Witches and Zombies of the South African Lowveld: Discourse, Accusations and Subjective Reality

By Niehaus, Isak | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Witches and Zombies of the South African Lowveld: Discourse, Accusations and Subjective Reality


Niehaus, Isak, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


This article examines the fascination and fear that witches and zombies inspire in the South African lowveld. Theoretically, my approach is inspired by recent anthropological studies that ascribe the power of mystical beliefs to their multidimensionality and exuberance of meanings (see Boddy 1989; 1994; Geschiere 1998; Kapferer 2002; Lambek 1993; Weller 1994). I suggest that we can best capture the rich meanings of witches and zombies by investigating them from three different angles, namely in terms of generic discourses as contained in descriptions about their features and in stories about events that purportedly happened in the past; actual accusations of zombie keeping; and personal experiences attesting to the subjective reality of zombies. I argue that it is from these dimensions and their interrelationships that witches and zombies derive their power and popular appeal.

The English terms 'witches', 'witchcraft', and 'zombies' call up a whole series of stereotypical images that may not necessarily have a direct correlation to the phenomena that I describe in this article. In Northern Sotho the noun baloi (singular moloi) denotes a broad conceptual category, referring both to persons who inherit the power and the inclination to harm from their mothers and to those who deliberately acquire malevolent substances and skills. (1) The verb loya encompasses the use of poisons (tshefu), potions (dihlare), and familiars (dithuri) to cause harm, misfortune, illness, and death. Like Northern Sotho-speakers themselves, I translate baloi and loya as 'witches' and 'witchcraft'. Sometimes witches are said to change their victims into diminutive ditlotlwane (singular setlotlwane). To do so they first capture the victim's shadow or aura (seriti) and then gradually take hold of different parts of his or her body until they possess the entire person. However, witches deceive the victim's kin by leaving behind an 'image' (seswantoo) of him or her. The kin, believing that the victim is dead, bury what they assume to be his or her body, but which is instead the stem of a fern tree that has merely been given the victim's image. Meanwhile, in their homes, witches cut the tongues of their victims. Hereby they render the victims mute and unable to cry out for help. During the day they hide their victims in valleys, in wells, or on top of steep cliffs. At night they employ them to work at home and in their fields. (2) In public discussions South African commissions of inquiry translate ditlotlwane as 'zombies' (see Ralushai et al. 1996). As anthropologists we cannot afford to draw ourselves into purist isolation from the daily uses of these terms (see Geschiere 1997: 13-15).

The term 'zombie'--which originally derives from central Africa (3)--has been subject to much cross-cultural appropriation, decontextualization, and recontextualization. Therefore it is important to distinguish local uses from other meanings of the term, especially in discussions of Caribbean voodoo. South African ideas about zombies differ from the Haitian beliefs in malevolent sorcerers who gain control of bodies by robbing them of their tibon ange--the component of the soul that contains personality, character, and willpower--or by raising them from their graves. These sorcerers then lead their innocent victims in a comatose trance, under cover of night, to distant places where they must toil indefinitely as slaves (Davis 1988: 57; Deren 1970: 338). This Haitian notion accords with the macabre figure in mass-mediated popular culture of 'a corpse in tattered rags, trailing remnants of necrotic flesh as it rises from the cemetery in a state of trance-like animation, entirely subservient and beholden to the authority of some unknown master' (Davis 1988: 58). However, what is common in both Haitian and South African instances is the fear of becoming a zombie, the loss of individual freedom implied by enslavement, and 'expedition of the dead' (Farmer 1992: 199). …

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