Interview with a Dead Man

Jeremy Harding

  • 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.

‘Unexpected disasters,’ Keith Thomas wrote in Religion and the Decline of Magic, ‘the sudden death of a child, the loss of a cow, the failure of some routine household task – all could, in default of any more obvious explanation, be attributed to the influence of some malevolent neighbour.’ This is exactly how things are, four centuries later, in Impalahoek. The precariousness of life in South Africa has done wonders for witchcraft. Life expectancy at birth is between fifty and sixty, and infant mortality stands at 42 per 1000 births (in Botswana, by contrast, it’s 20 per 1000). Scarcely a month goes by without a family funeral, and in Impalahoek it’s as likely to be your child as your grandfather. Medical care is in short supply; joblessness, alcohol addiction, violence and unprotected sex are commonplace. When someone gets sick or dies, or can’t find work, or crashes the car, there’s generally someone else to blame.

Niehaus’s approach is relentless and intimate. You might think he means to tell us that fledgling democratic institutions post-apartheid are a thin cladding on the edifice of primitive sensibility. Yet he’s careful not to go there. And he avoids the suggestion of a purely ‘African’ story by citing fieldwork in different parts of the world – rural France, for instance – where the possibility of a curse, or a spell, can take shape when farmers have a run of bad luck. He has an eagle eye for the upheavals which his isolated, quasi-rural subjects have been through: the decline and re-emergence of witchcraft, as he sees it, depend largely on the fortunes of a given community at a given time – in this case, black South Africans in general and the Northern Sotho in particular.

The book is based on a long relationship – and copious interviews – with Jimmy Mohale (most names, including ‘Impalahoek’, are invented). Jimmy was one of Niehaus’s informants when he embarked on fieldwork in the north-east of the country in 1990. Then, over the years, the informant became the subject of study. Eloquence and intelligence had opened up a career for Jimmy as a history teacher, but he never doubted the existence of witchcraft: he was the perfect intermediary between fieldworker and field. Yet by and by, as his own prospects dwindled, he began to feel that he was a victim of the phenomenon that Niehaus had called on him to describe in the first place: he was hexed, spellbound, pursued by forces at the beck and call of someone close, a neighbour or a relative. In time he settled on his father, Luckson Mohale, as the culprit. Then Jimmy died of Aids in 2005.

Impalahoek, as Niehaus calls it from a local totem, was once a rural backwater, now attached by agglomeration to other villages in what is known (really) as the Bushbuckridge Area. Jimmy’s ancestors were proud of the fact that they’d never had to migrate in search of work: they raised their own livestock, grazed their lands and cut their firewood where they saw fit. But by the 1880s a family that once owned and regulated its own environment could wake up one morning as tenants, and the vast majority did. Mostly they clung on, supplying labour as rent. The Natives’ Land Act of 1913, an apartheid law avant la lettre, restricted the amount of land that black South Africans could own to less than 10 per cent of the total area of the country; though some farmland was designated exclusively for blacks, they had no title and were now paying tax.

In the 1930s, large numbers of villages were evacuated to create the Kruger National Park, and Bushbuckridge took the influx. On coming to power in 1948, the National Party hiked up rents and increased taxation. Bushbuckridge, now a native reserve, was soon playing host to another wave of incomers, thrown off white farms as a result of mechanisation; the government reduced homestead acreages in the area by about two-thirds per household to absorb the new residents. Shortly afterwards, Luckson Mohale (b. 1934) began working for white men on citrus plantations. He would spend the rest of his working life as an economic migrant inside South Africa. Jimmy was born in the early 1960s, at the time of ‘villagisation’, a policy that involved relocating families and further reducing the land at their disposal. (Luckson was by then in Soweto.) In 1962, Impalahoek became part of a bantustan, or ‘homeland’; ten years later it was cast out into pseudo-autonomy by Pretoria. The story is one of unremitting difficulty and it’s hard to identify the brighter moments at which, if Niehaus is right, witchcraft would have declined. The wheel of fortune barely seems to turn at all once the European administration has forced the people of Impalahoek off the road.

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