Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial Capitalism

Publication Date:

Journal: Codesria Bulletin

Reissue Date:

Page start: 17

Page End: 28

Edition: 3,4

What might zombies have to do with the implosion of neoliberal capitalism at the end of  the twentieth century? What might  they  have to do with post–colonial, post-revolu­tionary nationalism? With labour history? With the “crisis” of the modernist nation-state? Why are these spec­tral, floating signifiers making ;in appearance in epic, epidemic pro­portions in several parts of Africa just now? And why have immigrants­ those wanderers in pursuit of work, whose proper place is always elsew-

  • here-become pariah citizens of a global order in which, paradoxically, old  borders are said everywhere  to be dissolving? What, indeed, do any of these things, which bear the dis­tinct taint of exoticism, tell us about the hard-edged material, cultural, epistemic realities of our times? Indeed, why pose such apparently perverse questions at all when our social world abounds with practical problems of immediate, unremitting gravitas?

So much for the questions. We shall cycle slowly back toward their ans­ wers. Let us move, first, from the interrogative to the indicative, from the conundrums with which we shall be concerned to the circumstances whence they arise.

Spectral capital, capitalist speculation: From production to Consumption


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the hallmark illness of the First Coming of Industrial Capitalism. Of the age in which the ecological conditions of production, its consuming passions (Sontag1978; cf Comaroff 1997), ate up the bodies of producers. Now, at the end of the twentieth, semantically trans­posed into another key, it has be­come, in the words of van Binsbergen and Geschiere (n.d.:3), the “hallmark of modernity”. Of its wealth, health, and vitality. Too vast a generalization? Maybe. But the claim captures popular imaginings, and their mass-media representation, from across the planet. It also reso­ nates with the growing Eurocultural truism that the (post) modern  per­ son is a subject made by means of objects. Nor is this surprising.

Consumption, in its ideologicai guise-as   “consumerism”-refers    to a material sensibility actively cultiva­ ted, ostensibly for the common good, by Western states and com­ mercial interests, particularly since World War II.’ In social theory, as well, it has become a Prime Mover (loc. cit.), the force that determines definitions of value, the construction of identities, even the shape of the global ecumene.’ As such, tellingly, it is the invisible hand  that animates the political and material impera­ tives, and the social forms, of the Second Coming of Capitalism; of capitalism in its neoliberal, global manifestation. Note the image: the invisible hand. It recalls a moving spirit of older vintage. a numinous force that dates back to the Time of Adam. Adam Smith, that is. Cone is the deus ex machina, a figure too mechanistic, too industrial for the post-Fordist era.

– consumption has become the moving spirit of the late twentieth century, so there has been a concomi­tant eclipse of production; an eclipse, at least, of its perceived salience for the wealth of nations. With this has come a hidespread shift, across the world, in ordinary understandings of the nature of capitalism. The work­ place and honest labour, especially work-and-place securely rooted in local community, are no longer prime sites for the creation of value. Per contra, the factory and the workshop, far from secure centres of fabrication and family income, are incrtasingly experienced byvirtueof their closure: either by their removal to somewhere else-where labour is cheaper, less assertive, less taxed, more feminized, less protected by states and unions-­ or by their replacement by non­ human means of manufacture, which, in turn, has left behind, for ever more people, a legacy of part­ time piece work, menial make work, relatively insecure, gainless occupa­ tion. For many populations, in the upshot, production appears to have been replaced, as the Jons et ongo of capital, by the provision of services and the capacity to control space, time, and the now of money. In short, by the market and by speculation.

Symptomatic, in this respect, are the changing historical fortunes of gam­ bling. Until very recently, living off its proceeds was, normatively spea­ king, the epitome of immoral accu­ mulation; the wager stood to the wage, the bet to personal  better­ ment, as did sin to virtue. Now it is routinized in a widespread infatua­ tion with, and  popular participation in financial “investments” that take the form of vast, high risk dealings in stocks and bonds and funds whose rise and fall appear to be governed purely by chance. It also expresses itself in a fascination with  futures and with their downmarket counter­ part, the lottery; banal, if symbolical­ ly saturated fantasies these of abun­dance without effort, of beating capitalism on its own terms by drawing a winning number at the behest of unseen forces.’ Once again thal, invi­ sible hand. At a time when taxes are anathema lo the majoritarian politi­cal centre, gambling has become a favoured means of raising revenues, of generating cultural and social assets, in what were once welfare states. Some even talk or the ascen­ dance of “casino capitalism”. Argues Susan Strange (1986:1-3; cf. Harvey 1989:332; Tomasic 1991), who likens the entire Western fiscal order to an immense game of luck, undignified even by probability “theory”:

Something rather radical has happened to the international financial system to  make it so much like a gambling hall. V. iat that change has been, and how it has come about, are not clear. What is certain is thatit has affected everyone … [It] has made inveterate, and largely involuntar)’. gam­ blers of us all.

The gaming room, in other words, has become iconic of the central impetus of capital: its capacity to make its own vitality and increase seem independent of all human labour (Hardt 1995: 39), to seem like the natural yield of exchange and consumption.

Something rather radical has hap­ pened to the international financial system to make it so much like agam­ blinghall. What that change has been, and how it has come about, are not clear.

And yet crisis after crisis in the global economy, and growing income dis­parities on a planetary scale, make it painfully plain that there is no such thing as capitalism sans production; that the neoliberal stress on consumption as the ur-source  of value is palpably problematic. At once in perception, in theory, in practice. Indeed, if scholars have been slow to reflect on the fact, people all over the world-not least those in places where there  have been sudden infusions of commodi­ties, of wealth without  work-have not. Many have been quick to give voice, albeit in different registers, to their perplexity at the enigma of this wealth. Of its origin and the capri­ciousness of its distribution, of the opaque, even occult, relation bet­ween means and ends embodied in it

(Comaroff and Comaroff 1999; van Binsbergen and Geschiere n.d. :3). Our concern in this paper grows, directly out or these perplexities, these imaginings: out of world-wide speculation, in both senses of the term, at the spectres conjured up by real or imagined changes in the conditions of material existence at the end of the twentieth century.

We seek here, in a nutshell, to inter­ rogate the experiential contradic­tion at the core or neoliberal capita­lism in its global manifestation: the fact that it appears to offer up vast, almost instantaneous riches to those who control its technologies-and, simultaneously, to threaten the very livelihood of those who do not. More specifically. our objective is to exp­ lore the ways in which this conun­drum is resolved, the ways in which the enchantments of capital are addressed, through efforts to plumb the mysterious relation of consumption to production; efforts that take a wide variety of local, culturally­ modulated forms; efforts that reveal much about the nature of economy and society, culture and  politics in the postcolonial, post-revolutionary present. As anthropologisLS are wont to do, we ground our excursion in a set of preoccupations and practices both concrete and historically parti­cular: the obsession, in rural post­ apartheid South Africa, with a rush of new commodities, currencies, and cash; with things whose acquisition is tantalizingly close, yet always just out of reach to all but those who unders­tand their perverse secrets; with the disquieting figure of the zombie, an embodied, dis-spirited phantasm widely associated, with the produc­tion, the possibility and impossibility, of these new forms of wealth. Although they are creatures of the momenL, zombies have ghostJy fore­ bears who have arisen in periods of social disruption, periods characte­ rized by sharp shifts in control over the fabrication and circulation of value, periods that also serve to illu­minate the here-and-now.

We shall argue that the half-life of zombies in South Africa, past and present, is linked to that of compromised workers of another kind: immigrants from elsewhere on the continent, whose demonization is an equally prominent feature of the postcolonial scene. Together, these proletarian pariahs make visible a phantom history, a local chapter in a global story of changing relations of labour to capital, of production .to consumption-indeed, of the very’ pro and con of capitalism–on the cusp of the millennium. Their mani­festation here also allows us to pon­ der a paradox in the scholarly litera­ture: given that the factory model of capitalist manufacture is said now to infuse all forms of social production (e.g. Deleuze 1986), why does labour appear less and less to undergird the social order of the present epoch (Hardt 1995: 39)?

Thus we bring you the case of the Zornbie and the (Im) Migrant; this being the sequel to an earlier inqui­ry into work, labour, and the nature of historical consciousness in South Africa (Comaroff and Comaroff 1987). But first a brief excursion into the problematic status of production in the age of global capital.

Labour’s lost

The emergence of consumption as a privileged site for the fashioning of society and identity, it may be argued, is integrally connected to the changing status of work under contemporary conditions. For some, the economic order of our times represents a completion of the intrinsic “project” of capital: namely, the evolution of a social formation that, as Tronti (1980:32) puts it, “does not look to labour as its dyna­mic foundation” (cf Hardt 1995:39). Others see the present moment in radically different terms. Lash and Urry (1987:232[). for instance, declare that we are witnessing not the denouement but the demise of organized capitalism; of a system in which corporate institutions could secure compromises between employers and employees by making appeal to the national interest. The internationalization of market forces, they claim, has not merely dislocated national economies and state sovereignties. lt has led to a decline in the imponance of domestic pro­duction in many once inrlustrialized countries. All of which, along with the worldwide rise of the semce sec­ tor and the feminization of the work­ force in many places, has dramatical­ly eroded the bases of proletarian identity and its politics-dispersing class relations, alliances and antino­mies, across the four comers of the earth. The globalization of the division of labour reduces workers everywhere to the lowest common denominator, to a disposable cost, compelling them to compete with sweatshop and family manufacture.’ It has also put such a distance bet­ ween sites of production and consumption that their relationship becomes all but unfathomable, save in fantasy.

Not that Fordist fabrication has disappeared. Neither is the mutation of the labour market altogether unprecedented. For one thing,  as Marx (1967: 635) observed, the deve­lopment of capitalism has always conduced to the cumulative replace­ment of “skilled labourers by less skilled, mature labourers by imma­ture, male by female… “. For another, David Harvey (1989:192!) reminds us, the devaluation of labour power has been a traditional response to falling profits and periodic crises of commodity production. What is more, the growth of a global free market in commodities and semces has not been accompanied by a cor­respondingly free flow of workers; most nation-states still regulate their movement to a greater or lesser extent. Yet the likes of Harvey insist, nonetheless, that the current moment is different, that it evinces significant features which set it apart, rupturing the continuing history of capital-a history that   “remain (s] the same and yet-[is] constantly changing”.’ Above all else, the explo­ sion cf new monetary  instruments and markets, aided by ever more sophisticated means of planetary co­ ordination and space-time compres­ sion, have allowed the financial order to achieve a degree of autono­ my from “real production” unmatched in the annals of modern political economy. Indeed, the ever more virtual qualities of fiscal circu­lation enable the speculative side of capitalism to seem increasingly inde­pendent of manufacture, less con­strained either by the exigencies or the moral values of virtuous labour.

The internationalization of market forces… has not merely dislocated national economles and state sove­ reignties. It has led  to a decline in the importance of domestic produc• tion in many once industrialized countries.

How might any of this be connected to conditions in contemporary South Africa, to the widespread preoccupation there with reserve armies of spectral workers? What might we learn about the historical implications of the global age by eavesdrop­ ping on popular anxieties at this co­ordinate on the postcolonial map? How do we interpret mounting local fears about the preternatural pro­duction of wealth, about its fitful flow and occult accumulation, about the destruction of the labour market by technicians of the arcane?

The end of  apartheid might  have fired utopian imaginations around the world with a uniquely telegenic vision of rights restored and history redeemed. But South Africa has also been remarkable for the speed with which it has run up against problems common to societies, especially to post-revolutionary societies, abruptly confronted with the prospect of libe­ration under neoliberal conditions. Not only has the miraculously peace­ful passage to democracy been marred by a disconcerting upsurge of violence and crime, both organized and  everyday. The  exemplary quest for Truth and Reconciliation  threa­tens to dissolve into recrimination and strife, even political chaos. There is widespread evidence of an uneasy fusion of enfranchisement and exclu­sion, hope and hopelessness; of a radically widening chasm between rich and poor: of the effort to realize modern utopias by decidedly post mo­dern means. Gone is any official­ speak of an egalitarian socialist future, of work-for- all, of the welfare state envisioned in the Freedom Charter that, famously, mandated the struggle against the ancien regime.’ Gone, too, are the critiques of the free mar­ket and of bourgeois ideology once voiced by the antiapartheid move­ments, their  idealism re-framed by the perceived reality of global econo­mic forces (cf. Sharp 1998:245!).” Elsewhere (1999), we have suggested that these conditions, and similar ones in other places, have conduced to a form of ‘millennial capitalism’. By this we mean not just capitalism at the millennium, but capitalism invested with salvific force: with intense faith in its capacity, if rightly harnessed, whol­ly to transform the universe of the marginalized and  disempowered.  At its most extreme, this faith is epitomi­zed by forms of money magic, ran­ging from pyramid schemes to pros­perity gospels, that pledge to deliver immense, immediate wealth by large­ly inscrutable means: in its more mun­dane manifestation, it accords the market itself an almost mystical capa­city to produce and deliver cash and commodities.

Of course, as we intimated in spea­ king of consumption and specula­ tion, market redemption is now a world-wide creed. Yet its millennial character is decidedly more promi­nent in contexts-like  South Africa and Central Europe-where   there has been an abrupt conversion to laissez-faire capitalism from tightly regulated material and moral econo­ mies: where evocative calls for entre­preneurialism confront the  realities of marginalization in the planetary distribution of resources: where totalizing ideologies have suddenly given way to a spirit of deregulation, with its taunting mix of desire and disappointment, liberation and limitation. Individual citizens, many of them marooned by a rudderless ship of state, attempt to clamber aboard the good ship Enterprise by whatever they have at their disposal. But, in so doing, they find themselves battling the eccentric currents of the “new” world order, which forge expansive connections between the  local and the trans local, short-circuit establi­shed ways and means, disarticulate conventional relations of wealth and power, and render porous received borders, both within and between nation-states. In the vacuum left by retreating national ideologies-or, more accurately, by ideologies increasingly contested in the name of identity politics-people in these societies are washed over by a flood of mass media from across the earth; media depicting a cargo of animated objects and life-styles that affirm the neoliberal message of freedom and self-realization through consump­tion.

In the vacuum left by retreating natio­ nal ideologies–or, more accurately, by ideologies increasingly contested in thename of identity politics­ people in these societies are washed over by a flood of mass media from across the earth; media depicting a cargo of animated objects and life­ styles that affirm the neoliberal mes­sage of freedom and self-realization through consumption.

Under such conditions, where images of desire are as pervasive as they are inaccessible, it is only to be expected that there would be an intensification of efforts to make sense of the hidden logic of supply and demand, to restore some trans­ parency to the relation between pro­ duction and value, work and wealth. Also to multiply modes of accumula­tion, both fair and foul. The occult economies of many postcolonial societies (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999), and the spectacular rise within them of organized crime, are alike features of millennial capita­lism, disturbing caricatures of mar­ket enterprise in motion, of the impetus to acquire vast fortunes without ordinary labour costs. Yet, distinctive as they are, the conditions of which we speak here are not unprecedented. In Africa at  least, they recall an earlier moment of glo­bal expansion, of dramatic articula­tions of the local and the translocal, of the circulation of new goods and images, of the displacement of indi­ genous orders of production and power. We refer to the onset of colo­nialism. It, too, occasioned world-transforming, millennial aspirations (cf Fields 1985).

With this parallel in mind, we turn to contemporary South Africa.

The nightshift: Workers m the alternative economy

…. no job; no sense

Tell him, Joe,

go kill


quick march…

Open your lap,

stand at ease

Fall in,

fall out,

fall down…

Order: dismiss! ‘

Zombie’, Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Africa 70′

There can be no denying the latter­ day preoccupation with zombies in rural South Africa. Their existence, far from being the subject of elusive tales from the backwoods, of fantas­tic fables from the veld, is widely taken for granted: As a simple matter of fact. In recent times, respectable local newspapers have carried ban­ner headlines like ‘”Zombie’ Back From The Dead”, illustrating their stories with conventional, high-rea­list photographs;” similarly, defence lawyers in provincial courts have sought, by forensic means, to have clients acquitted of murder on grounds of having been driven to their deadly deeds by the zombifica­tion of their kin;” and illicit zombie workers have become an issue in large scale labour disputes.” Public culture is replete with invocations of the living dead, from popular songs and prime-time documentaries to national theatrical productions.” Not even the state has remained aloof. The Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders (Ralushai et al. 1996), appointed in 1995 by the Northern Province administration to, investi­gate an “epidemic” of occult violen­ce, reported widespread fear of the figure of the zombie. The latter, it notes in a tone of ethnographic neu­trality (p.5),
is a person who is believed to have died, but because of the power of a witch, he is resurreted … [and] works for the person who has turned him into a zombie. To make it impossible for him to communica­te with other people, the front part of his tongue is cut off so that he cannot speak. It is believed that he works at night only…[and] that he can leave his rural area and work in an urban area, often far from his home. Whenever he meets people he knows, he vanishes.

Speechless and unspeakable, this apparition fades away as soon as it becomes visible and knowable. It is a mutation of humanity made mute.

The observations of the Commission are amply confirmed by our own experience in the Northwest Province since the early 1990s; although our informants added that zombies (dithotst!la; also diphoko)” were not merely the dead-brought­ back-to-life, that they could be killed first for the purpose. Here, too, refe­ rence to them permeates everyday talk on the street, in private backyards, on the pages of the local press, in courts of law. Long-standing notions of witchcraft, boloi,have come to embrace  zombie-making, the brutal reduction of others-in South Africa, largely unrelated neighbours-to instruments of pro­ duct.ion; to insensible beings stored, like tools, in sheds, cupboards, or oil drums at the homes of their creators (cf Ralushai et al. 1996: 50). In a world of flexitime employment, it is even said that some people are made into “part-time zombies” (cf Ralushai et al. 1996:224-5), whose exhaustion in the morning speaks of an unwit­ting nocturnal mission, of involunta­ry toil on the night shift.

Thus do some build fortunes with the lifeblood of others. And, as they do, they are held to destroy the job market-even more, the very essen­ ce of self-possessed labour-in the process. Those typically said to conjure up the living dead tend, unsurprisingly, to be persons of conspicuous wealth; especially new wealth, whose source is neither visible nor readily explicable. Such things, of course, are highly relative: in very poor rural communities, where (almost) all things are rela­tives, it does not take a great deal to be seen to be affluent. In point of fact, those actually accused of the mystical manufacture of night wor­kers, and assaulted or killed as a result, are not always the same as those suspected: much like peoples  assailed elsewhere as witches and sor­cerers, they are often elderly, relict individuals, mostly female. Note: not all, although there is a penchant in much of northerly South Africa to refer to anyone alleged to engage in this kind of magical evil as “old women”.” Conversely, their primary accusers and attackers, more often than not, are young,  unemployed men (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999).

Zombie-makers are sexual perverts whose deformed genitalia and poiso­ nous secretions make them wtable toreproduce; they fuse, in a single gro­ tesque, the very essence of negative value: the simultaneous, reciprocaldestruction of both production and reproduction.

Zombie-makers, moreover, are semiotically saturated, visually char­ ged figures. In contrast to their victims, who are neutered by being reduced to pure labour power, they are stereotypically described as sexual perverts whose deformed genitalia and poisonous seo·etions make them unable to reproduce; worse yet, to make them likely to spoil the fertility of others. Also, by extension, of the collectivity at large, be it a clan, a village, a town. Which is why they have become iconic of a perceived crisis of household and community in rural South Africa.1• In this respect, they fuse, in a single gro­tesque, the very essence of negative value (cf Munn 1986): the simultaneous, reciprocal destruction of both production and reproduction. On one hand, by manufacturing spectral workers, they, annihilate the very possibility of productive employ· ment, imaginatively if not manifestly; on the other, by taking jobs away from young people, they prevent them from securing the wherewithal to establish families and to repro­duce-and so make it impossible for any community to ensure its future. No wonder that, in one of the most poignant witch-killings of the 1990s, the old woman set alight by morally outraged youths-determined to save their community by removing all evil-doers-was to hear, in her final agony. the words:

‘Die, die you witch. We can’t get work because of you!’ (Ralushai 1996:193f; Comaroff and Comaroff 1999).

Discourse in a range of overlapping public spheres, from ‘customary’ tri­ bunals and provincial courts through local religious and political assemblies to the print and broadcast media, makes it clear that, for many, the threat of a spectral workforce is all too concrete. And urgent. On more than one occasion, large crowds have gathered in towns in the region to watch the epic effort of healers to “liberate” zombies from their captors; in vernacular parlance, to “return them home”. Here the spectral becomes spectacle. The fan­tasy of forcing underground evil into public visibility, of reversing the arcane alienation that creates  phantom workers, is a palpable feature of the domestic cultural scene. The media, widely Africanized since the fall of apartheid,  have been crucial in all this. They have taken the conventions of investigative repor­ting far beyond their orthodox ratio­nalist frame in order to plumb the enigma of new social realities ( Fordred 1998); harsh realities whose magicality, in the prevailing historical circumstances, does not permit the literary conceit of magical realism. demanding instead a deadly serious engagement with the actuali­ty of enchantment.

Thus a long-running saga in 1993 on the pages of Mail-formerly the Mafikeng Mail, a small town newspaper, now a Northwest provincial weekly with large circulation in the region-in which a pair of journa­lists sought to verify the claims of a healer, one Mokalaka Kwinda. Kwinda had claimed that he had re­vived a man who had been living for four years as the ‘slave’ of witches in the nearby Swartruggens district; this before the “eyes of his”, the zombie’s “weeping mother”.” Likewise a quest that same year to cover the efforts of four diviners to “retrieve” a “zombie woman” from the clutches of a male­ volent in the nearby Luhurutshe dis­trict.20 These stories marry the sur­real to the banal, the mystical to the mundane: in the former case. the healer told the reporters that his elu­sive patient was undergoing ‘prelimi­nary’ treatment, so that he might be “able to speak and return to normal life”.” Nor are such events confined to the cutback. In Mabopane, in the eastern part of the Northwest Province, “hundreds of students and workers” reportedly filled the streets one weekday in May 1994, eager to witness a “zombie hunt”.”

The fear of being reduced to ghost labour, of being abducted to feed the fortunes of a depraved stranger, occurs alongside another kind of spectre: a growing mass, a shadowy alien-nation, of immigrant black wor­kers from elsewhere on the conti­nent. So overt is the xenophobic sen­timent that these workers are disrup­ting local relations of production and reproduction-that they usurp scarce jobs and resources, foster prostitution, and spread AIDS-that they have been openly harassed on South African streets. Like zombies, they are nightmare citizens, their rootlessness threatening to siphon off the remaining, rapidly diminishing prosperity of the indigenous population. Interestingly, like zom­bies too, they are characterized by their impaired speech: the common term for immigrant, makwerekwere, is a Sesotho word implying limited competence in the vernacular. Suggesting a compromised capacity to engage in intercourse with autochthonous society, this usage explains why migrants live in terror that their accents might be detected in public.”

‘Die, die you witch. We can’t get work because of you!’

Their apprehension is well-founded. In September 1998, for example, a crowd returning by train from a march in Pretoria-held, significant­ly, to protest mass unemployment­ threw three makwerekwere to their deaths, purportedly for stealing scarce jobs; two were Senegalese, one from Mozambique.” Three months later, in December, there came alarming reports of a band of hoodlums in Johannesburg who seemed bent on the “systematic elimina­tion” of foreign nationals… Immigrants from neighbouring countries, and from further abroad, have worked in industry, on farms, and across the service sector  in South Africa for over a century. But, in the 1990s, the tight regulation of these labour flows has given way to less controlled, often subcontracted, sources of supply.” Employers are ever more attracted by the potential of this cheap labour; it is said that as many as 80% of them use casual, “non-standard” workers (Horwitz, cited in Adam et al. 1998:209). A recent investigation shows that, while the preponderance of immigrants in the past decade have actually been male entrepreneurs plying their trade in large cities, a great number do find their way into other areas of the economy, often in provincial towns;” some, especially those lac­king legal documentation (frequent­ly, women and children) land up in the highly exploitable reaches of rural agriculture-in places like the Northwest Province. v\lherever they land up in South Africa, immigrants take their place on a fraught histori­ cal terrain. Anxieties about unem­ployment have reached unpreceden­ted levels: by common agreement, the rate is much higher than the unofficial 38% to which the state admits. According to one estimate, 500,000 jobs, virtually all of them held by blacks, have evaporated over the last five years. And this is proba­bly a conservative reckoning, based primarily on shrinkage in the formal sector.  “No jobs means our youth are destroyed,” a resident of Soweto told a reporter from The Chicago Tribune in February 1999. Even the eternal optimist Nelson Mandela, his retirement imminent, recently quipped: “In a few months, I’ll be standing by the road with a sign: Please help. Unemployed with a new wife and a big family.”

In the northerly provinces, which are among the poorest in the country, there has been scant evidence of the prosperity and redistribution that was expected to follow the fall of apartheid. True, the newly deregula­ted economy has granted some blacks a larger share of the spoils: postcolonial South Africa has seen a raised standard of liiving for  sections of the African middle class, most notably for the ‘liberation aristocra­cy’, a few of whom have become ins­tant millionaires and living personifi­cations of the triumph of nonracial, neoliberal capitalism (Adam et al. 1998:203) . In spite of all this, or per­haps because of it, the so-called “transition” has, as we noted earlier, kindled a millennial faith in the opportunities of “free” market enter­prise, now ostensibly open to all . “I want every black person to feel that he or she has the opportunity to become rich and only has himself to blame if he fails, ” declared Dan Mkhwanazi, launching the National Economic Trust (Adam ct al. 1998:217).”

But, for the vast majority, millennial hope jostles material impossibility. The much vaunted Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), de­signed to root out endemic poverty, has thus far had minimal impact. Indeed, its broad reformist objec­tives, which harked back to the age of the welfare state, soon hardened into GEAR, the government’s Growth, Employment And Recon­struction strategy, which privileges development understood in terms of privitization, wage flexibility and massive public service cutbacks (Adam et al. 1998:206) Little of the positive effect of these policies, or of recent post Fordist expansion in domains like tourism, finds its way into rural landscapes of the North or the Northwest Provinces. Here a living has to be eked out from pitiful small-scale subsistence farming and (very) petty commerce; from such things as brewing, sex work and the refashioning of used commodities, classically the pursuit of women. Such assets as pensions, paltry though they may be, have become the subject of fierce competition; their beneficiaries, mainly widows and surviving old men, are prime targets of bitter jealousy and allegations of avarice. Meanwhile, the regular migrant labour wages  that had long subsidized agrarian endea­vours, and had given young men a degree of independence, are noticea­bly diminishing; this, in turn, has exa­cerbated their sense of threatened masculinity, and has under-scored the gendered, generational conflicts of the countryside. which is why the overwhelming proportion of those accused of witchcraft and zombie­ making are older and female. And why their accusers are overwhelmin­gly out-of-work young adult males.

At the same time, provincial towns in these northerly provinces are home to small but bustling black elites, many of them spawned originally by the late “homelands,” into which the apartheid regime pumped endless resources over several decades. Well positioned to soak up novel business opportunities and to engage in behind-the-scenes dealings, they have quickly taken charge of a sizeable proportion of retail marke­ting and the provision of services in the countryside. For them, increasin­gly, the conspicuous consumption of prized commodities-houses, cars, TVs, cell phones–does more than just signal accomplishment. It also serves to assuage the inequities of the colonial past. But, as it does, it also marks the growing inequities of the postcolonial present. These distinctions, to those who gaze upon them from below, also seem to be a product of enchantment; given that they have appeared with indecent speed and with little visible exertion, their material provenance remains mysterious. So, even more, does the cause of joblessness amidst such obvious prosperity. In the upshot, the two sides of millennial capitalism, post apartheid style, come together: on one is the ever more distressing awareness of the absence of work, itself measured by the looming figure of the immigrant; on the other is the constantly reiterated suspicion, embodied in the zombie, that is only by magical means, by consuming others, that people may enrich themselves in these perplexing times.

The symbolic apotheosis of this syllogism is to be found in a commercial advertisement run by a “traditional healer” in Mmabatho, capital of the Northwest. It appears, in of all places, the Mafeking Business Advertiser, a local trade weekly. Top among the occult skills on offer is a treatment which promises clients to “get a job early if unemployed.” The healer in question, Dr. S. M. Banda, should know. He is an immigrant.

Precursors: The ghosts of workers past

On the face of it, much of this is new. When we did research in the Northwest in the late 1960s and  mid­ 1970s-it was then the Tswana ethnic “homeland”-most males were, or had been away as migrants in the industrial centres. There was barely a black middle class to speak of and no manifest anxieties about immigrants. Labourers had long come from elsewhere to seek employment in local towns and on the farms of the neighbouring Western Transvaal; and there were “foreigners” (Zimbabweans, and Xhosa descen­dants of those who had built the rail­road at the turn of the century, for instance) who lived quite amicably with Tswana-speaking populations. There was also no mention of zom­bies at the time. True, many people spoke of their concern about witch­craft, understood as an unnatural means of garnering wealth by “eating” others and absorbing their capacity to create value. On occa­sion, moreover, malevolents would cause young migrants to loose their moorings, to forsake their kin at home and to eschew the demands of domestic reproduction.” But there was nothing like the current preoc­cupation with the danger of humans being made into toiling automatons; nor with the sense that a spectral economy. founded on the labour of these and other aliens, might be draining the productive or repro­ductive potential of the community at large.

Yet these late twentieth-century preoccupations are not entirely unprecedented either. In disinter­ring vernacular conceptions of work, labour and consciousness during the high years of apartheid (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:169), we noted that Tswana regarded certain modes of migrant toil (mmi:reko) as aliena­ting; that they spoke of the way in which its disciplined routines re­duced humans to draft animals, even to “tinned fish”.” These tropes implied a contrasting notion of self­ possessed work (tiro), typically work­ at-home, which created social value. By contrast to selfish activity, this form of exertion constructed person­ hood in a positive key through the simultaneous building up of others. And, concomitantly, of a centred col­lective world. But the historical record indicates that Tswana ideas of estranged labour are not limited  to the experience of proletarianization alone. Accounts from earlier this century tell of a condition linked to the eclipse, typically by witches, of self-possession and, with it, the capa­city to accumulate wealth and social power. An individual affiicted in this manner was “alienated from fellow­ship with his kith and kin,” noted.Tom Brown (1926:137-8), a missio­nary-ethnographer with a well deve­loped grasp, of SetSwana. He goes on, in the real-time ethnographic present:

… they apply to him a name (sebibi or sehihi). which signifies that though the body lives and moves it is only a grave. a place where something has, died or been killed. The essential manhood is dead. It is no uncom­mon thing to hear a person spoken of as being dead when he stands before you visi­bly alive. When this takes place it always means that there has been an oveshadowing of the true relationships of life …

Here, patently, we have a precursor of the zombie. But, whereas the lat­ter is conjured from a corpse, either killed for the purpose or already deceased, sehihi is a state of eclipse effected by the appropriation of the essential selfhood of a living person, leaving behind a sentient shell as mute witness to the erasure of the social being it once housed. Moreover, where sehihi entailed the loss of all human creativity-often said to have been eaten whole by witches to enhance their own physi­cal, political, and material potency­ the zombie is transformed  purely into alienated labour power, abduc­ted from home or workplace, and made to serve as someone else’s pri­vatized means of production.”

Evidence from elsewhere in sou­ thern Africa fills out this phantasma­ goric history of labour,  enabling  us to track its fitful figurings, its conti­nuities and breaks. Thus Harries’s (1994:221) study of the world of Mozambican migrants to South Africa between 1860 and 1910 shows that witches (baloyi), held to be pre­valent on the mines, were said to seize the “life essence” of others, for­cing them to toil for days as zombies (dlukula) in closed-off subterranean galleries, where they lived on  a diet of mud. The poetic particularity of phantom workers-here, as else­ where-is sensitive register of shif­ting experiences of labour and its value. The introduction of compen­sation pay for miner’s phthisis, for example, quickly led to a notion that zombies returned from below ground with numbers-potential payouts, blood money-chalked on their backs. Junod (1927:298-9;5 l 3; cf Harries 1994:221). classic ethno­ grapher of early south-eastern Africa, remarked on similar fears in the southern Mozambique country­ side around 1910. “Modernized” witches there, anticipating their lat­ ter-day South African counterparts, were thought capable of reducing their fellows to a nocturnal agrarian workforce, masquerading by day as innocent children.” Some could even induce young men to wander off to the Witwatersrand mines, never to return. Once more  we see the zombie as a “walking spectre,” an object of collective terror and desire, to use Clery’s (1995:174) description of the “terrorist genre” of haunted Gothic fiction in late eighteenth cen­tury England, where industrializa­tion was similarly restructuring the nature of work-and-place. Like these “Horrid Mysteries,” zombie tales dra­matize the strangeness of what had become real; in this instance, the problematic relation of work to the production  of social  being secured in time and place.

Other instances of ghost workers in Africa underline the point. Take Ardener’s (1970) piquant narrative of zombie beliefs among the Bakweri of West Cameroon. These beliefs­ an intensification, it appears, of older ideas about  witchcraft-arose at the time of the Great War, with the relatively sudden penetration of German colonisers into this fertile agricultural region. Their land expropiiated for the establishment of plantations manned largely by foreigners, the Bakweri found them­ selves crowded into inhospitable reserves; as a result, they entered a period of impoverishment and redu­ced fertility. It was then that the zombie labour force (vekongi) first made itself felt, sheltering in tin houses built by those locals who had somehow managed to profit from the unpromising circumstances. The living dead, many of them chil­dren, were said to be victims of the murderous greed of their own close kin; they were sent away to work in distant plantations, where witchmas­ters had built a town overflowing with modem consumer goods.

Here, as in newly colonized Mozambique, we see the sudden conjuncture of local world-in which production is closely tied to kin groups-with forces that arro­gate the capacity to create value and redirect its flow. Above all, these forces fracture the meaning of work and its received relation to place. Under such conditions, zombies become the stuff of “estranged reco­gnition” (Clery 1995:ll 4): recognition not merely of the commodifica­tion of labour, or its subjection to deadly competition, but of the invi­sible predations that seem to congeal beneath the banal surfaces of new forms of wealth.

In their iconography of forced migration and wandering exile, of children abused and relatives viola­ted, the living dead comment on the disruption of an economy in which productive energies were once visibly invested in the reproduction of a situated order of domestic and com­munal relations; an order through which the present was, literally. kept in place. And the future was secured.

Ardener (1970:l 48) notes the com­plex continuities and innovations at play in these constructions, which have, as their imaginative precondi­tion, ideas of the occult widely distri­buted across Africa and, the New World; in particular, the idea that witches, by their very nature, con­sume the generative force of others. Zombies themselves seem to be born, at least in the first instance, of colo­nial encounters: of ilie precipitous engagement of local worlds with imperial economies that seek to exert control over the essential means of producing value, means like land and labour, space and time. It is in this abstract, metaphorical sense that Rene Depestre (1971:20) declares colonialism to be “a process of man’s general zombification”.” In purely historical terms, the affinity between colonization and zombification is less direct: colonialism does not always call forth zombies, and zombies are not always associated with colonia­lism. What they do tend to be associa­ted with, however, are rapidly chan­ging conditions of work under capita­lism in its various guises; conditions which rupture not just established relations of production and repro­duction, but also received connec­tions of persons to place, the material to the moral, private to public, the individual to the communal, past to future. In this respect, the living dead join a host of other spectral figures­ vampires, monsters, creatures of Gothic “supernaturalism”- who alike have been vectors of an affective engagement with the visceral implica­tions of the factory, the plantation, the market, the mine (cf Ardener 1970: 156; Clery 1995: 9).

As this suggests, however abstract a set of ideas may be embodied in the living dead sui generis, any particular zombie congeals the predicament of human labour at its most concrete, its most historically specific. How, then, might those we have encoun­tered in rural South Africa be linked, in more precise terms, to the late twentieth-century transformations with which we began? Or to the impact of millennial capitalism in this postcolony?


These questions have been anticipa­ted, their answers foreshadowed, elsewhere. Thus Harries (1994:221) has argued that, among early twentieth-century Mozambican miners in the Transvaal, zombie­ making magic was a practical res­ponse to the unfamiliar: specifically, to the physical depredations of under­ ground work and to the explosion of new forms of wealth amidst abject poverty. Witchcraft, in a virulently mutated strain, he says, became a proxy for capitalist exploitation; witch-hunting, a displacement of class struggle. Niehaus (1995, 1993, n.d.:16), writing of the rural Northern Province at the other end of the century, arrives at a similar conclusion: mystical evil is a “cultural fantasy” manipulated by the domi­nant to defend their positions of pri­vilege. Explanations of this sort belong to a species of interpretation that brings a critical understanding of ideology to Evans–Pritchard’s (1937) classic conception of witchcraft as a “socially relevant” theory of cause (Geschiere n.d. ; Ferguson 1993; Comaroff and Comaroff 1993). Many would agree with their underlying premise: that witches and zombies are to be read as etiological principles which translate structural contradictions, experiential anomalies, and aporiahs – force-fields of greater com­plexity than is normally implied by “class struggle”-into the argot of human agency, of interpersonal kin­ship, of morality and passion.

But here lies the rub. How does this very general truism, as valid for early colonial witchcraft as it is for latter­ day zombies, relate to the implosive, shifting histories of which we have spoken? If the living dead are merely walking spectres of class struggle, why have they not been a permanent fixture of the modern South African scene? What accounts for their comings and goings and, to return to our opening conundrums, for the dramatic intensification of their appeal in the postcolony? How, furthermore, do we make sense of the particular poetics of these fantasies, whose symbolic excess and expressive exuberance gesture toward an imagi­native play infinitely more elaborale than is allowed by a purely pragmatic, functionalist explication.

We have tried, in the course of this narrative, to show that the mounting preoccupation with zombies and immigrants here is owed to a precise, if large-scale set of historical condi­tions; that these conditions underlie a postcolonial moment experienced, by all but the rnostt affluent, as an unprecedented mix of hope and hopelessness, promise and impossi­bility, the new and the continuing. They have their source in social and material transformations sparked by the rapid rise of neoliberal capita­lism on a global scale, a process that has intensified market competition; translocalized the division of labour; rendered national polities and eco­nomies increasingly porous, less sovereign; set many people in motion and disrupted their sense of place; dispersed class relations across international borders; and widened the gulf between flows of fiscal circu­lation and sites of concrete produc­tiion, thus permilting speculative capital to appear to determine the fate of post-revolutionary societies. What is more, because industrial capital chases cheap, tractable labour all over the earth, searching out optimally (de) regulated environ­ments, it often erodes the social infrastructure of working communi­ties, adding yet further to the stream of immigrants in pursuit of employ­ment-and to the  likelihood that they will be despised, demonized, even done to death.

The backwash of this process, as we have seen, is readily evident in contemporary South Africa. where rapid deregulation, increasingly la­bile employment arrangements, and the gross shrinkage of the job market have altered the generic meaning of labour, the specific relationship of production to reproduction, and the connection of work-to-place. Where, also, labour migralion-which had become a rite of passage to social manhood-has all  but vanished.  In the void left behind, especially in the countryside, there have risen new, unaccountable manifestations of weallh; wealth not derived from any discernible or conventional  source. In this void, too, jobs seem available only for “nonstandard” workers: those, like immigrants, who will take anything they can get. Zombies, the ultimate “nonstandard” workers, take shape in the collective imaginary as figurations of these conditions. In their silence they give voice to a sense of dread about the human costs of intensified capitalist production; about the loss of control over the terms in which people alienate their labour power; about the de­mise of a moral economy in which wage employment, however distant and exploitative, had “always”·been there to support both the founding of families and the well-being of communities. This bears its own measure of historical irony. In the colonial epoch, the migrant contract system was regarded as a social, moral, and political travesty, brea­king up black households and for­cing men to toil under exacting conditions for pitiable earnings; then a frequent object of protest, it is seen, in retrospect, as having been one of the secure foundations of the social landscape. Shades, here, of earlier revolutions, earlier metamor­phoses in the articulation of capital and labour.

Here, then, is what is unique about the moment in the Soulh African postcolony; what it is that has called forth an alien-nation of pariah prole­tarians, dead and alive. It is a histori­cal moment that, in bringing toge­ their force-fields at once global and local, has conduced to a seismic mutation in the onlological expe­rience, of work, selfhood, gender, community, and place. Because the terms of reference for this expe­rience are those of, modernist capi­talism-indeed, these are the only terms in which the present may be reduced to semiotic sense-and-sensi­bility-it is framed in the language of labour lost, factories foreclosed, communities crumbling. Which is why the concern with zombies in the northerly reaches of the country, while in many ways a novel confec­tion, replays enduring images of alie­nated production. In Adorno’s (1981:96) phrase, “it sounded so old, and yet was so new”. Much like the story of labour itself which, in an abs­tract sense, is still subject to the fami­liar “laws” of capitalism; yet, as concrete reality, has been substan­tially allered by the reorganization of the world economy as we know it. To reiterate: it all remains the same and yet [is] constantly changing”.

One final point. Although we have tried to subdue the fantasy of spec­tral labour by recourse to histoiical reason, its key animus still eludes us. What, finally, are we to make of its symbolic excess? What does the intri­cate discourse about alien workers tell us of the sublerranean workings of terror, of the life of standardized nightmares in a world of “daylight reason” (Duncan 1992:113)?,. There is little question that this discourse gives motive and moral valence to disturbing events; that, in the classic manner of ideologies everywhere, it links etiology to existing orders of power and value. But zombie-speak seems to do much more: its produc­tive figurations feed a process of fer­vent speculation, poetic elaboration, forensic quest. The menacing dan­gers of zombification-the disorien­ted wanderings, the loss of speech, sense, and will, the perverted prac­tices that erase all ties to kith and kin-serve to conjure with inchoate fears, allowing free play to anger and anguish and desire. Also to the effort to make some sense of them. Like Gothic horror, the elaboration of these images ‘encourage[s] an experience of estranged recognition’ (Clery 1995:114) . And not only at the immiserated edges of polite society. The hardboiled social analyst might insist that the obsession with the living dead misrecognizes the sys­temic roots of deprivation and dis­tress. But its eruption onto the ferti­le planes of post-apartheid public culture-via sober press reports, TV documentaries and agitprop theatre–has  had a  tangible  impact. It has forced a recognition of , the crisis in the countryside, of the plight of displaced youth, of an alien­ nation within the postcolony itself.

As the very conditions that call forth zombies erode the basis of conventional politics of labour and place and public interest, we would do well to keep an open mind about the pragmatic possibilities of these creatures of the collective dread; about the provocative manner in which they, perhaps more than anything or anybody else, are compelling the state to take note. Even to act.

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