Like Cutting a Cow

Adam Kuper

  • Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho: The Anatomy of a Moral Crisis by Colin Murray and Peter Sanders
    Edinburgh, 493 pp, £50.00, May 2006, ISBN 0 7486 2284 5

In the chaotic last years of apartheid – the regime crumbling, local authorities in turmoil, violence a constant threat – there were outbreaks of witch-hunting and medicine murder in what was then the northern Transvaal. Hundreds of suspected witches were burnt to death. In 1988, a medicine murder scandal precipitated the fall of the government of the Venda Bantustan. There were 15 suspicious killings within a month of the mysterious death of the state president, himself a notorious medicine murderer, and gangs of youths were roaming the streets shouting: ‘Death to the ritual murderers!’

Witchcraft and witch-hunts are not easy to study: there are witch-hunts, but no witches. So who do witch-hunters hunt, and why? Similarly, medicine murders really do happen – people are killed so that their body parts can be used in magical concoctions that are supposed to guarantee strength, courage and political success – but it is usually difficult to pin them down, and there may also be unfounded fears that medicine murderers are abroad. Two generalisations are nevertheless well established. First, accusations of witchcraft target the poor, the odd and the weak, while it is the rich and powerful who are suspected of medicine murder. Second, outbreaks of witch-hunting and panics about medicine murder typically occur during political upheavals.

In 1995, the government of the new South Africa’s Northern Province set up a commission of inquiry into ‘witchcraft violence and ritual murders’. Led by the Venda anthropologist Victor Ralushai, the commission documented the recent wave of witch-hunts and medicine murders in grisly detail but paid more attention to what it considered, like King James I, to be the real threat of witchcraft. Another anthropologist, Isak Niehaus, has since published a superb account of witch-hunts in the area, while taking a more sceptical view of witchcraft. Now Colin Murray, an anthropologist, and Peter Sanders, a historian, provide a study of an earlier panic about medicine murders in the small British colony of Basutoland (now Lesotho) in the late 1940s. They have tracked down all the available records of medicine murder in the colonial period and interviewed surviving witnesses, relatives of victims, ex-prisoners, policemen and lawyers. This is a work of sober scholarship, but it is not for the squeamish.

In January 1948, a man went missing after attending a wedding feast in a remote Basutoland village. His corpse was eventually found, hideously mutilated. The local chieftainess, ’Mamakhabane, was charged with the murder. At the trial it came out that she had called the victim to her when the wedding party was in full swing. ‘I want you,’ she told him frankly. ‘I must make a lenaka out of you’ (a lenaka is a medicine horn). Accomplices then seized the man, who screamed to one of them, his uncle: ‘Please leave me! I will pay with my black ox.’ ‘We do not want your ox,’ his uncle said. ‘We want you.’ He was taken to a cave and drugged. His captors then took turns to cut pieces from his body – first his lower lip, then his tongue (cut out by his uncle), and then other organs. When the chieftainess’s turn came, she ordered the village butcher to do the job for her. He asked how he was supposed to butcher a man. ‘Like a cow!’ he was told. ‘It’s just like cutting a cow!’ While he was operating, the chieftainess prayed: ‘Oh mercy, Mother Maria, for you know I am committing a sin, but I am doing this because I want to be known. I pray to Thy Holy Name that you do not count this as a sin, because I want to keep the chieftainship of Matshekheng.’

The butchered parts were carried off to the chieftainess’s home in a tin; the corpse was wrapped in an ox hide for later disposal. Only one thing did not go according to plan: the murder was witnessed by herd boys. They told their friends and families, rumours spread, and 15 people were arrested and committed for trial. Thirteen were found guilty by the Basutoland High Court. In June 1949, after an appeal to the Privy Council, the chieftainess and her closest accomplice were hanged.

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