Adam Ashforth. Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 396 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-02974-0; $62.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-02973-3.
Reviewed by Annika Teppo (Department of Social Policy, Urban Studies, University of Helsinki)
Published on H-SAfrica (February, 2006)
The South Western Townships of Johannesburg--also known as Soweto--were a product of apartheid (1948-1994) social engineering: a place where black bodies and souls could be stored in what were little more than inferior conditions. Soweto is also famous as the cradle of black resistance against white minority rule. In fact, for many years it was synonymous with the antiapartheid struggle. It is less known that its residents live in a world rife with belief in evil witches and their invisible powers.
Adam Ashforth's long interest in witchcraft in Soweto--he has visited the area regularly since 1990--produced an internationally acclaimed volume, Madumo, the Man Bewitched in 2000. His newest book, Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa, is a continuation of this topic, combining the author's extensive knowledge of political science and what can only be called a superb ethnographic understanding of his field site. South Africa is a society dealing with a violent past and a great deal of structural violence in the present. Despite the high hopes generated by the end of apartheid, the country currently faces huge income differences, soaring crime rates and large-scale poverty. It is a multifaceted society of multiple languages, cultures, religions and a colonial history preceding apartheid's vast experiment in social engineering. Ashforth nevertheless dares to tackle this complex society and its difficult issues.
The author focuses on what he calls the "spiritual insecurity--the dangers, doubts and fears arising from the sense of being exposed to invisible evil forces" that he finds in Soweto (p. 1). He examines the implications of this spiritual insecurity against the background of witchcraft beliefs in the newly democratized South Africa. In his search for explanations, he approaches these issues from several theoretical and epistemological positions. Throughout the analysis, he keeps returning to a key point that he finds a contradiction in terms: how can Sowetans--modern people--live in a world that largely works according to the same rules of "rationality" that we have come to claim as our own, but still fear the invisible powers of witchcraft, even while struggling not to believe in them?
The witchcraft discourse holds a central place in the anthropological studies on Africa. Anthropologists have long been aware that the social production and meaning of witchcraft is an evasive issue that defies easy analysis. The most influential theories to date have explained witchcraft as the downside of social relations, or a product of social tension, which is constantly able to renew itself within (global) modernity. Ashforth is careful not to divert from this beaten path, leaning on classic works such as those of Evans-Pritchard, Wilson, Gluckman, Douglas, Geschiere and the Comaroffs.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, "Soweto," the author examines the insecurities of the township's daily life and their impact on the residents' belief in witchcraft. The residents themselves have fewer problems in pinpointing the source of witchcraft: jealousy. If anything, increased inequality among black South Africans since the end of apartheid has increased jealousy: in the new social situation, some make it to the middle class, whereas others remain in relative poverty. This has augmented social tensions.
Paradoxically, the new democracy has seen accusations and fears of witchcraft escalate. The second part of the book discusses the different dimensions and possible causes of Sowetans' spiritual insecurity, offering a more profound elaboration of witchcraft's social foundations. The author paints a grim but vivid picture of a social environment and a worldview that renders a person defenseless against spiritual insecurity, thus inclined to what he calls a "vulnerability of the soul"(p. 2).
The first and second parts of the work are constructed around the author's persistent, but often failed, attempts to understand the Sowetan life-world by identifying with it. He finds energy and joy in Soweto, but below the interpersonal relationships, he also finds jealousy and fear. He describes how these emotions are vented in accusations of witchcraft and fears. In the general spiritual insecurity, such fears and accusations often lead to the ostracism of those regarded as witches, and even to their lynching. During his fieldwork the author was adopted as a son by a Sowetan family, to the point of being introduced to the family ancestors--a gesture of profound symbolic significance. His competent writing conveys the meaning of this event with an ease and efficiency that a reader seldom has the pleasure of enjoying. As a writer of ethnographies, Ashforth shows a range of feelings, but also knows how to avoid sentimentality.
The third part, "Spiritual Insecurity and State," examines the irreconcilable relationship between witchcraft and the post-apartheid state, and the challenges that spiritual insecurity presents the democratic government. A state that wants to pass as "modern" cannot officially admit belief in the existence of witchcraft, and is thus unable to regulate it or to protect its fearful citizens from it. The authorities and the people thus operate at different levels that can never meet. Consequently, in a township where witches seem to be rife, people feel abandoned, and the general post-apartheid feeling of a malevolent evil underlying the social structures is strengthened. These problems of incompatibility are further elaborated by an examination of the authorities' vain efforts to solve them by harnessing the uncontrolled, spiritually grounded traditional healing practices under official and essentially controllable state policies, while being true to their African-ness.
In all the three parts of the book, the use of selected ethnographic examples is insightful. They help Ashforth to describe Sowetans'--and South Africans'--battle against spiritual insecurity in terms of parallel battles fought against harmful invisible forces at many levels. There is the everyday "battle against dirt and pollution" (p. 162), and a theological "struggle against demons, witches and sorcerers" (p. 185). He even likens the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's quest to a failed "witch hunt" because it did not lead to full confessions by all the guilty parties, and thus did not follow the logic inherent in such battles (pp. 271-278).
Ashforth examines a very wide range of issues. Occasionally, the broadness of the analysis is also its weakness. The scope of the book seems far too extensive and despite the clever use of ethnography, the text tends to lose its direction and focus. This becomes particularly clear in the last part of the book where the author throws away his careful skepticism and proceeds to provide thinly veiled recommendations. According to Ashford, the belief in witchcraft can be negotiated and educated away, although the post-apartheid government does not seem to want to get involved and "no one talks of the need to eradicate beliefs in witchcraft and superstition as objects of education policy" (p. 307). These arguments, perhaps unintentionally, proceed along the same lines regarding ontological differences as those taken by colonial rulers during their hundreds of years in Africa, and seem oddly out of place in this otherwise stimulating book. While the author does not always succeed in combining the issues of daily life in Soweto and those of the new democratic governance, and the book is at times reminiscent of a patchwork quilt of slightly mismatching parts, it is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the long tradition of academic literature on South African witchcraft. The book also clarifies many issues of post-apartheid society in a thorough and well-informed manner and Ashforth's personal reflections make it an inspiring read.
The author depicts himself--as is often the case with the persons conducting ethnographic fieldwork--as dangling between two worlds: Africa and the West. He reflects critically on his mental bond with what he regards as "bleak world devoid of deity" (p. 317) that he inhabits but also struggles to comprehend what he regards as his informants' imaginative worldview.
Ashforth's predicament is familiar to all those studying topics that fall outside the sphere of what they regard as their own rationality. During their fieldwork, anthropologists take various stances in respect of their object of study, from stern skepticism to religious conversion. Yet, while many remain in the terra nullius between belief and disbelief, few elaborate their own perspectives as clearly and expertly as Ashforth does. His account is professionally valuable as it can help us to understand the limitations that an anthropologist--or any outsider--encounters in a difficult field site such as Soweto. Moreover, Ashforth has a knack for turning these limitations into possibilities: he sees where the common ground ends and chooses it as a starting point to probe the unknown land ahead. Instead of hiding his skepticism, he turns it into a virtue and the root of his scholarly curiosity.
Ashforth admits that he will never fully understand the phenomenon that he studies. The fact that he does not eventually present any innovative or definite conclusions about the dynamics of witchcraft, is not a drawback. He does, in fact, apologize for being a poor mediator of the contradiction between his world and Soweto's: "I have tried to leap this chasm without submitting to belief, without surrendering to the wisdom of those who would teach the truth about life on the other side" (p. 317). His dream of a life in which no one in Soweto has to endure the burden of spiritual insecurity, is sufficient.
. Adam Ashforth, Madumo, A Man Bewitched (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
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Annika Teppo. Review of Ashforth, Adam, Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa.
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