Cover image for Witchcraft, power and politics : exploring the occult in the South African Lowveld
Witchcraft, power and politics : exploring the occult in the South African Lowveld
Niehaus, Isak A. (Isak Arnold)
Publication Information:
Cape Town : David Philip ; London ; Sterling, Va. : Pluto Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xx, 246 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.


Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BF1584.S6 N54 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



This is an extraordinary contemporary account of witchcraft and witch-hunting in the modern world. A powerful ethnographic study of witch-hunting in 1980s South Africa -- a period of rapid social change -- this book demonstrates the extent to which witchcraft must be seen, not as a residue of 'traditional' culture but as part of a complex social drama which is deeply embedded in contemporary political and economic processes. Isak Niehaus provides the context for this fascinating study of witchcraft practices. He shows how witchcraft was politicised against the backdrop of the apartheid state, the liberation struggle and the establishment of the first post-apartheid regime, which all affected conceptions of witchcraft. Niehaus demonstrates how the ANC and other political groups used witchcraft beliefs to further their own agenda. He explores the increasingly conservative role of the chiefs and the Christian church. In the process, he reveals the fraught nature of intergenerational and gender relations. The result is a truly insightful and theoretically engaged account of a much-studied but frequently misunderstood practice.

Author Notes

Isak Niehaus is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

"Witchcraft" characterizes Western invention of Africa: similar phenomena are rarely called witchcraft elsewhere in the world. Niehaus (anthropology, Univ. of Natal, South Africa) critically reviews this most exotic element of African ethnography, bringing to bear current theories of human agency, avoiding romantic separation of behavior from history and politics, and demonstrating how dynamic social processes help people cope with radically changing circumstances. Witchcraft is a "'persecutorial' view of misfortune"--that is, "bad luck" is someone's fault. In the wrenching decades of recent South Africa, fingers may be pointed in many directions, but especially at whites. The iniquities of apartheid have been matched by economic woes and stresses to black family life. Because of the superior technologies of whites and their absolute control of wealth, they are either cruel witches themselves or they must provide clandestine powers to black witches. Witchcraft accusations have increased following shifting postcolonial politics. Neihaus's richly detailed study joins recent research on the west African goddess Mami Wata and European vampires in east Africa in striving to grasp local understandings of capitalism and the "seedbeds of envy" it inspires, as well as related globalizing processes that exclude most Africans from their benefits. Advanced undergraduates and above. A. F. Roberts University of California, Los Angeles

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsp. viii
Notes on Terminologyp. xi
Acronymsp. xiv
Mapsp. xv
1. Introduction: Exploring Witchcraft, Power and Politicsp. 1
2. Society, Cosmology and the Making of Witchcraft: Continuity and Change in the History of Green Valley, 1864-1995p. 16
3. Witches of the Lowveld and their Familiars: Conceptions of Duality, Power and Desirep. 45
4. Witchcraft and Whites: Further Notes on the Symbolic Constitution of Occult Powerp. 63
5. Witches, Cognates, Affines and Neighbours: The Changing Distribution of Witchcraft Accusationsp. 83
6. 'A Witch Has No Horn': Social Tensions in the Subjective Reality of Witchcraftp. 113
7. Witch-Hunting and Political Legitimacy: Chiefs, Comrades and the Elimination of Evil, 1930-1989p. 130
8. The ANC's Dilemma: The Symbolic Politics of Four Witch-Hunts in the 1990sp. 156
9. Conclusion: Witchcraft and the Postcolonial Statep. 183
Appendix A Fieldwork Revisitedp. 194
Appendix B Public Perception Map of South Africap. 199
Appendix C The Witchcraft Suppression Act No. 3 of 1957p. 200
Appendix D Details of the Alleged Witches Violently Attacked, Green Valley, 1971-1985p. 202
Appendix E Details Pertaining to the Victims of Witch-Hunts Organised by the Comrades, Green Valley, 1986-1989p. 203
Appendix F Details of those Accused of Witchcraft, Green Valley, The Christmas Witch-Hunts, 1990p. 204
Appendix G Details of those Accused of Witchcraft, New Lines, Arthur's Seat, October 1993p. 206
Appendix H Details of those Accused of Witchcraft, Rooiboklaagte, November 1994p. 207
Appendix I The Witchcraft Control Act as Proposed by the Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders in the Northern Province of the Republic of South Africap. 208
Notesp. 210
Referencesp. 228
Indexp. 241
List of Maps
1. South Africap. xv
2. Northeastern South Africa, Including former Bantustan Territoriesp. xvi
3. Northeastern South Africap. xvii
4. The Wider Bushbuckridge Region, Indicating Villagesp. xviii
5. The Wider Bushbuckridge Regionp. xix
6. Green Valley, Including Village Sectionsp. xx
List of Tables
2.1 Green Valley's Churches According to Years Founded and Adult Membership, August 1992p. 32
2.2 Diagnosis of the Underlying Causes of Clients' Problems by Sebongile Ndlovu and Ketebotse Mogale, Green Valley, February 1992p. 41
5.1 The Relationship between those Accused of Witchcraft and their Accuser(s), Green Valley, 1960-1995p. 89
5.2 The Relationship between those Accused of Witchcraft and their Assumed Victims, Green Valley, 1960-1995p. 90
5.3 The Relationship between the Assumed Victims of Witchcraft and their Accuser(s), Green Valley, 1960-1995p. 91
5.4 The Relationship between Plaintiffs and Defendants in Cases Brought Before the kgoro of the Setlhare Chief and Headmen, Green Valley, 1991-1995p. 92
5.5 The Marital Status of Adults in Sampled Households by Gender, Green Valley, 1991-1992p. 101
5.6 The Employment Status of Adults in Sampled Households by Gender and Marital Status, Green Valley, 1991-1992p. 101
List of Case Studies
1.1 The Headman's Wifep. 3
1.2 The Headman's Sonp. 4
3.1 The Sexually Promiscuous Neighbourp. 54
3.2 The Troublesome Father-in-Lawp. 55
3.3 The Cafe Owner and the Mamlambop. 59
3.4 The Happy Widowp. 60
5.1 Affines, Inheritance and Witchcraftp. 99
6.1 Lebo Mnisi: Illness, Marital Strife and Dreamsp. 117
6.2 Sarafina Maatsie: Deviance and the Tenacity of the Witch Labelp. 118
6.3 Sam Makola: Genealogy and Mysterious Deathsp. 121
6.4 Albert Nziane: Dreams and Self-Confessionp. 123
6.5 Harry Chiloane: Rumours of Resurrectionp. 125
7.1 The Killing of a Poisonerp. 143
7.2 Assaulting a Witchp. 144
List of Figures
5.1 The Domestic Situation of Asa Mogogodip. 99
7.1 The Genealogy of Chief Setlhare's Predecessorsp. 134
8.1 The Domestic Situation of Prudence Malulekep. 172