healer Albert Munyai at his home in Thengwe, northern Venda. Albert immediately zeroed in on my fractious relationship with my teenage son at the time, and prescribed a peculiar, somewhat alarming, mix of nails and hair to sprinkle on his porridge. I declined to execute. On my second traditional healer visit in Shawela village near Baleni Camp, I was merely an observer – watching a fellow journalist, a young woman who’d been born in Venda — cringe as the healer flicked her fly whisk around madly and insist that she was meant to be a sangoma, and that the ancestors were cross with her for not following that path. My latest consultation, in Tshilamusi village in northern Limpopo, was with a woman wearing a New York Yankees’ beanie. We spent a bit of time trying to communicate about her hat and my son studying acting in New York. Like Albert, she zoomed in on my son, but this time telling me ‘the door is open’ if I want to return to America, and that my son is waiting, would welcome me. All it would take to cure the rest of my woes – a disastrous love life, for instance – would be slitting the throat of a white chicken and bathing in its blood, then going to the river and facing upstream, so that the river could wash all the bad luck away. Again, I declined to execute. Yet it is uncanny what these healers know, or learn, about you from the bones – through which the ancestors speak. Bones of elephant, leopard, hyena, lion, and many others, plus a couple of cowrie shells. And it all starts with blowing into a long pouch (often meerkat), holding the bones and shells, to connect you to the ancestors. Plus a dab of python oil on the forehead, in Albert’s case.

The Ancestors and the Spirit World

The spirit world, of which the ancestors are the core, is almost more real than the physical world to many people in Limpopo. People there vary in their dedication to their ancestors, both in the ritual attention they give them and in their beliefs in their power. But most people you talk to – especially cultural guides to the sacred sites and artists – will cite the ancestors as their inspiration and as a force to be reckoned with and venerated. Visiting Limpopo, you can often feel the ancestors’ presence. Strongest presence for me was in Thathe Vondo Forest in Venda – where the Netshidzhive clan’s ancestors reside, and the white lion is said to guard the ancestors’ graves. Venda, in general, at least to this mukhuwa, holds the most ancestral power of anywhere in Limpopo.


Many scoff at the notion of witches and witchcraft, but for many in Limpopo, both are terrifyingly real. My introduction to Limpopo, specifically Venda, was in fact around witchcraft. As I wrote in the introduction to this book, I first visited Venda in 1988, when it was still a ‘homeland’ under apartheid. I and two fellow reporters for The Weekly Mail (forerunner of The Mail and Guardian) were up there to investigate a series of ‘witch’ killings – which mainly turned out to be wrongful slaughter of old women by young comrades at odds with their politics. But witchcraft is practiced in Limpopo, as in other places around South Africa, the continent and the world. The traditional healer near Baleni Camp spoke freely of mixing Baleni salt with sea water and sprinkling it generously around one’s yard to keep witches away. Aside from traditional healers, most people won’t readily talk about witchcraft – but with a little prodding, stories about either direct or indirect experience with witches will emerge.