Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction

Notes from the South African Postcolony

Publication Date: 05/01/1999

Journal: American Ethnologist

Reissue Date:

Page start: 279

Page End: 301

Volume: 2

Edition: 26


Consider the following four fragments, four notes from postcolonial South Africa. Each is drawn from the archaeology of the fantastic in this new global age:

The first. In 1996, in a far north-eastern village, a baboon, taken to be a witch in disguise, was killed by “necklacing,” the infamous way in which collaborators were dealt with during the late apartheid years. Baboons have long been thought of as potential witch familiars; indeed, a state commission recently referred to them as “professor(s) of witch-craft.” The animal in question “was huge…and was carrying a plastic [shopping] bag”–this last object suspect since it signalled an all-too-human capacity to transact and transport ill- gotten goods. Said the woman who set off the alarm, “There was definitely witchcraft here. Just look at how long [the beast] took to catch alight and at how small its body is now that we have…killed it.”

The second. “Is it a duck? No, it’s the Howick monster,” wrote Ellis Mnyandu, also in 1996. Curious crowds are visiting the Howick Falls, in KwaZulu-Natal, to glimpse a myste- rious 25 foot creature. Says Absolom Dlamini, there is “a fearsome spirit here which makes you feel like you are being dragged [in]… [It] proves there is a monster down there.” Bob Teeney, a businessman, claims to have photographs of mom, pop, and baby monsters. But a local anthropologist, disappointingly matter-of-fact, assures us that there is nothing there at all; that the story recuperates an old Zulu myth about a water serpent. Still, people flock to the place. One sculptor, a crippled craftsman from Zaire, has become a convert. “First I believe in God and then the monsters,” he says. “I am making more money than [ever before]. I call it monster-money.”

The third. Since 1994, notes Lumkile Mondi, there has been an explosion of pyramid schemes in the countryside. These undertake to pay three times the initial stake, de- pending for their viability on ever more people signing on. But many investors were not taking their money at maturity, waiting rather to cash in huge sums later. Mondi says that the management of one scheme found itself with R46m [$9], more than it could handle. So it asked a team of authorities–including Mondi himself–to intervene under the Bank Act. Mondi goes on to say that he had been manning a toll free line to answer investors’ questions. The callers had disconcerted him: accused of abetting government efforts to subvert local economic initiatives, he was even threatened with “necklacing.” Apartheid, they told him, had made them desperately poor. And the postcolonial state had not helped much. So “God brought the scheme and changed their lives.” Similar schemes are also rampant among whites. One, entitled “Rainbow,” demands a R10,000 stake and is run in great secrecy by an anonymous cabal with a Liverpool address. It is said to “conduct [meetings] with an almost religious fervour.”

The fourth. Johannesburg, April 1996. A man is arrested in a shopping mall after “trying to sell a pair of blue eyes.” This incident, wrote the city’s largest newspaper, was “linked to the murder of street children for…traditional medicines.” Body parts, it added, were regularly used in potions for fertility, for success in business, and for luck in love. Those of white children fetched the best prices. The local press has been full of such cases, and courts have been kept busy trying those accused of disembowelling their victims, and either retailing organs or using them for their own magical ends. Not only body parts; who- le persons too. Witches are said to bring the dead back to life to work for them. Thus, in KwaZulu-Natal, two years ago, kin of 11 children killed in a bus crash refused to allow them to be buried because “witches [had] abducted them after bringing them back to life.” The bodies in the mortuary were no longer those of the people they knew. Soon after, an old woman, suspected of the evil, was dragged from her home and killed by schoolmates of the deceased, who, in turn, were jailed.

These fragments may appear lurid from the cool distance of Academia Europa. In their own context they are not that at all. Each of them, moreover, has parallels elsewhere: those parts of Europe and the USA beyond the ivory tower, where ordinary people live, produce their own fair share of the fantastic. The Howick Monster recalls not only Loch Ness, which it is said to resemble. It also resonates with celluloid cosmologies of the Jurassic kind, making a mammoth montage of the Spielberg mindscape, the Scottish landscape, and Zulu mythology–all the while tapping into an increasing obsession with the return of extinct sub- yet superhuman creatures. The Leviathan of Natal belongs to a planetary species whose existence conflates the virtual with the veritable, the cinematic with the scientific, gods with godzillas, the prophetic with the profitable.

Likewise the pyramid schemes. These recall the ten or so whose crash sparked the Alba- nian revolution in 1997. They also bring to mind other scams and stratagems, different yet similar, that flow from a promiscuous mix of scarcity and deregulation. Such schemes are springing up all over the place, especially in post-revolutionary societies. Often registered at addresses halfway across the earth from the site of their local operation, they escape control by insinuating them- selves into the slipstream of the global economy. These schemes cover a wide gamut, from chain letters, through national lotteries and offshore gambling, to aggressively speculative investment in the stock markets of the world, now heavily into global funds, which has led to an upsurge of “pump and dump” swindles. These things have a single common denominator, “the magical allure of making money from nothing.” Like efforts to weave gold from straw, an alchemy associated with an earlier transition in the economic history of Europe, they promise to deliver preternatural pro- fits, to yield wealth sans perceptible production, value sans visible effort. In its millennial moment, capitalism has an effervescent new spirit–a magical, neo-Protestant zeitgeist–waxing close to its core. Vide the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy, an American pyramid scheme created “to change the world for the glory of God,” which persuaded 500 non-profit organizations, Christian colleges, and Ivy League universities to invest $354 million–on the promise of doubling their money in six months. So much for rational economics. And for the disenchantment of modernity.

Neither are the narratives of witchcraft, body parts, and the brutalization of children uniquely South African. Everywhere the confident contours, and the boundaries, of the human are being called into question; hence the fascination with cyborgs, the fear of invasion by aliens cloth- ed in humdrum bodily form, the dangerous promise of cloning and genetic mutation. And from everywhere come stories of not-quite-human transactions in the corporeal. Postcolonial Africa is replete with accounts of the way in which the rich and powerful use freakish familiars and monstrous means to appropriate the life-force of their lesser compatriots in order to strengthen themselves and to satisfy consuming passions. Similarly, Latin America has, throughout the 1990s, witnessed mass panics about the theft and sale, by greedy gringos, of the organs of infants and youths. There, and in other parts of the world, this traffic–like the international commerce in adoption and mail-order matrimony–is seen as a new form of imperialism, the west siphoning off the essence, even appropriating the offspring, of impoverished “others” for ends both occult and ordinary. All of which gives ample evidence, to those at the nether end of the planetary distribution of wealth, of the workings of insidious forces, of potent magical technologies and mys- terious means of accumulation. That evidence reaches into the heart of Europe itself: note the recent scares about the satanic abuse of children; also reports, some now well-documented, of a transnational trade in people, again particularly women and young people, for sexual slavery.

Precisely because they are at once parochial and translocal, these fragments raise the same conundrums. Why now? Why now does there appear to be a dramatic intensification–none of these things is new, of course–of appeals to enchantment, to the use of the bodies of some for the empowerment of others? Why now the acute moral panics? What, if anything, has any of this to do with processes of globalization and the forms of capitalism associated with it? With postcoloniality? Or with the sociology of post-revolutionary social worlds? We pose the problem both as a general matter of anthropological concern and, more specifically, of contemporary South Africa. Is it not extraordinary, for example, that the African National Congress saw it necessary, among its first gestures in government, to appoint a commission of enquiry into witchcraft and ri- tual murder in one of the new provinces? That it found itself presiding over an epidemic of mys- tical evil? That this epidemic, far from abating with the end of apartheid, is on the increase? That, according to the head of the Occult-Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services– itself a curious creature–the devil actually seems to be making a “revolutionary re-appearance” here?

Finally, what might these things have to do with the memory of Max Gluckman? Or with the present and future of anthropology, about which he had such strong ideas? As we shall see, they challenge us with the problem of doing ethnography on an awkward scale, neither unambiguously local nor, obviously, “global”–but on a plane that, somehow, captures the dialectics of their mutual determination. And their indeterminacies.

Let us take the last question first. Our memories of Max Gluckman go back to the early 1970s, toward the start of our professional careers, toward the end of his. We came to Manchester having read and heard a great deal of debate about his work, and not a few critiques–most of them emanating from certain institutions south of the Watford Gap. None of this, however, prepared us for our encounter with charisma, Mancunian-style. Or with conflict structural-functionalism as propounded, in the flesh, by Gluckman himself, a formidable interlocutor if there ever was one. Maxism, it is true, was not quite Marxism; very much a creature of its day, many of its founding principles are now dated. But they were essayed with vigor, certitude, and a bold sense of possibility. Anthropology, for Gluckman, was both a mission and an invitation to an argument; – though, in point of fact, he was always easier to argue with when not actually present, or, more permanently, when dead. His combative, creative spirit lives on, in our consciousness, for two things above all else. It is these that provide the mandate for our lecture today.

One was his–emphatically pre-postmodern–insistence on discerning design in, on abstracting order from, an “illogical assortment” of disparate details, minutiae, even trivia (1963:1); recall his introduction to Order and Rebellion, which notes, with approval, how a co- herent anthropology grew out of “the study of oddments by eccentrics.” Max, of course, was not lacking in oddness or eccentricity himself. And coherence is no longer valued all that much. But so be it. The serious, if simple, corollary is that our skills and sensibilities ought to be put to the effort of detecting–from diverse, discordant acts and facts–emergent social processes and patterns; that the sacred charter of the discipline is to explain the existence of such partly-obscured, barely audible, often nascent phenomena in the world. Sometimes these phenomena, like the unruly events so memorably described in his Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand (1940), bring into sharp focus, and serve to bridge, cultural and material forces of dramatically different magnitude or scale; as they do, they compel us to address the evanescent, ever present connec- tions between local concerns and world-historical movements. Herein, in this challenge, lies the essential distillate of the Gluckman heritage.

The second thing is more specific. Max Gluckman is justifiably famed for his work in legal anthropology, for his studies of political and social processes, and the like. Amidst his lesser quo- ted essays, however, is one which warrants special attention today. Entitled “The Magic of Des- pair” (see n.1), it tries to make sense of the ritual practices of Mau Mau. Not only that. Those practices are run up against Central African witchcraft movements (Richards 1935), millennial cults of the middle ages (Cohn 1957), Melanesian cargo cults (Worsley 1957), zionist prophets in South Africa (Sundkler 1948), and various forms of social banditry (Hobsbawm 1959). The point? To explain why Africans should seek recourse to the occult in situations of rapid social transformation; under historical conditions, that is, which yield an ambiguous mix of possibility and – powerlessness, of desire and despair, of mass joblessness and hunger amidst the accumulation, by some, of great amounts new wealth (1963:3f). These circumstances, added Gluckman (p.145) presciently, do not elicit a “reversion to pagan ritual.” Just the opposite. “New situations,” he wrote, citing Evans-Pritchard (1937:513), “demand new magic.”

Put these various pieces together–Gluckman’s concern to decipher patterns-in-the-making from oddments and fragments, his insistence on seeing connections among phenomena of widely different scale, his interest in mystical responses to contradictory historical situations–and the argument of this lecture begins to take shape. So, too, do our answers to the Big Questions.

The essence of our narrative goes like this. The Howick monster and the pyramid schemes, the epidemic of witchcraft and the killing of those suspected of magical evil, the moral panic about markets in body parts; all are, alike, symptoms of an occult economy fourishing up behind the civil surfaces of the “new” South Africa. This economy, itself an integral feature of millenial capitalism, is an odd fusion of the modern and the postmodern, of hope and hopelessness, of utility and futility, of promise and its perversions. Its roots do not lie simply in poverty, however cruel it may be; nor are they merely a reflex of “social change.” They are to be found, rather, in a doubling, the very doubling spoken of by Gluckman in “The Magic of Despair.” On one hand is a perception, authenticated by glimpses of the vast wealth that passes through most postcolonial societies and into the hands of a few of their citizens: that the mysterious mechanisms of the market hold the key to hitherto unknown riches; to capital amassed by the ever more rapid, often immaterial flow of value across time and space. On the other hand is the dawning sense of chill desperation at- tendant on being left out of the promise of progress, of the telos of liberation. In South Africa, after all, the end of apartheid held out the prospect that everyone would be set free to speculate and accumulate, to consume and to indulge repressed desires. But, for many, the millennial moment has passed without palpable payback.

The implication? That something has gone seriously awry; that arcane forces are intervening in the production of wealth, diverting the flow of value for evil purposes. This, in turn, underlies the essential paradox of occult economies, the fact that they operate on two inimical fronts at once. The first is the constant pursuit of new, magical means for otherwise unattainable ends. The second is the effort to eradicate people held to enrich themselves by those very means; through the illegitimate appropriation, that is, not just of the bodies and things of others, but also of the forces of production and reproduction themselves.

Partly because of the nature of the struggle to end apartheid, partly because of the legacy of apartheid itself, partly because of the dawning of a new epoch in the history of production, most of those who experience postcoloniality here as privation, and who engage the commerce in enchantment, are young. It is they–the worldly progeny of an electronic age–who held out the greatest expectations for “the revolution.” They are the repressed for whom the promise of post- colonial return is most obviously blocked by the hardening materialities of life at this coordinate on the map of global capital. As a result, rather than the more familiar axes of social division– class, race, gender, ethnicity–the dominant line of cleavage here has become generation. But entry into the occult economy, on both its fronts, is not confined to youth alone; ultimately it transects color, culture, age, and sex.

Like Gluckman, we have argued before that the practice of mystical arts in postcolonial Af- rica does not imply an iteration of “tradition.” Per contra, it is often a mode of producing new forms of consciousness; of expressing discontent with modernity and dealing with its deformities; in short, of retooling culturally familiar technologies as new means for new ends. New magic for new situations. Nor is this true only in Africa. It is characteristic of a surging, implosive economy of means and ends popping up all over the planet nowadays, albeit in a wide variety of local guises.

As it does, it posits fresh ways of producing immense wealth and power–against all odds, at super- natural speed, and with striking ingenuity. We have hinted that the things of which we speak have to do with global processes; or, more precisely, with specific intersections of the global and the local. And we have implied that there is a lesson in them for the practice of anthropology. Before we can give either claim any cre- dence, however, it is necessary to focus on a particular ethnographic setting, one in which realities appear more than usually fragile, fluid, and fractured. We turn to the northerly provinces of the “new” South Africa, just before and after the end of apartheid.


The Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders in the Northern Province was established by the new provincial government in March 1995 in response to a mounting sense of emergency in the countryside. Official commissions were the stock-in-trade of colonial rule. But these are postcolonial times, in which politics often masquerades as culture. This commission was an unprecedented hybrid of government and ethnography. Chaired by a re- tired Professor of Social Anthropology it comprised nine members, all but one black. Their Report is a rich amalgam of informant accounts, case records, first-hand observation, and recommenda- tions. These recommendations reveal a tension between (i) civic rationalism, expressed in a call for rigorous control of witch-related violence, including a possible reinstatement of the death penalty; and (ii) frank, even assertive relativism. In respect of the latter, says the Report, most Af- ricans regard magical attacks as “normal events of everyday life,” a reality incompatible with Euro- pean law, which criminalizes witchfinding. What is more, it adds, the vast majority of black police believe in witchcraft and are reluctant to intervene when suspects are attacked. The conclusion? That there is “no clear-cut” solution to the legal problem. The commissioners went on to advocate various means of stemming the brute force with which accused witches are hunted down. But they did not question the actuality of witchcraft itself.

On the contrary. The urgent tone of the Commission is underscored by a rising demography of violence: from 1985 to 1995 300 cases of witch-related killings were recorded in the North; in the first half of 1996 there were 676. No wonder people fear that witchcraft is “runn- ing wild.” The mood of alarm is well captured in the opening remarks of the Report: “as the Pro- vince continued to burn,” as “witchcraft violence and ritual murder” was becoming endemic, “something had to be done, and very fast.”

The countryside was burning alright. But there were lots of ironies in the fire. For one thing, this was a moment, much heralded, of exodus from colonial bondage. And yet rural populations were convinced that their neighborhoods harbored trenchant human evil; that their familiar landscapes were alive with phantasmic forces of unprecedented danger; that the state had failed to shield them from malignity, leaving them to protect themselves. For another thing, it was young men, not people in authority, who felt most moved to execute “instant justice” and to cleanse the country. They marked Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, viewed by the world as a sign that reason had prevailed at last, with a furious spate of witch burnings–often to the chanting of freedom songs. All this was accompanied by a burgeoning fear that some people, usually old people, were turning others into zombies; into a virtual army of ghost workers, whose lifeblood fuelled a vibrant, immoral economy pulsing beneath the sluggish rhythm of country life. The – margin between the human and the inhuman had become ever more permeable, transgressed by the living dead and their monstrous owners. Along with a grisly national market in human body parts, these zombies bore testimony to a mounting confusion of people with things.

As we have said, none of this is new. It is now clear that, in much of Africa, the colonial encounter played on pre-existing enchantments. At times, it multiplied the sorts of frictions that ignite witch hunts. Witchcraft has proven to be every bit as protean as modernity itself–thriving on its contradictions and its silences, usurping its media, puncturing its pretensions. Shifts in the cultural conception of witches often register the impact of large-scale transformations on local worlds. Indeed, their very durability stems from a genius for making the language of intimate, interpersonal affect speak of more abstract forces. It is this that underlies the sudden intensification of witch-finding in postcolonial South Africa–and elsewhere. The parochialism of witches, it seems, is an increasingly global phenomenon.

Because they distil complex material and social forces into palpable human motives, then, witches tend to figure in narratives which write translocal scenes onto local landscapes, translocal discourses into local vocabularies of cause-and-effect. In rural South Africa, the recent rise in witchfinding has coincided with an efflorescence of other magical technologies that link the occult and the ordinary by thoroughly modern, even postmodern, means; means that parody the mechanisms of the “free” market.

Thus ritual murder is said to have become “big business” across northern South Africa. In 1995, for example, stories spread widely about the discovery of dismembered corpses in the freezer of a casino in Mmabatho, in the Northwest Province. The casino was built for tourists during the apartheid years, when betting and inter-racial sex were illegal in South Africa but not in the ethnic “homelands”; here, over the border, in the grey interstices of the transnational, white South Africans came to purchase sexual services and to gamble. In the “new” South Africa, black bodies were again for sale, but in different form; the macabre trade now nested comfortably within the orbit of everyday commerce, circulating human organs to whomever had the cash to buy them in order to abet their undertakings. Much the same thing was apparent, too, in all the talk about the “fact” that some local entrepreneurs were turning their fellows into working zombies, a practice which simulates a foundational law of capitalism; namely, that rates of profit are inversely related to labor costs. But the most fabulous narratives were about Satanism, held in the Northwest to be the most robust, most global of all occult enterprises. Less a matter of awesome ritual than of mundane greed, dabbling in the diabolical was said to be especially captivating to the young. In 1996, when Mmabatho TV broadcast two programs on the subject, the ex-Satanists featured were all juveniles. As they took calls from the public they told, in prosaic terms, of the translocal power of the black arts–among them, an ability to travel great distances at miraculous speed to garner enormous wealth at will.

We shall return to the substance of these things–to ritual murder and zombies and satanism–in due course. Here we note merely that what is at issue is an expanded array of enchanted, often unnervingly visceral, means of producing value. Visceral, yet also strangely banal. In colonial times, divination involved a private, clandestine consultation with an expert. Now anxieties about witchcraft, money magic, and unnatural death are ventilated in churches and comic strips, on the radio, TV, and the internet; almost every day, newspapers and magazines advertise “dial-in-diviners.” The public, multi-mediated quality of this communication is reflected in innovative ritual technologies. One is divining by “mirror” or “television.” An electronic update of water bowl oracles, the procedure requires that clients imbibe a fermented drink and watch a white cloth mounted in a darkened “screenroom.” Figures of miscreants take shape on the screen; their transmission and appearance mimic the manner in which satellite dishes, broadcast networks, and the long-distance magic of witches condense images, objects, and sounds from afar. While an adept might help to unscramble the ethereal pictures, these are received directly by his “customers”–mark the term–who sit in the archetypal posture of family viewing-and-listening.

Who are the protagonists in these theaters of the banal, these mundane magical dramas? Who are the witches? And who takes responsibility for killing them? According to the Witchcraft Commission,

…the youth who are called “comrades” are in the forefront. Note: ages of the accused range between 14-38 years. Not only were young men the most identifiable perpetrators of witch-related violence, but they seem often to have forced neighbors and ritual experts to do their bidding. The purported male- volents, on the other hand, were the usual suspects of African witchcraft–men and women of conspicuous, unshared wealth–although those who were physically attacked were overwhelmingly old and, often, weak and defenseless.

Let us take a closer look at the most extended case recorded by the Witchcraft Commission, the Ha-Madura Witch-Hunt. The defendants, who ranged from fourteen to thirty- five, were charged with having murdered an elderly woman by “necklacing.” They were also accused of attacking two others, both of advanced age. Witnesses recounted that, in the afternoon of 21 March 1990, “the youths” of Madura–most of them unemployed, most of them with little to do– gathered near the Primary School. After speakers urged them to exterminate the witches in their midst, they went off in search of suspects. Neither of their first two intended victims was home, so they torched their property and assaulted a man suspected of raising the alarm. They then moved on to the yard of the deceased, doused her with petrol, and set her alight. She fled across her maize field and crawled through a fence, where the crowd caught her. At this point she wailed: “Why are you killing me, my grandchildren?” Her assailants responded: “Die, die you witch. We can’t get work because of you!” Garlanding her with a rubber tyre, they applied more petrol and ignited her one final time.

There could hardly be a more bald statement of intergenerational antagonism. For these rural youth, “mass action” might have delivered the vote. But it brought them no nearer to the wealth and empowerment that the overthrow of apartheid was supposed to yield. Quite the re- verse. Trade sanctions had dramatically increased unemployment, especially in the countryside.

The cruel irony of South Africa is that, as one of the world’s last colonies, it won its right to secular modern nationhood just as global processes were compromising the sovereignty and material in- tegrity of the nation-state, sui generis. Multinational capital is capricious: once apartheid had end- ed, it found cheaper, more tractable labor, and less violence, elsewhere. As a result, many corporations did not return and money flowed in other directions. What is more, alterations in the world economy during the 1990s–the dramatic rise of tourism and post-Fordist production, of the entertainment industry, the electronic market place, and new-age commerce–have made few inroads into the “backveld.” They engage uneasily, or not at all, with rural enterprise, and are experienced primarily as stories-from-the-city or as traces on television screens. The new era, it is true, has raised the living standards for sections of the African middle class. Very visibly. But, overall, work is harder to come by and poverty is still dire.

It is no coincidence that the most spirited witchfinding occurs where conditions are most straitened. Also, where raw inequality has become most blatant. The north is, aggregatively, the poorest province in the country, and the remote regions of the northwest come not far behind. Agriculture, much of it on a pitiably modest scale, continues to be practiced, largely by women and, to a lesser extent, by older men. Petty business–beer-brewing, sex work, wood-cutting, thatching, carpentry, refashioning the detritus of used-up commodities for resale–supplements many household budgets. On the other hand, the migrant wages that had long subsidized faltering agrarian endeavors, and had granted young males a modicum of autonomy, are now diminishing. Concomitantly, cash resources vested in the elderly, like pensions, have risen in relative value; as disposable income, they are the object of fierce jealousy and mystical activity (cf Ritchken 1994:361). In addition, the establishment of the ethnic “homelands” under apartheid facilitated and funded the emergence of small new elites marked by their palpable prosperity and con- spicuous consumption. And so, in towns like Madura, new material distinctions, of widely variable magnitude, have become discernible among neighbors. Such differences are made incarnate, per- sonified even, in prized commodities: in houses, automobiles, televisions, cell-phones. The alleged witch of Madura was the occasional employer of several of her attackers, and sometimes let them watch her TV. The petrol that consumed her was seized from the few local men who now could afford cars.

There is, in short, a good deal of evidence of widespread anxiety about the production and reproduction of wealth, an anxiety that translates into bitter generational opposition. Witch- hunting youth in the Northern Province acted much like an age-regiment in Sotho-Tswana society of old. Ridding the countryside of baloi, witches, was all of a piece with the other forms of “mass action” that had sought to subvert an oppressive social order; not long ago, it should be noted, urban “comrades” demonized the parental generation as passive “sellouts” to colonial oppression. Indeed, the war against mystical evil fused, in a synthetic of set of practices, political and ritual means of both recent and older vintage. In addition to singing songs of freedom as they carried out their exorcisms, “comrades” also intoned one of the best known local circumcision chants.

Age, of course, is a relational principle. The youthful comrades forged their identity against the foil of a sinister, secretive, gendered gerontocracy; significantly, those attacked were referred to as “old ladies,” even when they were men (p.211). The antisocial greed of these predators was epitomized in the idea of unnatural production and reproduction, in images of debauched, un- generative sexuality. The Commission, for example, makes repeated reference to the inability of witches to bear children, to their red vaginas, and to their “rotten” sperm. Killing “perverts” by fire–itself a vehicle of simultaneous destruction and rebirth–bespoke the effort to engender a more propitious, constructive, mode of reproduction.

Threats to local viability, as we said before, were also associated with the creation of the zombie workforce. Thus the following fragment from a case record:

On a certain day, [when] the accused arrived, [people] shouted from the street that she is a witch with a shrinked [sic] vagina. They said she had killed people by lightning and has a drum full of zombies. They also said that her son “Zero” has no male seed and could not impregnate a woman.

It is hard to imagine a more pointedly transparent portrait of perversion: of the zero-sum economy of witchcraft and its negation of life-giving material, sexual, and social exchange. In place of fertile procreation, the witch makes ghost workers out of the able-bodied, cannibalizing others, and robbing the rising generation of a legitimate livelihood and the wherewithal to marry or establish their own families; indeed, to become fully adult and to reproduce.

Precisely this sense of illegitimate production and reproduction pervades youthful discourses of witchcraft in much of South Africa. Many young blacks blame their incapacity to ensure a future for themselves on an aged elite that controls the means of generating wealth without working. Their concern is underscored, with particular clarity, by the preoccupation with zombies, long a feature of Caribbean vodoun but new here. Testimony to a diasporic flow of electronic images–but evocative of a state of “living-death” (sefifi) described by early missionaries to the Tswana–zombies have been spliced into local mystical economies and have taken on the color of their surroundings. As one of our opening fragments suggests, they are missing persons who are thought to have been killed and revived by witchcraft. These living dead exist to toil for their creators. Bereft of tongues to give voice to their affliciton, they are believed to work after dark, mainly in agriculture, but can also be magically transported to urban centers to accrue riches for their owners. In this era of increasingly impermanent employment, there are even “part-time zombies”: people who wake up exhausted in the morning, having served unwittingly in the noc- turnal economy to feed the greed of a malign master.

Although they have no tongues, zombies speak of a particular time and place. The end of apartheid, as we said, was in part the product of a global moment, one in which the machinations of multinational capital and the fall of the Soviet Union drastically restructured older polarities. When black South Africans at last threw off their colonial constraints, much of the rest of the con- tinent had already learned the harsh truth about the postcolonial predicament, having experienced unprecedented marginalization and economic hardship. Or, at the very least, striking new distinctions of wealth and privation. Such conditions disrupt grand narratives of progress. But they do not necessarily dispel their animating desires; to the contrary, they may feed them. Hence the situation that Roitman (n.d.), writing of the Cameroun, describes as “negotiat[ing] modernity in a time of austerity.” In these circumstances there tends to be an expansion both in techniques of producing value and in the meaning of wealth itself. It is an expansion which often breaks the bounds of legality, making crime, as well as magic, a mode of production open to those who lack other means. Which is why violence, as an instrument of income redistribution, is such a ubiquitous feature of postcolonial economies, in Africa and elsewhere.

The zombie is the nightmare citizen of this parallel, refracted modernity. Reduced from humanity to raw labor power, he is stored up in petrol drums or sheds like tools. His absent pre- sence suggests a link to otherwise inexplicable accumulation. Being solely for the benefit of its owner, the toil of the living dead is pure surplus value: it has, as Marx (1976:325) might put have it, “all the charms of something created out of nothing.” Zombie production is thus an apt image of the inflating occult economies of postcolonial Africa. As spectral capital, it will be evident why these forms of extraction are typically associated with older people of apparent means; why they are thought to have multiplied as wage work has become scarce. Not only does the rise of a phan- tom proletariat consume the life force of others. By yielding profit without cost, it destroys the labor market, conventional patterns of reproduction, and the legitimate prospects of “the commu- nity” at large.

But zombie production is merely one means among several. Recall that there has also been an increase in the incidence of so-called “ritual murder,” of killing for the purpose of harvesting body parts. Hence our opening fragment about eyes for sale in Johannesburg. As the Witchcraft Commission explains:

These body parts are used…to secure certain advantages from the ancestors. A skull may be built into the foundation of a new building to ensure a good business, or a brew con- taining human parts may be buried where it will ensure a good harvest.

These practices seem to have been relatively rare in the past. But now a great deal of evidence confirms that, in this domain too, market forces have stimulated production; indeed, newspapers publish the going rate for various parts: R5,000 for testicles, R1,000 for a kidney, R2,000 for a heart ($1=R4.85). This commerce seems to be eroding conventional social, cultural, and moral margins; in December 1994, a white policeman was charged with having removed the insides of a cadaver at a state mortuary in Johannesburg for retailing as medicine. Meanwhile, in different parts of the country, two young couples, both jobless and expecting babies, confessed in court to slaying young girls for their organs. These young people acted on the understanding that the oc- cult economy feeds the malevolent ambitions of their elders, to whom the purloined parts were to be retailed: already in 1988 it was noted that any disappearance of persons, especially children, was “immediately linked to businessmen and politicians” by young activists.

We reiterate, yet again, that the traffic in human organs is neither new nor restricted to South Africa; that there is now a global economy in body parts, which flow from poor to rich coun- tries, from south to north, east to west, young to old; that some national governments are widely rumored to raise revenue by farming corneas and kidneys for export; that, from the Andes through Africa to East Asia, mysterious malevolents are believed to extract blood, fat, members, and living offspring from the unsuspecting. At issue in these panics about corporeal free enterprise is a fear of the creeping commodification of life itself. Among Sotho and Tswana, as elsewhere, people speak, ever more apprehensively, of a relentless process that erodes the inalienable humanity of persons, rendering them susceptible as never before to the reach of the market.

Notice the emphasis on distance. The translocal dimension of dealings in the occult economy is crucial to the way in which its workings are understood in rural South Africa. Throu- ghout the north, people ponder the interplay of mobility and compression in the production of new forms of wealth. These appear to be a consequence of the capacity to siphon goods, people, and images across space in no time at all. Movement, especially instant movement, adds value. But how? How are its mechanics to be mastered? As South Africa casts off its pariah status and seeks ever greater integration with world markets, the growing velocity of long-range transaction is dis- cernible all around. In the rural Northwest, as we observed earlier, its impact is made manifest in, among other things, the rapildy growing interest in Satanism.

Once more, however, a planetary phenomenon takes on a strikingly particular local form. Among rural Tswana, discourses of the diabolical center widely upon the most recent in a long line of missions from “overseas,” the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God of Brazil. This new Protestant denomination promises instant goods and gratification to those who embrace Christ and denounce Satan; it is also rumored to issue charmed credit cards which register no debt whatsoever. Here Pentecostalism meets neoliberal enterprise: the chapel is, literally, a store-front in a shopping precinct. It holds services during business hours, appealing frankly to mercenary motives, mostly among the young. Tabloids in its windows feature radiant witnesses speaking of the employment, health, and wealth that followed entry into the Church; eloquent testimonies, these, to rapid material returns on a limited spiritual investment. The ability to deliver in the here and now, again a potent form of space-time compression, is given as the measure of a truly global God. Bold advertisements for BMWs and lottery winnings adorn the altar, under the legend: “De-light in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalms 37:4). The immediacy of this, of religion at its most robustly concrete, resonates with a pragmatic strain long evident in black Christianity in South Africa.

For those middle-class Tswana schooled in a more ascetic Protestantism, however, the hordes that pack the store front are being lured by the devil; this notwithstanding his ostentatious denunciation. With the radical reorientation of local contours of desire and despair, of wealth and inequality, the diabolical has been invested with provocative and ambiguous powers. Its interven- tion into everyday life is hotly debated. We were ourselves witness to an intriguing argument among history graduate students at the University of the Northwest: Is the Universal Church the work of the Antichrist or a vindication of Max Weber? To be sure, if Satan did not exist, crusading Christianity would have had to invent him: in order to assume its global mandate, neo-Pentecos- talism summons up a world-endangering antagonist to conquer. Like the Universal Church–with its page on the world wide web–Satanism is a globalizing discourse: “The devil and his demons,” it says on that web page, “have been deceiving people all over the world.”

Remember, in this respect, the television programs we mentioned earlier; the ones in whi- ch “reformed” devil worshippers spoke to callers. When asked to explain the relationship of the diabolical to boloi (witchcraft), one laconic young man said, in a mix of Setswana and English: “Satanism is high-octane witchcraft. It is more international.” By such means are old ideas extended and novel tropes domesticated to meet altered conditions. These devil worshippers were rumored to travel far and wide, fuelling their accumulation of riches with human blood. The “high octane” petrochemical image suggests that the basis of their potency was a capacity, as David Har- vey (1990:31) puts it, to “ride the tiger of time-space compression”: to move instantly, that is, between the parochial and the translocal–here and there, then and now–thus to weave the connections of cause-and-effect that hold the key to the mysteries of this new, postcolonial epoch.


Perhaps the overriding irony of the contemporary age–this Age of Futilitarianism, in which the promises of late capitalism run up against postmodern pessimism–is how unanticipated it was by modern social thought. None of the grand narratives of the orthodox social sciences came anywhere near predicting the sudden transformation of the twentieth-century international order, the fall of the Soviet Union, the crisis of the nation-state, the rapid deterritorialization of culture and society, the ascendance of an unevenly regulated global economy. The surprising recent past of South Africa is one refraction of this world-historical process. Here, too, the end came unexpectedly.

Apartheid might not have ended in a bloodbath or a race war. But the birth of the “new” nation has nonetheless been tempestuous. Most perplexing, to many, is the apparently post- political character of the turbulence. Violence, by common agreement, is epidemic. Almost none of it, though, is clothed in an ideological agenda, a social vision, a political program. Not yet. Which is why, perhaps, it is traumatizing the populace at large. The new nightmare is of street terror run amok; of a state in retreat; of crime as routinized redistribution; of police unwilling to protect ordinary citizens, preferring to profit from the privatization of force and the sale of arms; of a new topography of public space marked by few zones of safety and many of danger; of gated communities and uncivil city scapes contested by youth gangs, Islamic vigilantes, drug dealers, car- jackers; of an economy, as much underground as above board, in which “new” black bureaucrats and businessmen, politicians, celebrities, and criminals grow rich while the rest struggle to survive.

This, we stress, is a popular nightmare, a fast materializing mythos for the post-revolutionary moment. Sociological reality, as always, is much more complex, much less coherent. Not all is apocalypse. In the wake of apartheid, all sorts of legitimate new ventures flourish alongside older ones. From the quiet backyards of rural homesteads through the teeming taxi ranks of large “townships” to sedate urban corporations, inventive African entrepreneurs “do business.” Postcolonial commerce ruptures and dissolves long-standing racial lines in its millennial pursuit of virgin markets. A politics of optimism is actively purveyed by the ANC, not altogether in vain; refreshingly, the media envisage a future in which black is not bleak. What is more, some forms of cultural production–often exhilaratingly experimental–thrive just off the meanest of streets. Still, the fright nightmare persists. Indeed, it grows increasingly baroque, medieval almost, as it is represented with ever greater facticity.

Reports of escalating witchcraft and ritual murder, of zombies and satanism, must be situated on this restless terrain. The specter of mystical violence run wild is a caricature of post-apartheid “liberty”: the liberty to transgress and consume in an unfettered world of desire, cut loose from former political, spatial, moral, sexual, and material constraints. Socialist imaginings, like utopian ideas of a new society, falter. In their place reigns the rhetoric of the market, of free- dom as the right to exercise choice through spending or voting or whatever, of personhood as constructed largely through consumption. Talk in the public sphere about violence gives voice to a pent up lust for all that apartheid denied, from iconic objects (notably, the BMW) and an omnivorous sexuality to extravagant self-fashionings and the flamboyant sense of independence communicated by the cell phone. But it also evokes a world in which ends far outstrip means, in which there is a high velocity of exchange and a relatively low volume of production. And yet, we repeat, it is a world in which the possibility of rapid enrichment, of amassing a fortune by largely invisible means, is always palpably present.

The preoccupation with the occult is closely connected to all this. At one level, it is about the desire and the effort to discover the secret of those invisible means; at another, it is concerned to stem the spread of a macabre, visceral economy founded on the violence of extraction and abst- raction (i) in which the majority are kept poor by the mystical machinations of the few; (ii) in which employment has dwindled because of the creation of a virtual labor force from the living dead; (iii) in which profit depends on learning the secret of compressing space and time, on cannibalizing bodies, and on making production into the spectral province of people of the night; (iv) in which the old are accused of aborting the natural process of social reproduction–and youth, reciprocally, are demonized. The fact that none of this is truly new makes it no less sig- nificant to those for whom it has become an existential reality.

Witch hunts are, among other things, instruments of social divination, dramatic discourses of discovery in the public sphere, whose unspoken object it is to yield explanations, to impress cla- rity on bodies and persons. That ambiguity concerns many aspects of the “new” South Africa: the rights of citizens, the role of the state, the significance of cultural identity and of social difference, the meaning and the point of post-apartheid politics, the infinitely complex articulations of race, class, and ethnicity; the legitimacy of an economic order that has sanctioned dramatic polarities of wealth and caused intense jealousy among neighbors. But, most of all, there is perplexity–in this Hobbesian universe where everything appears at once possible and impossible–about the very nature of human subjects: about their secret appetites, about dark practices of the heart that show themselves in spectacular new fortunes and orgies of consumption.

Here, then, are the answers to our questions. It will be clear now why, in the South African postcolony, there has been such a dramatic intensification of appeals to enchantment. And why it is, in a world alleged to be filled with witches and ritual murders and zombies, that generational antagonisms loom so large. The rise of occult economies here and elsewhere in postcolonial, postrevolutionary societies seems overdetermined. For one thing, these tend to be societies in which the promise of the free market confronts the realities of neoliberal economics; of unpredictable shifts in centers of production and labor markets; of the difficulties of exercising stable control over space, time, or the flow of money; of an end to old political alignments, without any clear lines, beyond pure interest, along which new ones take shape; of uncertainty surrounding the proper nature of civil society. Such are the corollaries of the rise of millennial capitalism as they are felt in much of the contemporary world. Perhaps they will turn out to be en- tirely transitory, a mere passing moment, in the longue dureé. But this makes them no less mo- mentous now.

Which takes us to our final question, our final point. What is the relevance of our narrative for the present and future of the discipline, for a postcolonial anthropology of the global age?

“Globalism” and “globalization,” as everyone knows, have become tropes for our times. Like all catch-words and clichés, they are cheapened by over-use and under-specification, by confusing an expansive metaphor for an explanatory term. As a result, much of what is currently being written about them in the social sciences is Anthropology Lite, fact-free ethnography whose realities are more virtual than its virtues are real. At the same time, it is important not to overreact: not to treat anything labelled “global” either as a feckless fashion or as a threat to the existence of a discipline traditionally concerned with the parochial; this last by dissolving all things culturally contingent and close to the ground into the great Eurocentric solvent of late ca- pitalism. In point of fact, the processes involved in the rise of novel forms of planetary integration and compression–especially in the electronic economy, in mass communications, in flexitime flows of labor and capital, in the instantaneous circulation of signs and images, in the translocal commodification of culture, in the diasporic politics of identity–challenge us by re-presenting all the most fundamental question of our craft: how do human beings construct their life-worlds at the shifting intersections of here, there, elsewhere, everywhere.

This, finally, is a problem of scale: of determining, in respect of any given ethnography– contemporary, historical, or both–the stretch of relations, concrete processes, imaginings, spatial planes commensurate to its realization. “Locality” is not everywhere, nor for every purpose, the same thing; sometimes it is a family, sometimes a town, sometimes a nation, sometimes a flow or a field, sometimes a continent or even the world; often it lies at the point of articulation among two or more of these things. Similarly, translocal, planentary connections and forces do not impinge equally or in like manner on all aspects of human thought, action and interaction. In this respect, it is important not to forget that “the local” and “the global” do not describe received empirical realities. They are analytic constructs whose heuristic utility depends entirely on the way in which they are deployed to illuminate historically specific phenomena. Which is why we have taken such pains here to trace the causal determinations of the occult economy in post-apartheid South Africa across generations and genders, villages and provinces and regions, and a nation-state intransition–not to mention along the labile vectors of a post-Fordist, millennial economy.

As all this implies, there is little to be gained any longer from avoiding the methodological challenge posed by the global moment, a strategy effected, on the part of some anthropologists, by retreating back into the local. This move is typically rationalized by affirming, sometimes in an unreconstructed spirit of romantic neoprimitivism, the capacity of “native” cultures to remain ass- ertively intact, determinedly different, in the face of a triumphal, homogenizing world capitalism. Apart from being empirically questionable, this conjures up an anachronistic, ahistorical idea of culture. Of culture transfixed in opposition to capitalism. It is also to misrepresent the hybrid, dialectical, historically evanescent character of all contemporary social designs.

Here lies one future for anthropology, at least as the discipline looks from the vantage of the South African postcolony. It is to interrogate the production, in imaginative and material prac- tice, of those compound political, economic, and cultural forms by which human beings create community and locality and identity, especially on evanescent terrains; in terms of which they fabricate social realities and power relations and impose themselves on their lived environments; through which space and time are made and remade, and the boundaries of the local and the glob- al are actualized. Observe the stress on the active voice: from this perspective, the epistemic objects of our enquiry are no longer nouns–culture, society, institutions, or whatever–but compound verbs describing the construction and deconstruction of more-or-less stable practices, conventions, forms, commodities, abstractions. As we have before (1992), even the most overdetermined, most complex, most inchoate of world-historical forces–colonialism, the global market, cyberspace, “late” capitalism–take shape in sociocultural processes that inhabit particular places during particular periods in particular persons. Without human agents, without specified locations and moments and actions, realities are not realized, objects not objectified, nothing takes place, the social is not socialized, the present has no presence.

These locations and moments, people and practices–to return one last time to the spirit of Max Gluckman–comprise the fragments from which an anthropology of millennial capitalism and the culture of neoliberalism is to be constructed; from which we may recuperate, by positing imaginative sociologies and legible processes, the mechanisms by which the local is globalized and the global localized. For in these processes lies an explanation for the most parochial of things, like the new occult economy in South Africa. Also for the most universal. Like the fact that enchant- ment, far from slipping away with the resolute march of modernity, seems everywhere on the rise.

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