Schoolchildren who are involved in religious practices that cause harm to others could find themselves behind bars.
This is the warning from the Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services, which launched the Harmful Religious Practices campaign to educate schoolchildren about the dangers of these practices.
According to the department’s Director for Child Justice Dr Charmain Badenhorst, the religious practices in question include vampirism, spiritual intimidation and coercion, voodoo, murder, human sacrifices and mutilation.
There have been recent reports of religious practices in schools or involving schoolchildren that have left a number of young people dead.
Dr Badenhorst said harmful traditional, cultural and religious practices against children were areas of growing fear.
"Parents and communities have expressed grave concern about the behaviour of children, particularly those involved in harmful religious practices including the fact that illegal substances appeared to be a part of the practices. Children expressed fear on the killings and the lack of information on how these practices manifest themselves and what they entail," she said.
Dr Badenhorst explained the right to freedom of belief was entrenched in the Constitution but when such beliefs impacted on the rights of others or caused harm and injury they could lead to prosecution.
"This is what the campaign on 'Harmful Religious Practices' seeks to highlight. We will be visiting schools, explaining what these practices are and that if they endanger someone's life they are illegal. Children could also face prosecution for their involvement in these practices despite their age."
She said the campaign was expected to be rolled out in all nine provinces in partnership with the Departments of Health, Basic Education and Social Development, National Prosecuting Authority, South African Police Service, Religious Leaders Forum and Traditional Leaders and Healers Forum.
According to Badenhorst, parents have the responsibility to monitor their children and identify signs that they might be involved in harmful religious practices.
"Suspicious activity should be reported to social workers, educators, religious practitioners and to the police."
"It is important that children understand that these practices are prosecutable and could result in jail terms. Parents and educators need to educate themselves on the signs so that help can be sourced as quickly as possible," she added.
According to the department, the following are signs to look out that may indicate that a child is involved in harmful religious practices: + A new or odd way of behaving.
- Becomes unusually aggressive, very quiet or secretive.
- Loses concentration or suddenly does poorly at school despite the fact that he or she was once a brilliant learner.
- Talks about being in touch with the devil or about black magic.
- Boasts about having spiritual powers that could cause harm to others.
- Shows fascination with blood, especially human blood.
- Speaks of attempts to cut themselves.
- Speaks of killing or hurting animals or people.
- Shows you strange signs or symbols.