Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa

Adam Ashforth, Political Science, Baruch College, City University of New York

Research Grant, 1998, 1999

The HFG research and subsequent book, Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa, is an attempt to think about the implications of pervasive spiritual insecurity for the postapartheid democratic state in South Africa. It seeks to chart the contours of danger and uncertainty arising from people’s relations with invisible forces acting in the world, to examine how awareness of these dangers and uncertainty about how to manage them shapes everyday social life. It also raises questions about the ways in which spiritual insecurity complicates the project of democratic governance. The raw material upon which it is based is mostly drawn from my experience of life in Soweto during the 1990s, the decade when apartheid died and democracy was born in South Africa. Shadowing every page is the imperative of thinking about the cultural consequences of the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

For most South Africans, certainly the vast majority of those who call themselves “Africans,” everyday life is shadowed by an apprehension of dangers commonly summarized under the general rubric of “witchcraft,” a term describing the putative capacities of persons to cause harm to others or accumulate illicit wealth and power for themselves by means of mysterious invisible forces. In African communities, illness, death, accidents, poverty, and all the other manifestations of unhappiness in human life cause people to wonder whether witchcraft is at work. When these misfortunes are surmised to be the result of witchcraft, they are perceived as being injuries, harms deliberately inflicted by others. People living in a world of witches, such as most Black South Africans, devote an enormous amount of money, time, and energy to protecting themselves from witchcraft and trying to undo the damage caused by witches. Witchcraft is a fact of life. It impinges upon every aspect of life creating a condition I describe as one of spiritual insecurity.

Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa is organized into three sections. The first deals with the sociology of insecurity in Soweto and examines how issues of spiritual insecurity relate to other dimensions of insecurity such as those arising from poverty, violence, and disease. It charts some of the ways changes in social life in Soweto over the past decades such as increasing socioeconomic inequality, declining community solidarity, and the AIDS epidemic have played into, and played out as, matters of spiritual insecurity. It describes some aspects of life in a world with witches, particularly the presumption of malice in everyday community life, which constitutes what I describe as a negative corollary of the doctrine of ubuntu, or African humanism.

I examine some aspects of the transformations of spiritual power affording protection to individuals, families, and communities that have taken place in this part of the world as a result of Christian evangelization and changes in family life and political structures that have tended to undermine ideologies of "ancestorship."

Part One ends with a meditation upon the implications of believing in witchcraft at the start of the twenty-first century and argues that contemporary Sowetans generally approach issues of witchcraft with a sense that it is better not to believe in witches. Part One also argues that issues of spiritual insecurity in a place like Soweto should be approached from the perspective of “not-knowing,” that is, a recognition of the confusion that surrounds these matters in everyday life rather than a presumption of coherent “systems of belief” shared by communities of believers.

Part Two begins a discussion of the ways in which people in contemporary Soweto interpret and attempt to manage the invisible forces they experience as acting upon their lives. The central point this section considers is the nature of the various agencies that people interact with, agencies inherent in substances, objects, images, persons, and spirits or other invisible entities. When people worry about witchcraft in Soweto, they almost always worry about other persons interacting with substances known generically as muthi, and they seek protection from these dangers by reference to invisible beings such as ancestors, spirits, and deities (predominantly the triune Christian God) as well as other material substances also known as muthi.

The central aim of Part Two is to develop an understanding of how statements about witchcraft and other forms of harm involving invisible forces can be taken as plausible accounts of the world. This involves consideration of the ways people interpret the agency of substances and what I am calling the dialectics of health and harm implicit in the category muthi. Substances with agency, however, are not the only sources of harmful invisible forces. In Chapter Seven I describe the dangers inherent in polluting substances generically known as dirt, particularly those associated with death. Following these discussions of the dangers inherent in substances, I examine some aspects of the transformations of spiritual power affording protection to individuals, families, and communities that have taken place in this part of the world as a result of Christian evangelization and changes in family life and political structures that have tended to undermine ideologies of “ancestorship.” Part Two ends with a meditation upon some of the vulnerabilities and capacities of invisible aspects of the human person such as copying a fetus’s animating spirit to create a monster, “hijacking the mind” of a person in order to lead them to their own destruction, and gaining control of another’s innermost desires.

Part Three raises issues relating to spiritual insecurity as they manifest themselves in the domain of the state and present challenges for democratic governance. Principal amongst these is the problem of justice arising from the fact that witchcraft is a form of harm deliberately inflicted upon an innocent victim. I consider recent calls to reform the laws relating to witchcraft dating from the colonial era so as to recognize the reality of witchcraft, a reality treated as axiomatic by most Africans. Efforts to bring witchcraft cases into the formal legal system, however, run into irresolvable problems of evidence since the action of witchcraft is secret and known only to perpetrators and diviners. But divination involves forms of knowledge that are incompatible with the evidentiary principles underpinning the modern state.

  1. Ashforth, Adam. Madumo, A Man Bewitched. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2000.

  2. Ashforth, Adam. Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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