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Reviewed by:
  • Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracyin South Africa
  • Katherine Luongo
Ashford, Adam . 2005. Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 396 pp. $62.50 (cloth); $25.00 (paper).

This book offers a nuanced, sensitive, and compelling account of the intertwined power, politics, and poetics of "witchcraft" in contemporary South Africa. Contributing to the developing literature on "statecraft" and "witchcraft" in present-day Africa, Ashforth's book offers fresh approaches to postapartheid politics and occult phenomena generally. It suggests a number of refinements to established scholarly paradigms for researching and writing about African witchcraft. It cogently argues that "No one can understand life in Africa without understanding witchcraft and the related aspects of spiritual insecurity" (xiii).

Ashforth structures his study around one primary theme, arguing that the occult and politics have been ineluctably linked in the context of postapartheid South Africa. He explains, "the ways in which the insecurity aroused by fears of witchcraft and the general condition of spiritual insecurity are handled by political authorities over the long run will have profound significance for the long-term legitimacy of the democratic state" (xv). This theme is carried throughout twelve chapters, grouped into three sections. Part one, "Soweto," includes chapter 1, "Spiritual Insecurity and Political Power"; chapter 2, "Dimensions of Insecurity in Contemporary Soweto"; chapter 3, "On Living in a World with Witches"; chapter 4, "Freedom, Democracy, and Witchcraft, Soweto in the 1990s"; and chapter 5, "On Believing and Not Believing in Witchcraft." Part two, "Sources of Spiritual Insecurity," consists of chapter 6, "Poison, Medicine, and the Power of Secret Knowledge"; chapter 7, "Death, Pollution, and the Dangers of Dirt"; chapter 8, "A Brief History of the Spirit World"; chapter 9, "Invisible Beings in Everyday Life"; and chapter 10, "Vulnerabilities of the Soul." Chapter 11, [End Page 135] "Witchcraft, Violence, and Justice," chapter 12, "Democratic Statecraft in a World of Witches," and an epilogue comprise part three, "Spiritual Insecurity and the State." Two appendices, a review of literature on Soweto, and a reprint of "The Thohoyandou Declaration on Ending Witchcraft Violence, Issued by the Commission on Gender Equity," are also included.

The book is a product of Ashforth's deep, long-term immersion in the social worlds of Soweto, and is in many ways a natural continuation of the stories begun in his more narrative-driven book, Madumo, a Man Bewitched (2000), which poignantly details Ashforth's friend Madumo's struggles to find relief from persistent occult assaults in 1990s Soweto. In his earlier work, Ashforth used Madumo's struggles to focus on the exigencies and excitement of Soweto's sociopolitical climate at the end of the apartheid era, but in this work, Ashforth aims to demonstrate how the narratives of the township's countless Madumos compose the broader story of the insecurity plaguing South Africa over the last decade. Documents and recollections culled from Ashforth's repeated and extensive fieldwork in Soweto form the book's source-base. The sensitivity and subtlety with which Ashforth traces and recounts the supernatural predicaments of his friends and adoptive "family" in the township lend support to the recent assertions of anthropologists like Paul Stoller, who have argued that regular and deep stints of immersion in a community—as opposed to the ten to twenty-four months anthropologists typically devote to research—are central to producing to comprehensive field studies. Indeed, one of the book's greatest strengths is Ashforth's ability to depict individual stories in an almost novelistic style and to link them with broad sociopolitical analysis.

Ashforth's accomplishments in this vein are even more remarkable since, unlike the majority of scholars working on "witchcraft" and "statecraft" in Africa (most notably, Peter Geschiere, Birgit Meyer, Isaac Niehaus, and Jean and John Comaroff), Ashforth has a background in political science, rather than anthropology. Anthropological history is a well-developed and defined field, but anthropological political science is less so. By revealing the ways in which lived realities of "spiritual insecurity" are necessarily political, this book provides an excellent example of how the two disciplines can work in tandem.

The book's conceptual approach to "witchcraft" is another of its strengths. Ashforth's definition is...


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pp. 135-137
Launched on MUSE
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