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.

’Mamakhabane was the first woman and the first senior chief to be hanged for a medicine murder. Soon after, in August 1949, two of the highest chiefs in Basutoland were executed, also for medicine murder: Bereng Griffith, respected by the British as ‘progressive’, who had recently been a candidate for the position of paramount chief, and Gabashane Masupha, a former acting paramount chief who had made a good impression by recruiting native auxiliaries for service overseas during the war. A dozen of their followers were convicted as accessories. Had they been acquitted, Bereng and Gabashane would have been charged with another killing committed three years earlier, together with more than sixty accomplices.

In these and similar cases that came to trial in the late 1940s, body parts were removed, often while the victim was still alive, for use in a lenaka. Over the years there had been recurrent rumours of medicine murders in Basutoland, but prosecutions were rare. Now there seemed to be an epidemic. In 1948 alone, 20 incidents were reported in which the victim’s body had been mutilated, suggesting medicine murder. ‘For the past two or three years, the Basotho have become acutely conscious of these murders,’ the anthropologist Hugh Ashton remarked at the height of the panic. ‘They are so much afraid of becoming involved in a medicine murder, whether as witness, victim or accessory, that they are extremely reluctant to go about at night and lock themselves in after sunset.’

The administration recruited a Cambridge anthropologist, G.I. Jones, to conduct an official enquiry. (‘Sherlock Jones Fights Voodoo’, the Daily Mail reported.) He arrived in Basutoland shortly before the execution of Bereng and Gabashane, and visited the two men in prison. He then spent several months making investigations in three districts that had earned a particularly bad reputation. He also read Ashton’s excellent ethnography of the Basotho in manuscript and was given copies of Ashton’s secret reports which set out the Basotho view of medicine murders.

Ashton explained that animal ingredients were often used in Basotho medicines, various species being suited for particular purposes. Parts of a lion imparted bravery, of a wild cat, ferocity, of an owl or bat, the power to operate at night, and so on. Human beings are superior to all other animals and so the strongest medicines should include human parts, best of all the heart, bowels, generative organs and blood, the sources of a person’s strength. Ideally, veins should be pierced and organs excised while they are still pulsing. Brave warriors and leaders supplied particularly prized ingredients.

Until the end of the 19th century, body parts were taken from enemies killed or captured in battle. So many dismembered bodies were found after one encounter with Free State forces that there were suspicions that the dead had been cannibalised or, as one horrified Boer woman said, turned into biltong. Not that Boers were especially targeted. Former enemies of the Basotho sent the head of a British magistrate as a peace offering to the paramount chief. By the last years of the century, the colonial government had put a stop to local wars, but body parts were still in demand. According to Ashton, ordinary villagers now began to be murdered for medicine. Certainly, such murders became more common. The victim was not necessarily an enemy, but had to be a member of another clan.

It was widely believed by Basotho and British alike that senior chiefs, perhaps even the paramount chief herself, were implicated, but not everyone put the blame on the chiefs. Some chiefs blamed it all on medicine men. Racist whites pointed out that Basutoland had the best educated and most Christian population in British Africa. They suggested that the epidemic was caused by the disorienting effects that ‘civilisation’ was bound to have on a backward people. Some politicians blamed a British plot to discredit the chiefs, a theory that gained some currency among the Basotho.

Did medicine murders take place at all, or was this what Stanley Cohen has taught us to call a moral panic, like the anti-witchcraft hysteria in 17th-century Europe? No doubt the police roughed up some prisoners; a few judges were out and out racists; the courts often relied on the evidence of accomplices who turned state witness; a chief might be framed by rivals. In no instance did any of those convicted confess, even when visited by their priests on the day of execution. Nevertheless, Murray and Sanders are convinced that in the great majority of the cases the judgments were correct. Nobody who reads their scrupulous account will be left in any doubt that medicine murders were indeed endemic in Basutoland, whatever questions might be raised about particular convictions.

Was there an epidemic in the late 1940s, as Jones and senior British officials believed? The number of prosecutions rose sharply, but this was at a time when the administration and the police were becoming more active in the rural areas. The police were also now freed from an absurd procedure obliging them to investigate cases in the company of a chief’s messenger. At the same time the chiefs themselves were losing influence, so that witnesses were readier to come forward. For all these reasons it is possible that, although more prosecutions were brought, the incidence of murders had not risen. This is bound to remain an open question, but Murray and Sanders weigh the evidence with great care and judge that they probably did become more frequent in Basutoland in the second half of the 1940s. That was certainly the view of many local people at the time. Chiefs and headmen were disproportionately implicated throughout the colonial period. Murray and Sanders have collected detailed records of 210 cases. Seventy-eight per cent of the instigators were chiefs or headmen; senior chiefs were heavily over-represented. What motivated them?

During World War Two there was bitter competition for the position of paramount chief. The senior chiefs chose the paramount in a faction-ridden secret conclave, rather as Borgia popes were elected. In 1939, the council was divided and the man they appointed died the following year, precipitating a new crisis. The council now elected his senior widow, ’Mantsebo, but on the understanding that she would serve as a regent, eventually handing over to one of her stepsons. On both occasions Bereng Griffith was the losing candidate, and the medicine murders instigated by Bereng and his ally Gabashane had been designed to strengthen them in their battle for the paramountcy. The new regent, ’Mantsebo, was also widely believed to have instigated ritual murders on her own account, but she could never be brought to book and was forced into retirement only in 1960.

Murray and Sanders suggest that these exalted murderers set an example to junior chiefs and headmen, who had problems of their own in the late 1940s. The Basotho had accepted British overrule in 1884 with good grace, as a lesser evil compared with control by the Cape Colony. Nevertheless, they were determined to run their affairs with as little interference as possible. The colonial administration was, for its part, on a short leash from the Treasury. Consequently, the colony was for many years little more than a frontier administration, with the mountainous interior barely policed, being effectively run by the chiefs.

This system worked well enough for some time, although there were complaints that the chiefs were becoming increasingly autocratic, since they could rely on British support in disputes with their own people. But the economic depression of the 1930s hit Basutoland hard. Land shortages and soil erosion became acute, while opportunities for migrant labour in South Africa dried up. Experts sent out from London criticised the administration’s laid back style. ‘The nation is ruled by its chiefs, and the government can merely proffer advice,’ a special commissioner reported to London in 1934.

The Colonial Office decided to put the government of the colony on a more conventional footing, but before the Basutoland administration could turn the chiefs into effective, and affordable, civil servants it had to reduce their number. By the 1930s there were over 1300 chiefs and headmen in a population of half a million. The administration decided to dismiss about a third of the chiefs and to put the rest on salary instead of allowing them a percentage of their tax take. Nobody could be sure where the axe was going to fall. Those chiefs who consulted medical specialists were sometimes advised to top up their horns with human parts in order to make sure that they were officially gazetted. It may have been pointed out to them that the paramount chief was taking the same precautions.

In this delicate situation diplomacy was at a premium. London was far away. Between the Colonial Office and the Basutoland administration there stood the high commissioner, the head of the three British Protectorates in Southern Africa. Based in Pretoria, the high commissioner also served as British ambassador to the government of South Africa; his views counted for a great deal. Between 1944 and 1951 the man in post was the patrician Evelyn Baring. Baring was determined to reform the Basutoland administration: to support the chiefs, but to bring them under government control, and to put an end to medicine murders. In September 1948, he made the opening address to the Basutoland National Council in person. Putting on his ‘smart blue uniform’, he wrote to his wife, he ‘made them a terrific speech praising the work of the chiefs in every other respect but speaking frankly about ritual murder’. In private he warned the paramount chief and her senior advisors that if the medicine murders continued the chieftainship might come to an end. ‘Their eyes really popped out of their heads,’ Baring reported. ‘I thought the old girl was going to cry.’

Baring’s theatrical intervention was counter-productive. It persuaded a number of Basotho that he was planning to use the crisis as an excuse to undermine the chiefs. Many suspected a larger plot to transfer the colony to South Africa. The nationalist opposition had been critical of the chiefs, even accusing them of committing medicine murders. Now they made common cause with the chiefs against the British and began to argue that medicine murders were a fantasy dreamed up by the administration to discredit the Basotho.

After the executions of Bereng and Gabashane, this conspiracy theory became the national orthodoxy. There had always been an ambivalence in popular attitudes to medicine murder: vernacular poems and novels represented the perpetrators as tragic heroes; comparisons with Macbeth were common. Few doubted that a chief who wanted to advance the interests of his followers had to keep his medicine horn properly stocked. A Christian chief – and they were all Christians – might be horrified by the thought of instigating a medicine murder, and yet see it as his duty. Thus many Basotho were inclined to wonder why the British were suddenly making such a fuss, stoking up an international scandal and hanging respected leaders who insisted on their innocence until the very end.

But there was no British plot. Baring and the Labour government in London had no intention of surrendering the Basotho to the tender mercies of Malan and Verwoerd. And after Baring departed for Kenya in 1952 to deal with the Mau Mau rebellion British priorities altered. The winds of change were beginning to blow even in the mountains of Basutoland. Baring’s successor believed that it had been a mistake to give medicine murders high priority. Prosecutions tailed off sharply in the second half of the 1950s although the number of cases reported to the police actually increased.

In 1966, the colony became the independent nation of Lesotho. A national election was held, and to the great satisfaction of the British and South African authorities a conservative party supported by the chiefs and the Catholic Church defeated the nationalist allies of South Africa’s ANC. The paramount chief became King Moshoeshoe II. Eight medicine murders were reported in the first full year of independence, and 20 more the following year, the highest number since 1948, but there were very few prosecutions. In 1970, the governing party lost an election. The prime minister declared the results null and void and proclaimed a state of emergency. Under the new regime all forms of murder were classified under a single rubric and medicine murders were not reported separately.

Murray and Sanders conclude that in the middle of the 20th century ‘an increase in medicine murders was attributable to a form of competitive contagion in a particular context of insecurity.’ There was also a moral crisis, which was inflamed by the response of the British authorities. A generation later, medicine murders were ‘no longer a matter of national concern or a subject of national debate’.

This is a fine, unflinching, sophisticated account, but what broader conclusions can be drawn from it? In the 16th century, Montaigne made a robust defence of his admired Brazilians, who were accused of killing and eating their prisoners. He pointed out that within living memory Frenchmen had broken their enemies on the rack, or burned them alive, and concluded that we may call others barbarians if we judge them by the standards of pure reason, but not if we compare them to ourselves, ‘who surpass them in every kind of barbarity’. Murray and Sanders avoid making moral judgments, no doubt wisely, but they might have pushed their comparisons further.

In an appendix which is very much an afterthought, they briefly review similar episodes elsewhere in late colonial Africa. A series of ‘man-leopard’ murders began in Nigeria’s Calabar Province in 1943 and claimed almost two hundred lives in five years. The murderers simulated the killings of leopards, and the corpses were mutilated. Secret ‘leopard societies’ were implicated. In 1948, 96 men were convicted of ‘man-leopard’ murders, and 77 were hanged. Murray and Sanders also mention the execution of three members of an Akan royal family in the Gold Coast in 1944 for what was loosely described as human sacrifice.

These were not medicine murders, but they emerged from the same stew of neo-traditional beliefs, local political intrigue, nationalist challenges to the chiefs and colonial blunders. They were bizarre repercussions of wider political upheavals. The same is true of many modern African witch-hunts, although nowadays these are often spearheaded by the pastors of evangelical Christian churches. Recent accusations of medicine murder in South Africa diverge from this familiar pattern, however. Traders are now most commonly suspected of killing people to concoct powerful medicines. Making money is a mysterious business: ordinary people wonder how other ordinary people suddenly become rich. Anthropologists should pay attention.