Werner’s Witchcraft Water

Magical acts in South Africa


in Features • Illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky


Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

Werner was short and thin like a street dog, and when he came to our door to borrow paint for his bathroom, or a grinder to cut his metal, he wore school-boy issue shorts, one size too small.

I don’t know when he moved to these inner-city Pietermaritzburg apartments we now shared, but here Werner was, and here it seemed he had always been. 30 years ago, Jacaranda flowers would’ve purpled his streets, planted by the British to make it feel like home, now there were only plastic chip packets and tufts of fake black hair.

When apartheid ended in 1990, and races no longer had to keep to certain areas, the black citizens who could afford to, moved from township to city center. The white people who could afford to moved from the city center to suburb.

The reason for this was partly fear — the suburbs became areas white people could protect, whilst the city center attracted illegal immigrants, illegal sex-workers, and a range of violent criminals with undercover trades. But it was also partly status. Three years ago, when I told a Zulu friend our family was moving into the city because we wanted to live in a mix of cultures, she laughed. “You know,” she said, “what the Zulus will think when they see you: ‘Shame, there go those poor whites.’”

Growing up under apartheid, that was a terrifying insult. A poor white person wasn’t a noble poor — they were privileged, yet still considered a failure. The apartheid government had given them the best — education reserved for whites, jobs reserved for whites, homes reserved for whites, and they still couldn’t make it. If it meant moving out of the city to prove you weren’t one of them, then that’s what you did.

Unless you couldn’t afford to.

I first saw Werner from my balcony. His pension was small, and by year getting smaller, so each day he walked the length of our road, rifling through rubbish bins, dumping tins and bottles in his boot. The 50 free newspapers delivered to our block were left for an hour for residents to read and then they were also recycled. And if his boot was still not full he went through our apartment bins, through the sucked chicken bones and wet dental floss, to find plastic and cardboard. I once asked him where I should leave my recycling and he looked at me, confused by my middle-class sensibilities, and said, “In the rubbish bin.”

One night, a few months after we’d moved here, Werner came to our door shaking. “Sam,” he said, “Sam . . . Ag, just come look.”

Sam is my husband and Werner wasn’t sure what to make of him but he was determined to make something of him because, besides Werner, Sam was the only other white man in our block.

Sam followed Werner up five flights of stairs to his apartment and when they arrived Werner pointed and said, “There, Sam. It’s Witchcraft Water.”

Just to the left of Werner’s front door was a small puddle of water, slightly flecked in grey.

“It comes every night at the same time,” Werner spoke slowly, laying his charge. “I know who does it. I’ll sort them out. I just called you as a witness.”

Our apartment block sits on the corner of two main city streets. Off these streets run alleys, and down each alley is the magic mind of Africa. Men, handing out purple printed leaflets, advertise the services of Dr. Abib or Mama Sarah, both of whom can enlarge your butt and breasts, and cure you of the symptoms of HIV. Nearby are shopping trolleys, filled with medicine muthi. Bunches of herbs hang from their sides; small gin bottles line their base; each mixture can accomplish a miracle.

I know magic is a big industry in South Africa. Entire markets are devoted to selling mixtures made from plants and animals that can solve your spiritual and physical problems, supernaturally. And the city center is scattered with makeshift offices, where healers charge 100 Rand per consultation, and much more after success — after they have won back your lost lover and helped you triumph over your enemies in court. And yet, I am always surprised by how large a shadow this magic casts. From street-sweepers to post-graduate students, Zulus live in fear of a disgruntled family member paying for a curse. Foreign Africans also fear this magic, South African Indians too, but I had never met a white man who believed in Zulu muthi until now.

The next morning Mrs. Naidoo knocked on our door. “Sam,” she said, “come see.” This time, Sam walked up four flights of stairs, and outside her front door were three cracked eggs. “Now,” Mrs. Naidoo said, “who would do this?”

Sam had a vague suspicion. From Werner’s balcony to Mrs. Naidoo’s door, was a nicely angled throw. Mrs. Naidoo was big and warm and religious. “I went to church yesterday, Sam, and Pastor said you must love your enemy, but, if I find out who did this . . . ”

That evening, Werner called Sam, and our block’s security guard, to observe the witchcraft water.

It was a mystery in one sense. It appeared in the same place, at the same time, every night. It seemed reasonable to assume that someone was pouring it there, but no one was ever seen pouring it there. I know Zulu men and women do use liquid muthi, our block was mostly Zulu, and none of them were on friendly terms with Werner. He kept his best Afrikaans words for them. “These people that run the country now,” he was careful to speak to me in politer terms because one of my sons is black, “they cut off my electricity, and when I complain, they are friendly to their own kind, but with me they turn into snails, their fingers fall asleep on the computer.” There were a lot of people in our block, and in our city, who had reason to get a mixture, from Dr. Abib, specially brewed for Werner.

But Werner thought it was someone else.

The next morning, Mrs. Naidoo called. “Every one of my toiletries, Sam, is on the floor. Now, who would do this?”

Anyone could have reached into her window and swept those toiletries onto the floor, but no-one else would have.

That night, the water appeared.

The next morning, Mrs. Naidoo’s postbox was broken, ripped off its hinges, the only one out of 50.

“I know we must forgive, Sam,” Mrs. Naidoo said, “but I’ll . . . ”

The following evening, when the block’s cleaner rounded up all the packets of garbage to take to the 200-liter black wheelie bins, stored in the basement, he couldn’t find a single bin. He called security. Security did a search and then called Sam: “You have a problem on your hands.”

Sam walked up five flights of stairs. At one end of the passage, three bins were tied with wire; at the other end, another three. No one could enter, or leave their floor. And no-one could reach Werner’s apartment to spill water. On his window, Werner had hung a cardboard sign, covered in blue koki pen: ‘Hey watertrower [sic] take note. You are a dumb stupid mad psyco [sic] p**s!’ When Sam arrived, the chairperson of the body corporate was already negotiating. “You don’t need to be afraid, Werner. Witchcraft can’t hurt you; you are safe in Jesus’ name.”

The wheelie bins were returned; and the next morning, Werner was in the courtyard when we woke. His bald patch showing, his hair forgetting its place, he cornered Sam by the garages: “I need to ask you, Sam, do you think Satan is real? Do you think Jesus can protect me?” His street dog body was suddenly smaller, his blue shorts and khaki top thinner, as though life was wearing him threadbare.

That evening, Sam did an experiment with security. At 5 pm they checked Werner’s apartment — no puddle. At 6 pm, Mrs. Naidoo went to her church meeting — still no puddle. At 7 pm, nothing. At 8 pm, a small puddle appeared; and by 9 pm it was bigger. Only then did Mrs. Naidoo come home. So, finally, she was in the clear.

But still, there was the puddle. Sam stared at it. Then Sam inspected the wall behind it. He traced his fingers along the pipes — dry. He traced his fingers along the brick —dry. He traced his fingers along the cement, and finally, they showed — damp. It could hardly be seen, but it could be felt, a slow line of damp, seeping through the outside wall, from the inside bathroom, imperceptibly grouping into a puddle in the passageway, just to the left of Werner’s door. A puddle that smelt like sweat and shampoo.

The next day, Sam knocked at Werner’s apartment door. “I’ve solved the mystery,” Sam said.

Werner cocked the catch on his eyes.

This was not going to be easy, but Sam went on, “Does someone in your home bath each night?”

“Yes,” Werner said, “my wife does.”

“And does she bath any other time of day?” Sam asked.


“And does anyone else bathe?”


“And when your wife went away,” (Werner’s wife had just spent a week with family), “did you notice any witchcraft water then?”

“Hmm . . . err . . . No.”

“Then, I know what’s been causing the puddle,” Sam said. “There’s a small leak through your wall, as the bathwater is draining, and it’s coming out onto your passage. It’s not witchcraft water at all!”

Sam waited for relief to seep into Werner’s face; for the great realization to dawn that he wasn’t up against the Dark Lord.

“Rubbish,” Werner said, barreling his brow, “Kak!”

“No, really,” Sam said. And he called security, and they traced the line, and they traced the wet, and they explained about Mrs. Naidoo, and how she had an alibi, and how they’d watched her, and how they were sure; and Werner believed none of it.

The next day, Werner knocked on our door, “Sam, everything you said last night, I don’t take it. Bath water. Ha!” He snorted and left.

A few months later, Werner moved to Cape Town, where the mayor speaks his language, and the previous mayor was white. He wanted to live where the streets are clean, where the parks smell of flowers, not urine, where these people are not in charge.

I used to look down on white people like Werner, an attitude learned from my parents as he learned attitudes from his, but now I just feel so sorry. Trapped in the change he was too poor to avoid, too prejudiced to accept; looking for enemies outside when all along the witch was within. •

*Other than my husband, names have been changed.


Sarah Groves lives in an apartment in the inner city of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa with 1 husband, 5 children and 98 neighbours. She spends her afternoons writing, and her evenings enjoying the city. It’s dirty, noisy and busting with language and culture, from all over Africa. Her first childrens's book (Sbonelo Snoop) was published last year with Penguin SA.