Interview with a Dead Man
- Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa by Isak Niehaus
Cambridge, 239 pp, £60.00, December 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 01628 6
The South African anthropologist Isak Niehaus has been interested in magic and its role in the organisation of social systems for 25 years. He has explored the workings of circumcision lodges, met promiscuous men held in check by the occult skills of their wives, investigated prison life and peered into miners’ barracks, where homosexual partnerships have the formality of marriage, as they do in Genet. Gender assignations in all-male communities tell him how mobile social beings can be: the roles, not the players, tend to hold fast, and in South Africa minor kinds of sorcery are among the rituals that keep them in place. His monograph about Impalahoek – a village-cum-township of twenty thousand people in the lowveld, not far from the border with Mozambique – brings witchcraft to the centre of the story. Niehaus lists lotions, potions, poisons, remedies, spells and counter-spells in the measured tones of an apothecary, and writes coolly about zombies and other sorcerers’ familiars – hyenas, cats, baboons, owls, bats, frogs, snakes – recruited by witches to destabilise their rivals. The result is extraordinary and often depressing.