Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Coffins, Corpses and Wheelchairs: Mass Hysteria and Postcolonial Constitutions

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Coffins, Corpses and Wheelchairs: Mass Hysteria and Postcolonial Constitutions

Article excerpt

In the years since apartheid officially ended, there has been a series of clusters of hysterical events among South African school children. In August 2008, in Soweto, the township outside of Johannesburg, seventy-odd students fell mysteriously ill and were rushed to various hospitals. Some of those who collapsed claimed to see "coffins, corpses and wheelchairs" (Thakali) as they complained of shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. A "wave of mass hysteria" (Hosken) hit in early 2009, with another six schools in the Transkei affected later that year. 2010 saw a school in Umlazi "plagued by [an] evil spirit" (Sangweni) that sent 80 students to a local clinic.

Inexplicable events of mass hysteria are fairly common among school children the world over, from Le Roy, New York to Kashasha, Tanzania, and are generally considered an expression of some strain or anxiety that finds no other outlet. This is by no means an exclusively South African phenomenon, and yet mass hysteria is clearly trending there, as a label, in its literature, and as a cultural experience. A survey of the media reports indicates events in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, peaking in 2009 with a pile-up of reported clusters in Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal, and the Eastern Cape. Interestingly, 2009 was also a general election year and the year of the H1N1 influenza pandemic, both sources of enormous social stress and scrutiny. The newspaper reports offer some additional possible explanations--a recent suicide, discipline problems, moral degeneration--but there is no consensus and no coordinated attempt appears to have been made to account for the extent of the phenomenon.

A variety of local print media sources, from the Pretoria News to The Sowetan and The Sunday Tribune traffic in the terminology, with headlines reading "Mysterious wave of mass hysteria hits city", "Mass hysteria at Soweto school?", and "'Mass hysteria sweeps six E Cape schools." Other headlines emphasize spiritual and supernatural causes for these events, such as " 'Evil spirits' hit 70 Soweto pupils," "Prayer meeting for 'possessed' pupils," and "Demons take over Mdzimba High." The reports alternate between placing loaded terms like hysteria and evil spirits in distancing scare quotes and presenting them directly, as accepted classifications. Nicky Falkof in her recent essay in the Journal of Southern African Studies, "'Satan Has Come to Rietfontein': Race in South Africa's Satanic Panic/'observes a similar pattern in her primary sources. However even within individual articles the practice varies, so that in the piece "Pupils complain of 'evil spirits'; Religious leaders' intercession sought" the quotation marks disappear between the headline and the opening sentence, which reads, "Pastors and priests were called in to deliver children from evil spirits at a high school north of Durban this week after pupils started screaming" (Comins). As the quotation marks fall away so does any doubt or derision about whether these are real events which should properly be named in this way, possibly because the classification corresponds to a perception of today's South African reality. (2) An abridged timeline of hysteria in South Africa plots out an evolution of moral panics, each with its own politics of naming: from the Nongqawuse's millennialist prophecy of 1856 to the apartheid regime's concerted efforts to keep the population in a state of panic (planting professional agitators to spur on violent protests against the regime, warning of a "total onslaught," and wielding violence unpredictably and arbitrarily against its citizens) to the witchcraft and Satanism scares of the late 1980s and early 1990s. We can add mass hysteria to this list as its latest iteration. Nicky Falkof's essay on the subject connects accusations of Satanic possession to whiteness and accusations of mass hysteria to blackness. She concludes that this reinforces a racial dichotomy by placing blame outside the white victims of Satanism while making the black subjects of mass hysteria the source of the disturbance. …

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