Reviewed by Joan Wardrop (School of Social Sciences, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia)
Published on H-SAfrica (October, 2001)
A Sowetan bewitched
'A Sowetan bewitched'
Soweto, for some, is an addiction. An administrative convenience quarantined from "white" Johannesburg by a cordon sanitaire of freeways and open veld, a population of still-uncounted millions, sorted neatly (or so was the attempt) by "language" and "cultural" groups, so that the surreal "racial" divisions of the world outside the township, "white" "coloured" or "Indian", were reflected inside too, in corralling Southern Sotho speakers into one area, Zulu speakers into several others, Xhosa, Tswana, all with their own "areas" within the location. But subversively mixing and sharing language and sharing culture nonetheless--inventing new language, inventing Soweto style, in fashion and music and politics, effortlessly taking on the role of arbiter for the rest of the country--the golden township where all was possible when dreamed from faraway provincial or rural locations.
For Adam Ashforth, clearly, there is no place like it. It is where he learned to understand the other sides of his intellectual quest to understand South Africa in the twentieth century, where he has found and adopted a new extended family, where some of his closest friends continue to live. Madumo is an expression of the love he feels for the place and for his friends and family there. Although published by an academic press, it has no bibliography, no notes, the most minimal of discussions of the academic literature on witchcraft or South Africa. Rather, Ashforth has chosen to take the relatively new techniques of personal ethnography, and to push them to new limits, writing in a style which allows the affective domain its legitimacy, exploring witchcraft and its effects so far as he can (and he is careful to acknowledge the limits) from the inside. It could be said indeed that he is doing personal ethnography rather than writing it, engaging the real, in all its confusion and messiness, rather than attempting to construct a neatly homogenous narrative. There are few answers here to the issues usually raised about contemporary witchcraft. Yet the almost novelistic descriptions of its impacts on Ashforth's friend Madumo, and the strategies he employs to negate its effects in his life, have the potential to tell us much not only about witchcraft itself but about the passionately colliding worlds that all Soweto people inhabit.
I could have wished for Ashforth to tell us a little more about the processes of his personal ethnography--we could almost say auto-ethnography, so substantially and consciously is the writer part of the story. Relationships between friends are articulated, the township streets evoked, but, as perhaps with one of the fictions based on memoirs of which W. G. Sebald is a master, we are left with a sense of the unrealities of real life and of the tortuous difficulties of representation in a post-Writing Culture.
Perhaps too it is a little ingenuous of Ashforth to construct a picture of the Soweto he first came to know, in 1990 and the years up to 1994, as a place in which the only whites to be seen were police or clerics--there were already numbers of NGO people working in the township then, and increasing numbers of regular researchers and other visitors, particularly in the eastern end of the township, Orlando and Dube, Diepkloof and Meadowlands, but also in the western end that Ashforth clearly knows well. But that emphasis on a uniqueness of experience need not at all detract from a work of very considerable value. Like the out-of-focus photograph used on the front of the dust jacket (the only visual illustration in the book), the word pictures that are drawn here evoke and illuminate ways of life, and ways of making understandings and meanings, that any of us seeking to understand contemporary Southern Africa need to address.
. James Clifford and George Marcus (eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
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Joan Wardrop. Review of Ashforth, Adam, Madumo: A Man Bewitched.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
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