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.

Jimmy was born to Luckson’s first wife. Another, younger wife joined the compound 15 years later. Luckson, who went on to become a truck driver with a reasonable income, was an authoritarian paterfamilias; he beat the children (13 of them by the two wives) when he was home and slept around when he wasn’t. While Jimmy was growing up, Luckson’s unofficial progeny kept appearing at the Mohale establishment in the hope of a night’s stay or a bit of loose change. The first clear evidence that there was such a thing as a witch, Jimmy remembered, was when he caught sight of his elderly grandmother, Nana, running in the darkness with ‘the speed of a teenager’, not knowing she was being watched. Jimmy would have been a little boy at the time but when he recalled the episode to Niehaus he saw no bathos in the fact that his granny was dashing to the toilet. Her special powers were an open secret in the family: she was ‘excessively private’, brewed expert potions for initiation masters at the circumcision lodges and was known to have mixed a euthanasia draught for an elder with a terminal illness.

Luckson, too, was widely believed to be a witch, although Jimmy didn’t think so at first. But in the early 1980s, when Jimmy was twenty, one of his younger siblings, Kevin, got an ear infection on the eve of his circumcision. Luckson sent him off to the lodge all the same. After the ceremony he got seriously ill and died of a respiratory infection, though people said that witches had put a cockroach in his ear, that the circumcision gifts he received when he came back from the lodge were doctored in some way, and that one of the witches in question lived in the house. Jimmy was inclined to think it must be Nana. But two years later, after Nana died, Luckson’s sister Doris was accused of witchcraft and killed – more of this later – whereupon word went round that she’d been set up: Luckson was the real sorcerer, and he had thrown an ‘aura’ round her, which ‘made those who looked at her think she was a witch’.

Luckson’s oldest brother, Aaron, kept the rumour mill turning: the two had fallen out when the family tenure was divided during villagisation (Luckson got no cattle and no access to any of the usable land). In 1973 and 1977 Aaron’s sons died while he was away working for South African Railways; Luckson stepped in to pay for the funerals. It was a violation of rank for a younger brother to do this, but Luckson was a respected member of a local burial society, with more ties to home than other migrant labourers such as Aaron – and in any case Aaron was a drunk. Furious and humiliated, Aaron kept up a steady stream of accusations over the years: Luckson had bewitched Doris’s daughter (she died in the 1970s); he’d engineered Nana’s death in 1984 (Aaron had seen a witch familiar in the form of a baboon on the roof of her home); he’d poisoned one of his other sisters’ children (who died in 1988).

In the 1990s Jimmy’s brothers’ marriages began breaking up; there was a stillborn child to a subsequent liaison; and then in 1996, Jimmy’s youngest brother, Kagiso, got a neighbour’s daughter pregnant. Kagiso was 18 at the time and living at home. He could see that Luckson was bottling up his anger; he spent his nights ‘watching television’ (prey to vivid, terrifying dreams) and came to the conclusion that Luckson must have put a curse on him. He was told, probably by Aaron’s family, that Luckson kept a snake – a versatile snake that could also appear as a silver-haired woman – which he used to kill people. Kagiso moved out after a year or so and stayed with his girlfriend’s parents. Jimmy told him it was his duty as the youngest son to stay at home and look after the elders: Luckson was on the verge of retirement. But Kagiso refused to go back. Not long afterwards, Jimmy’s daughter complained of ear trouble and a local apostolic healer from the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), or some other oddball home-grown sect, declared that witches were responsible: they wanted to recruit her as a zombie and had put an invisible worm into her ear to start the metamorphosis. When Jimmy’s wife developed boils on her legs, another apostolic prophet determined that a potion had been placed on her path and she’d absorbed it through the soles of her feet. Jimmy still wouldn’t hear anything said against his father.

Luckson retired in 1995 and came back to Impalahoek. His return was followed by four family deaths in succession: another of Doris’s children, yet another of Luckson’s nieces in 1999, Doris’s grandson in 2000 and the youngest of Luckson’s own siblings in 2001. At some point in all this, Jimmy’s mother, Ngwa Ngobeni, Luckson’s first wife, took ill. The biomedical view was a combination of asthma and heart trouble, but the diviner they consulted said that ‘witches at home’ wanted to turn her, too, into a zombie and she should move elsewhere. Weighing up these diagnoses – at variance, to say the least – Jimmy decided she should go and stay with one of her older daughters. Luckson agreed. By now several of the siblings were speaking about their father’s witchcraft and Jimmy was no longer sure he disagreed.

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One of the most interesting threads that Niehaus weaves through this grim story (and there’s still a bit to go) is the way the institutions managed witchcraft. Under the old indigenous order, which still had a tenuous grip on the community during the first ten years of apartheid, it was local chiefs who dealt with witchcraft accusations in Impalahoek. To resolve a case they required that accuser and accused each deposit five cattle as a surety before the hearing. The accused was then marched off to a witch-finder – 400 km on foot there and back – with a jury in attendance appointed by the chief and the parties in dispute. Whoever won the case collected their own cattle and the loser’s.

The Suppression of Witchcraft Act, introduced by the apartheid government in 1957, put paid to this system. Henceforth, anyone who made an accusation could be fined or imprisoned for up to ten years. Killing a person suspected of witchcraft could get you twenty. The chiefs were cowed and their communities believed them to be shielding witches in order to avoid the wrath of the whites. Things could quickly get out of hand now that the old ways had been proscribed. In 1977, the relatives of a dead man who had accused his wife of poisoning his tea arrived at his funeral and beat her to death with shovels.

Niehaus doesn’t tell us in this monograph what the Anglican and Dutch Reformed Churches had to say, but in Northern Sotho areas, the Apostolic Church and the ZCC were – and remain – powerful, informal institutions in their own right. They began to take on witchcraft at the end of the 1960s, as a range of hybrid Christianities spread throughout South Africa. ZCC’s success, which can only be described as massive, has a lot to do with its role as an alternative-medicine provider in a country where doctors and nurses are thin on the ground (one physician per 1300 people, compared to the UK, say, with one per 365). ZCC’s priests and prophets are disseminators of the gospels and herbal paramedics at the same time: shrubs, grasses, tubers, elaborate infusions and fumigations are their speciality, but they also invigorate ordinary, convenience-store goods such as tea, coffee, Coke and Vicks VapoRub, in a process a bit like the transubstantiation of the Host.

During the last years of apartheid their locum-cum-missionary presence in broken semi-rural communities was as influential as the Anglican communion, with its defiantly anti-apartheid message, in the townships of the Witwatersrand. It still is. ZCC takes witchcraft to be real and ZCC ‘prophets’ – the organisation’s charismatic figures – are ready to confront it on its own terms, pitting their own syncretic powers against the forces of darkness. As it happened, when Jimmy got his ailing mother off to his sister’s house, struggling with the butterfly – or was it a frog? – that had been insinuated into her body by a witch, he was delivering her to the safekeeping of ZCC: Jimmy’s sister Jessie was a staunch believer.

In the 1980s, the ANC stepped in as the next major institutional force. The comrades, by and large young, all male and according to Jimmy incredibly brave, lit out from their schools to begin a campaign of confrontation in 1986, the tenth anniversary of the Soweto massacre. P.W. Botha responded with a state of emergency. The war was now in the open. As a kind of ANC franchise in the Bushbuckridge area, the local comrades were no less ferocious than the regime – they said as much – and had the movement’s progressive values somewhere at the back of their minds when they decided that witchcraft should be stamped out at any cost. To identify a witch you need a witch-diviner, yet the complicity of these two roles can’t have crossed their minds when they consulted with witch-finders and ‘formed disciplinary squads to punish the accused’. Hundreds of homes were burned, more than 150 suspected witches were beaten or set alight; 36 died. Which brings us back to Luckson’s older sister, Doris.

In 1985, the daughter of Doris’s neighbour in Impalahoek died of measles. She was buried behind the family home. A month later, Doris was foolish or petulant enough to drive her cattle over the grave. Someone said they saw her sitting on the grave scooping up mounds of earth and the story did the rounds as a prime piece of gossip, or ‘pavement radio’. Someone else recalled that once, when a bunch of kids had chased a monkey from a café, it had ‘mysteriously’ disappeared into Doris’s yard. Obviously she was a witch and the monkey was one of her familiars. In 1986, the comrades arrived at Doris’s house, dragged her into the courtyard and stoned her to death. Like so many crimes in the late 1980s, this one was never taken beyond ‘failure to identify the assailants’: the security forces themselves were busy murdering and maiming at the time. The comrades warned against attending the burial of a witch and only a handful of people showed up at Doris’s send-off.

By contrast, Jimmy’s funeral in 2005 was attended by two thousand people. He was a popular figure with a good CV, a degree in education, another cum laude in Science of Mission and Religion, and thirty years as a history teacher in local schools. The taint of witchcraft never darkened his reputation, as far as we can tell. He’d played an active role in supplementary education projects in Bushbuckridge and he’d joined the ANC – with the idea of getting ahead in his job – in the 1990s. Unlike several of his colleagues, he never slept with his students. Until he ran off with another woman (who refused to hand over the fridge, the TV and the microwave after he died), Jimmy was happily married for much of his adult life.

Yet he’d experienced the world as a series of disasters ever since his brother Kevin died and had come to believe that he would never make headway in teaching against the envy and malice in the regional education authority. He was bright and interested; he could pick up any topic, inspect it in the light and hold forth at length. He saw the good side of the comrades and the bad side; the inevitability of the ANC in power and its bungling makeshift as a party of government; the virtues of his family in the abstract and their fatal shortcomings in practice; the dangers of superstition and its grip on his life. He was not above self-loathing, though Niehaus never says as much. Crucially, for anthropologist and monograph, Jimmy could switch in a trice between foul and fair: eye of newt and tongue of frog one moment, the resounding victory of his pupils in end-of-year exams the next.

Jimmy’s decline was punctuated by yet more misfortunes in the family. As his 27-year-old niece, Rebecca, began to die, witch-finders and Christian prophets were consulted at great cost and one of them, Rola, a diviner in Bushbuckridge, agreed to have the patient brought in by car, only to discover a nest of witch familiars jostling for space inside her body. Rola went into a trance, lured the familiars into her own body and then sneezed them out. One was a tokolotsi, a lubricious, ape-like thing, a kind of male succubus; another was a baboon: Rola ‘became’ these creatures as she drew them away from Rebecca. Fatally for Jimmy, the last familiar she removed took the form of an older man; as Rola hit Rebecca hard on the back and it migrated to the diviner, it was speaking in Luckson’s voice. Before it left the hut, it cursed Jimmy with the words: ‘Ke tlo go bona,’ meaning ‘I will see you.’ Though Niehaus doesn’t play it up, this was the beginning of the end for his informant.

Jimmy was by then convinced that Luckson was his tormentor. Twice before his own death he had plotted with his siblings to kill Luckson. Niehaus thinks of the Karamazov brothers and on the first attempt, Freud’s ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’ looms briefly into view before being overwhelmed by local descriptions of what’s thought to be going on. The Mohale brothers hired a cheap witch-diviner (also a reputable witch) to lure their father’s snake to its death. Jimmy met the diviner and his wife under a bridge. The couple poured ‘meat, porridge, coins and potions’ into the river. They left a chicken, also smeared with potions, on the bank. The idea, as Jimmy garbled it to Niehaus, was to give Luckson’s snake ‘provisions’ – the stuff in the river – and make it realise, having eaten them, that it had been tricked. The spiked chicken clucking on the bank was strategically placed to confirm this suspicion. Jimmy explained how it should have panned out: ‘After realising that it has been deceived, the snake will go back to its owner and kill him for having abandoned it.’ But three days later Luckson was doing fine.

Rebecca, however, showed no signs of improvement. Someone saw a snake in the outside toilet when she was there. Jimmy consulted another sorcerer, who convinced him that Luckson’s snake had indeed been agitated and disabused at the river but came back to strike the wrong family member. After he’d buried Rebecca, Jimmy and his brothers called back the original diviner and asked him to have a second crack at their father. The diviner went to Rebecca’s grave with a hollow green reed containing potions, which he drove into the soil: the wind, it was explained, would blow through the reed like breath through a flute and ‘call the witch to follow the deceased’. But Luckson survived this ingenuity as well. Two months after Rebecca’s funeral, Andrew, one of Jimmy’s half-brothers, died of Aids-like symptoms. When the time came to end the ritual mourning, another of the brothers went for Luckson and hit him over the head with a brick: it was the nearest the siblings ever came to getting rid of their father.

Jimmy was very sick by now, and distanced from Niehaus, who felt certain that his friend was dying of Aids. He gave him money to see a medical doctor, but Jimmy was intent on his diviners and Christian healers. He saw witchcraft as the only good explanation for his impending death, and it’s clear that his failure to overcome Luckson played an important part. The extent of his defeat meant that he was cut off from everything to do with his father, including his patrilineal ancestors. ‘I am dead on my paternal side,’ he told Niehaus during his last days. ‘People around here know me as being dead … You are interviewing a dead person.’

Niehaus’s great insight is to link Jimmy’s fall with the comparative security of older people: Luckson’s generation experienced continuous repression, they lost their lands and relinquished their habits – raising cattle was an ingrained habit – but they had better job prospects than their children; they enjoyed more authority in the family and may even have been in better health. They were widely believed to have opted for witchcraft as a way to get on as migrant labourers and then brought it home, almost by accident, to contaminate their relatives. Easy then to conclude that your father is using witchcraft to hold you back, even if, as Niehaus says, the reality has more to do with the mounting ‘social and spiritual insecurity in South Africa’. Sorcery produces the anxieties that underlie every chapter in Jimmy’s later life even as it expresses them, but it also positions the father perfectly as the evil-doer, endowed with a modicum of dignity – as a lifelong earner and family head – to which the sons can barely aspire. We last see Luckson at the night vigil before Jimmy’s burial, where one of the dead man’s cousins refuses to shake his hand. ‘You fucking witch. You killed Jimmy!’

The encounter between tradition and modernity lends anthropology its tragic dimension. For Niehaus, however, the central drama of loss – which all fieldwork of this kind rehearses – is not to do with a rich cosmology falling to pieces, or the environmental ruin of a way of life, but with the death of a single person who believes he was cursed. It’s a close-up affair, with the death figuring late in the narrative, red-eyed and horrible. Even so, there’s tragedy in the strict sense. In Impalahoek the wealth of belief that once made ritual sense of living and dying is now a symptom of the disarray into which its inhabitants were plunged at the end of the 19th century – the kind of disarray that Clifford Geertz had in mind in The Interpretation of Cultures, when he wrote of chaos breaking in on man ‘at the limits of his powers of endurance’. Impalahoek endured to the best of its abilities, tried to adapt, and then fell back into a dark age. Geertz’s ‘man’ is also threatened by chaos ‘at the limits of his analytical capacities’ and ‘the limits of his moral insight’. In Niehaus’s account, Jimmy’s intellect and moral sense are no match for the world-view that gains a hold in his culture as its hopes evaporate.

In the benign anthropological model, the supernatural negotiates the shift from old to new, mediating the familiar and the threatening, reconciling biomedicine and older kinds of healing. But in Impalahoek, witchcraft and strange forms of monotheism are more likely to be sources of exploitation, confusion and hatred, multiplying the contradictions they ought to resolve. As Niehaus reminds us, the government of the day can make matters worse. Thabo Mbeki – who baulked at the very notion of Aids and took action against antiretroviral drugs – was an enthusiastic ally of the Traditional Healers’ Organisation, actively encouraging their meta-diagnoses and alternative medicines: anything to keep down the numbers taking biomedical tests for HIV.

There are plenty of Datsuns, cellphones, fridges and TVs in Impalahoek, yet its inhabitants are now a more marginal community than they were forty years ago. The vote, HIV, the global markets and the local concentration of capital and jobs in large cities to which they continue to migrate: all these have turned them back into the objects of anthropological inquiry they could never have been when the women were confined on Bantustans with their many children, the men were absent, and all were looking forward to their places as citizens in a unitary, post-apartheid South Africa. In the days of white supremacist politics, Niehaus’s grand guignol account – of shape-shifting serpents and ape-like monsters who fuck their somnolent victims in the dead of night – would have seemed inappropriate, even racist. But South Africa is not the only country where communities dragged to the edge of modernity and left to fester there have now reverted to the category of ‘remote peoples’. Anthropological fieldwork in these bleak places has a promising future.