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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Witchcraft, Power and Politics: Exploring the Occult in the South African Lowveld
Isak Niehaus, with Eliazaar Mohlala and Kally Shokane

London: Pluto Press, 2001
272pp. Hb.: £50.00; ISBN 0-7453-1558-5

The book is an ethnographic study of witch-hunting in the South Africa of the 1980s. As a part of the complex social drama rather than the residue of the traditional culture, the phenomenon is embedded in contemporary political and economic processes. The ethnographic and historical literature on Southern Africa depicts a complex relationship between colonialism, the resulting miseries, and witchcraft. These writings demonstrate that colonists are not identified as witches, it is rather the fellow-colonised who are accused of witchcraft. The harsh experiences of apartheid in the lowveld therefore did not lead to the belief that whites were witches.

Yet Isak Niehaus?s analysis of the symbolic dimensions of witchcraft gives a good picture of the South African criticism of colonialism. His aim is to demonstrate that colonists do not fall outside the parameters of witchcraft. Although whites were depicted as dominant human outsiders, and were stereotyped as powerful, wealthy, stubborn, unsociable, racist, devious and cunning, they were more likely to be victims of the witchcraft of blacks. Stories of white familiars, their dangerous technologies, and of witches with the attributes of whites contain elements of a critique of white domination.

General elections in South Africa in April 1994 formally brought about the end of the white minority rule, and it had a direct impact on local perceptions of witchcraft. Although earlier whites were only seen as a source from which African witches derived their power, the complete social change resulted in witchcraft being also directly attributed to whites.

Another aspect presented here is that it was politicised against the backdrop of the apartheid state, the liberation struggle and the establishment of the first post-apartheid regime. The author shows how the African National Congress and other political groups used witchcraft beliefs to further their own agenda; later the Ralushai commission was appointed in 1995 to investigate the causes of witchcraft related violence. Between 1985 and 1995 an estimated number of 389 alleged witches were killed, their homes destroyed, banished, their children not allowed to attend schools as ?senseless?, ?brutal?, ?uncivilised? and ?barbaric?. The executions were aimed to discredit Bantustan governments and chiefs who had become upholders of apartheid. Under apartheid official discourses about civilisation called for the suppression and elimination of superstitions. The report presents an important shift in official discourses about witchcraft. From the colonial civilising mission that promoted the elimination of witchcraft beliefs, it accepts witchcraft as real and also appreciates it as a marker of the unique African identity. The author argues that recasting the witchcraft is by no means unambiguous. New lines of contestation are likely to emerge as witchcraft becomes embroiled in politics of African nationalism.

Reading the book it becomes clear that the practice itself has been much studied but frequently misunderstood, and Niehaus?s theoretical approach provides a sufficient understanding of problems related to witchcraft.

Emese Bálint, Central European University

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