Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa

By Niehaus, Isak | African Studies Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa


Niehaus, Isak, African Studies Review


Adam Ashforth. Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xx + 396 pp. Map. Illustrations. Selected Bibliography. Index. $25.00. Paper.

While residing in Soweto, South Africa's largest township, Adam Ashforth was struck not only by everyday threats of violence, but also by the extremely pervasive fear of bewitchment. This monograph explores different aspects of such "spiritual insecurity" -that is, the anxiety aroused by the indeterminacy of invisible forces-and its political implications.

Ashforth's discussion is organized into three parts. Part 1 provides an overview of basic socioeconomic data on Soweto, a discussion of reasons for increased fears of witchcraft, and an account of what it is like to live in a world with witches. He contends that misfortune can no longer be credibly explained by the apartheid system as a form of structural evil. The rapid rise of a black middle class, increased competition for jobs, declining fortunes of the poor, the advent of HIV/AIDS, an upsurge in crime, the dissipation of community solidarity with its concomitant erosion of norms of reciprocity and sharing-all these have contributed to an increased distrust that is often registered in the language of witchcraft. Those unable to progress often believe that they are held back by the malice of others. At the same time, numerous diviners reinforce and inflame these suspicions. Ashforth contends that while actual accusations of witchcraft are rare in Soweto, witchcraft nearly always forms a subtext to what is spoken about others. He also shows how Sowetans struggle not to succumb to excessive fears of witchcraft, as the fears themselves are believed to enhance the powers of witches.

Part 2, "Sources of Spiritual Insecurity," examines the prominence of belief in the mystical powers of muthi (potions made by experts from plant and animal substances), pollution, and spiritual beings. Ashforth describes nuithi as secret and ambiguous: It can be used for healing and protection or for destructive witchcraft. The powers of muthi are seen as akin to those of spiritual agents, computers that can be programmed, and remote-controlled devices; they are presented as exemplary of "African science." Under the rubric of pollution beliefs, he discusses fears of contamination by sexual intercourse and by invisible forces associated with dirt, death, and evil spirits. Ashforth argues that Sowetans generally do not live in an ordered cosmos ruled by a single almighty deity, but rather in one ruled by a host of ambiguous invisible agents.

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