- The Politics of Evil: Magic, State Power, and the Political Imagination in South Africa
The Politics of Evil is an invitation to take seriously African ideas about magic and morality, and their central role in South African political history. Clifton Crais's new book explores how people in the eastern Cape creatively reworked symbols and ideas around witchcraft, rainmaking, and other supernatural forces to make intellectual and moral sense of a shifting terrain of power that produced rampant poverty, violence, and the erosion of political legitimacy. The Politics of Evil reminds us that magic and morality are not separable from a distinct domain called "politics." But rather, through activities like public healing, vigilantism, and witch-hunting, people perpetuated the centrality of these occult forces to historical understandings of the role of governance. Through this framework, Crais revisits significant historical events and processes (the ramifications of the Glen Grey Act, the Bulhoek Massacre, the Pondoland Revolt, the rise of Poqo etc.) with deepened understanding of the intellectual connections through which Africans linked disparate moments and processes into an overarching history of political and moral action. In Crais's creative telling, significant, but often-overlooked cultural dimensions of well-known events are excavated and analyzed, and new meanings are found among them.
This new book joins recent works by Peter Delius, Isak Niehaus, the Comaroffs and others to explore the continuing role of magic and the occult in familiar processes of cultural contact and political change. South African historiography is remarkably rich on issues of political economy and social history, which are the base on which this book is built. We know much about the history of colonization and the development of a paternalist, racist, bureaucratic, authoritarian state in South Africa, and equally as much about the long history of African resistance to these processes. We know less, however, about how ordinary people conceptualized the moral aspects of related political and economic transformations that were undermining and reconfiguring their world, and how these understandings motivated them in their interactions with the modernizing state. In the process of elucidating this history of ideas, Crais builds a new and necessary narrative, one that tells us of over a century of political imagination among Africans in the eastern Cape, among people who were trapped amidst developments they recognized as an escalating politics of evil.
The book covers the period from the 1870s to the 1990s and is broken into two parts. The first addresses the processes of cultural contact. It begins with the ritual [End Page 792] murder of British magistrate Hamilton Hope in 1880, and then unwinds from this incredible event to locate the relationships between supernatural, ecological, and political and economic power in the late nineteenth century African cultural landscape of the eastern Cape. Crais proceeds to explore how whites attempted to map and make sense of the Africans they were rapidly bringing under their political control, through what he terms an "ethnography of state formation." The second part of the book turns to African understandings and responses to these processes, as they were expressed in a wide array of forms from ritual murder to religious prophesy to vigilantism and armed revolt.
This is a wonderful book. The boundaries historians impose between the domains of religion, medicine, politics, and ecology melt away as The Politics of Evil helps reconnect the web of ties that united these domains in African imaginative life in synergistic ways. Crais has an incredible eye for illustrative details, and in his hands familiar themes and narratives take on a new life, rich with subtle undercurrents. There are places where one craves a bit more, where Crais readily acknowledges that he must navigate his way across open spaces in the evidence, but such cravings often accompany creative scholarship. These issues do not make for an unsatisfying read, rather they invite other scholars to pursue some of these themes in their own work. More research, particularly oral histories, might have strengthened or complicated some of the connections Crais establishes...