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  • Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa by Isak Niehaus
  • Nathanael M. Vlachos

Nathanael M. Vlachos, Isak Niehaus, witchcraft, African witchcraft, apartheid, South African magic, AIDS, medicine

Isak Niehaus. Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. vii + 239.

In Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa, anthropologist Isak Niehaus draws on the biography of his late research assistant and friend Jimmy Mohale to explore witchcraft not only as a fluid and shifting set of discourses but also as a phenomenon that is socially grounded and intimately personal. Jimmy, a black South African from the rural village of Imapalahoek1 and an aspiring middle-class professional, finds that his aspirations for a better future are consistently hindered by misfortune, loss, and illness. As Jimmy’s troubles are compounded and he becomes increasingly ill, the narrative arc of the biography culminates in Jimmy’s belief that his father Luckson is a witch who is bent on his destruction. This belief ultimately leads Jimmy and other family members to spend large amounts of money on the therapeutic interventions of diviners and prophets to cure Jimmy and on “vengeance magic” to stop or kill Luckson, his father. Both of these interventions are unsuccessful, and Jimmy eventually succumbs to his illness, dying with the bleak realization [End Page 262] that his other family members will likely follow as victims of his father’s witchcraft.

While Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa places Jimmy’s biography front and center, it is also a story about competing explanations of witchcraft phenomena and how to approach witchcraft conceptually and methodologically. The key intervention, for Niehaus, is to use Jimmy’s life history in order to raise “a number of uncomfortable questions about the relativist orientation of anthropology” (210), particularly when it comes to analyses of witchcraft. Setting himself against what he sees as a long history of overly charitable interpretations of witchcraft—from the functionalist explanations of British social anthropologists to more current beliefs that witchcraft is objectively real and legitimate as a form of knowledge—Niehaus does not conceal his skepticism of witchcraft as an empirical reality. He also makes plain his distaste for arguments that analyze witchcraft discourses in South Africa as a response to the turbulence of the postapartheid era.2 In contrast to these approaches, through the course of the book, witchcraft emerges for Niehaus as an overdetermined and circular explanatory paradigm: a fluid and shifting set of discourses that help individuals make sense of sudden and unexpected misfortune and shift blame from themselves to others.

Niehaus’s use of biography to explore the complexities of witchcraft is a deliberate methodological choice. While a broader and more encompassing ethnography would uncover the social processes and structures that give rise to witchcraft in a particular space and place, this form of analysis, for Niehaus, would constrain the possibility of analyzing the types of unexpected misfortune that form the basis of many witchcraft accusations. Biography, instead, allows for analysis grounded in “conjunctive agency,” bringing analysis to the level of the intimate and the personal—the increasing locus of many witchcraft phenomena and accusations in contemporary South Africa.

Niehaus approaches Jimmy’s beliefs and biography from a stance of “critical sympathy,” using comparative work from Papua New Guinea, France, and elsewhere to draw attention meticulously to the internal logic of witchcraft discourses and the “aura of factuality”3 that surrounds them. At the same time, Niehaus’s explanations of Jimmy’s misfortunes and those of his family [End Page 263] are never far behind in the text. A hopeless philanderer, Jimmy engaged in multiple sexual encounters with a variety of other women, some of whom also died from AIDS. Likewise, the fact that Jimmy failed to advance professionally as a teacher is explained by Niehaus as a result of Jimmy’s lack of political connections in a professional environment dominated by members of the ruling African National Congress. The tension between competing explanations of Jimmy’s misfortune animates the analytic dialog between Niehaus as anthropologist and Jimmy as research participant. But there is more at stake in Niehaus’s...


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pp. 262-265
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