`Voodoo' on the Doorstep Young Nigerian Prostitutes and Magic Policing in the Netherlands

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This article deals with the moral panic that emerged in the Netherlands when it became publicly known that under-age Nigerian girls were being smuggled into the country to be put to `work' in the sex industry. A massive police investigation not only found hundreds of cases but also uncovered the fact that certain unknown and occult rituals played a part in how traffickers, `madams' and other sex bosses appeared to keep the girls locked in this exploitative system. Soon an unspecified notion of `voodoo' came to dominate the entire police operation, the public image of what was happening to these girls, and the way in which the girls were treated within the Dutch judicial system and its care. The article deconstructs the moral panic and all the images of Africa and the occult which became so crucial to the way the Dutch state tried to deal with the situation. It sets this analysis in the context of an anthropology of globalisation and a cultural exploration of how issues of morality and identity are affected by what the Comaroffs have called the occult economies of late capitalist relations. It concludes that to a great extent the scale of the moral panic can be understood by pointing at the rigidity of the identity politics of the Dutch nation state in previous years. Its policies were meant to curb some of the effects of globalisation (such as illegal immigration from Africa) in order to preserve its integrity, but it now found them seriously undermined by something the policies were not designed to cope with.


In their Max Gluckman Memorial Lecture Jean and John Comaroff (1999) alert anthropology to the dramatic rise in what they call occult economies in many post-colonial societies. Occult economies include a wide variety of phenomena, ranging from `ritual murder', the sale of body parts, and the occurrence of zombies to the implosion of pyramid schemes, which all lead to moral panics about liberal capitalism run wild. Everywhere around the globe the Comaroffs note many comparable examples of such moral panics caused by what are locally considered illicit or occult means of accumulation. Whether it is about the rise of witchcraft and zombie scares in South Africa, or the scares about traffic in body parts in Latin America, or the satanic abuse of children for commercial gain in Europe, everywhere the fear and horror of the surreptitious commodification of life itself appear to be at stake (see also Scheper Hughes, 1996, 2000). Following on closely from Evans-Pritchard's adage that `new situations demand new magic' (1937: 15), the Comaroffs attribute much of the incidence of these scares to the mystique and magic of late capitalism itself: the mysterious mechanisms of the market, the promise of unimaginable wealth it produces, the `magical allure of making money from nothing', as Andrews (1997) has called it, the enticement of effortless riches that liberalised flows of money, goods, services and people may yield, and so forth (see also Soros, 1998). Throughout they recognise the attempts of ordinary people to cling to arcane forces in their pursuit of otherwise unattainable wealth. Paradoxically these run parallel to all the efforts of people to control such illegitimate means of accumulation, of acquiring wealth and luxury items. Often immoral consumption is denounced and anyone found guilty of such behaviour is eradicated from society.

Furthermore, the Comaroffs argue incisively that the chilling forms of such accumulation and the scares they produce involve and affect the whole of the younger generation, both children and young people. The Comaroffs focus on the young in South Africa and their shattered hopes and aspirations in the post-apartheid era. Instead of opening up new vistas of progress and prosperity, it disenfranchised the young from ever reaching a similar position to their elders. The Comaroffs highlight youth's fear of being turned into zombies by that very same older generation. …