Policing Culture, Cultural Policing

Law and Social Order in Postcolonial South Africa

Publication Date: 06/03/2004

Journal: Law and Social Inquiry

Reissue Date:

Page start: 513

Page End: 546

Volume: 3

Edition: 29


Our objective here is somewhat unusual. Rather than an ethnographic analysis or a theoretical discussion, what follows is an extended reflection on a research endeavor still in its early stages. We are concerned to share the methodological and conceptual questions raised, ab initio, by the effort to interrogate an unusually perplexing phenomenon. In so doing, we transgress the received distinction between two genres: the grant proposal and the scholarly essay. By means of this hybrid, however, we seek to open a new aperture onto a global issue at once consequential and difficult to pin down: the contradictions that manifest themselves in postcolonies when, under the impact of neoliberal capitalism, constitutionalism, recourse to law and popular justice are fetishized – and when the future of the nation-state comes to depend on struggles over inimical species of rights and entitlements.

The study of which we speak grows out of a spectacular rise, during the 1990s, of witch burnings in the northern provinces of South Africa. Several aspects of the phenomenon are stri- king: the fact that, while they began in the last years of apartheid, these killings have intensified dramatically in the postcolonial period; that they are a response to populist fears of an alarming increase in witchcraft practices, zombie-conjuring, and the traffic in body parts; that they are perpetrated largely by youth in the cause both of the common good and of individual aspiration; and, most of all for present purposes, that the punishment of alleged evil-doers has involved distinctly hybrid cultural styles of informal justice.

We have sought elsewhere (1999) to explain the unusual escalation in occult-related violence here. Note, in this respect, that we do not ourselves pass judgment as to whether there has actually been an “epidemic” of witchcraft and other forms of magical practice in the nor- thern provinces. Locally, however, people are wont to say that more cases of ritual murder have come to courts in recent years than ever before. They also point to more confessions of Sa- tanism, some of them in dramatic media revelations; more press reports of zombies, some of them replete with photographs and “eye witness” accounts; more confirmatory testimony given by ritual experts about the nefarious behavior of prominent people. All of which has led to a widespread sense of crisis in the countryside.

While the state has been forced to react to this “crisis” – both to the belief that there is an epidemic of evil about and to the “vigilante” violence it has sparked – it has found it hard to do so by legal means. Indeed, so agitated has been the moral panic in the Northern Province that one of the first things done by the African National Congress (ANC), after it came to power in 1994, was to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murder. Its report (see below) posed a stark paradox by presenting its findings in two inimical voices. One evoked the spirit of legal universalism: it called for rigorous prosecution of those who “took the law into their own hands” by attacking suspected witches. The other spoke the language of cul- tural relativism: the criminalization of witchfinding, it said, was incompatible with the pervasive African belief – shared by many state functionaries – in the actuality of witchcraft itself. By mid- 1998, the recently established Occult-Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services had set up a national workshop on the forensics of occult-related crime scenes. But questions were raised about the constitutional status of the Unit: did not its very existence presuppose the illegality of the cultural convictions of many citizens?1 Later that year, a Witchcraft Summit was convened to discuss the problem tout court. It was attended by prominent politicians and public intellectuals – and (then) Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. Soon thereafter, in August 1999, the media took to the air on the issue: SABC began a 13-part TV series, Ke Bona Boloi? (“Is This Witchcraft?”) which addressed the threat of occult activities to civic order.


The particular form taken by this confrontation between legal universalism and cultural relativism lies at the core of our concerns here. It is made even more explosive by another, his- torically specific tension. On one hand, the “new” South Africa is founded on a distinctly moder- nist idea of the nation-state: of a polity with a strong sense of unity and collective interest, with a deep investment in democracy and human rights, with a government which sustains a monopoly over the legitimate means of force. It is an ideal underpinned by an almost fetishized faith in constitutionality and the rule of law. On the other hand, despite the popularity of the ANC, many South Africans believe that the post-apartheid state is failing to ensure the moral and material prosperity of its citizenry, failing to protect it from illegitimate violence, failing to deliver on the promise of rights, failing to unite the postcolony in the face of countervailing cul- tural and ethnic impulses. In the northerly provinces, these sentiments are given expression in community efforts to redefine moral order and to police, by local cultural means, those infrac- tions of the commonweal that escape the oversight of the authorities; most notably those involv- ing the occult. Our objective in this study, then, is to address four sets of related questions.

First, how exactly are we to understand occult-related violence – violence, that is, again- st alleged perpetrators of magical evil – in this context? As a kind of vigilantism, in which communities “take the law into their own hands” in dealing with people who contravene their norms? As the revenge of the poor against the rich, young against old, male again- st female? Or as a mode of “cultural policing” directed at those held to threaten the well- being of the community itself?

This form of action, whether it be regarded as illegal vigilantism or cultural policing, violates the exclusive control by the state of the legitimate means of force. And so:

Second, how does the state react to community policing of the occult? How do we exp- lain the fact that, despite efforts to criminalize them, such “dangerous” cultural practices are proving decidedly recalcitrant to regulation, posing a stark challenge to the idea of a nation unified under the law?

Occult-related violence may be seen to shade into other local institutions of informal justice – among them, makgotla, urban courts modelled on Sotho-Tswana tribunals; the “trial and pu- nishment” executed in Cape Town “by taxi-drivers with strong community support”;2 the contro- versial activities of Mapogo a Mathamaga, a notorious “vigilante” organization in the north; and, in times past, the “necklacing” of apartheid collaborators by township youth. Is the policing of the occult different because it seems so manifestly “irrational,” because it is clothed-in-culture, because it is sanctioned by appeal to customary moral and legal conventions?

Third, to the extent that occult-related violence contests the state’s monopoly over the means of coercion, what are its implications for the governance of the “new” South Africa? Does its appeal to cultural relativism call into question the Eurocentric ideal of the nation-state? Can cultural relativism and legal universalism coexist? How might postcolonial states adjudicate among the individual rights of citizens, the cultural rights of ethnic groups, and the collective rights of other kinds of community?

The new South African constitution puts individual rights above all else; to wit, it is censured, in some quarters, for its relative disregard of community or cultural rights. But here lies the classic conundrum of the modernist nation-state: if it presumes a unity born of a commitment to univer- sal truths and to One Law, how much cultural relativism can it tolerate? To what extent can it concede legal authority, or the means of violence, to ethnic or religious groups and still retain its sovereignty?

Fourth, to what extent is this a peculiarly South African problem?
Are we merely observing a parochial phenomenon? Or are similar problems manifesting them- selves elsewhere in this ever more global age?

It is our thesis that the “epidemic” of occult-related violence, and the kinds of cultural policing that accompany it, are the product of a structural contradiction at the heart of post- apartheid South Africa, a contradiction also evinced in other postcolonies – especially since 1989, when new liberal democratic constitutions began to give primacy to legal universalism while seeking, simultaneously, to protect cultural heterodoxy.3 These postcolonial polities are all rooted in the modernist ideal of nationhood, an ideal embodied in bills of rights that subordinate difference to a transcendent moral and legal unity. Yet all of them are, in prospect or in fact, challenged by the very pluralism that they embrace: by the entitlement of their subjects to their own vernacular ways and means. When those ways and means transgress the bounds of the commonweal, when they defy the rationalist assumptions on which governance is founded, when they violate the authority of the state, government cannot but intervene. But local “tradi- tions,” especially those involving the occult, are notoriously resistant to regulation; if anything, efforts to police them intensify the assertions of difference out of which they arise in the first place. While the antinomy between universalism and relativism has always been inherent in the nation-state, it has been sharpened of late, on one hand, by an erosion of modernist state power and, on the other, by the rising stakes invested in the cultural politics of identity. This, in part, is why ruling regimes across the world perceive their moral and executive legitimacy to be under increasing threat from “dangerous” customary practices. And from relativist assertions of truth and right. But we are running ahead of ourselves. What we seek to do here is to proceed, dialectically, from the empirical phenomenon with which we are concerned – and the problem of cause-and-effect posed by it – toward the theoretical terms by means of which we may give explanatory account of it.

FRAMING THE PROBLEM: (i) background

On the Archaeology of the African Occult: the crime of witchcraft

Historians and anthropologists have documented the existence of a highly elaborate ar- ray of ideas about witchcraft, sorcery, ritual murder, and divination in southern Africa. These vary across the region. And they have changed markedly over time (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993). Their common features, however, are well-known: most notably, that the African occult is not a form of primitive magicality or “animism”; that, everywhere, it embodies a set of normative convictions about moral order, social value, and material equity; that it provides a matter-of-fact repertoire of “first cause” explanations in the face of human misfortune or natural catastrophe; that, in respect of the latter, its bears epistemic analogy to Western notions of ill-fortune, divine intervention, or even statistical probability; that, as a set of techniques, it tends to be regarded, indigenously, as a species of practical activity whose principles of operation, while not transpa- rent to all, are regularly deployed by those with the necessary power/knowledge.

Occult means have been used, since time immemorial, for socially accepted ends – as when a family employs “medicines” to prosper in its enterprises, to protect its property, or to enhance its fertility. They still are relied upon by many people. Similar means might also be de- ployed by political communities for the collective good. Among Tswana, for example, rain rites were performed periodically during colonial times (Schapera 1971); such rites persist in some places, often in conjunction with Christian prayer (J. Comaroff 1985). These exercises in the oc- cult were conducted under the direction of experts, some of whom acquired great fame. In fact, during the late colonial epoch “traditional healers” were formed into a national association re- cognized by the state; in the “new” South Africa, they are accorded respect by government – to the extent that their ministrations are, under some conditions, covered by medical aid.

Conversely, for as long as there is a documentary record, magical means have been said to be used for antisocial, selfish ends, typically to appropriate the life-force, social wealth, and effects of others. Witches epitomize this mode of destruction. Their activities were widely treated as crimes (Schapera 1970) and were severely punished. On the other hand, the intrinsi- cally ambiguous character of the occult – as a force for either good or ill – is symbolized by ri- tual specialists, who have always been ambivalent figures. While they were usually employed to counter the activities of malevolents, their expertise in the arcane opened them to suspicion: it was widely believed that, at a price, they might be induced to abet evil schemes.

Much has been made of the figure of the witch in Africanist anthropology. The “standar- dized nightmare of the group,” Monica Wilson’s (1951) celebrated aphorism, suggests that the symbolic substance of this figure is determined by a cultural process of inversion: by turning the ethics of communal life on their head. Wilson went on to claim that moral orders are themselves a function of social structure – and that, by extension, so too are patterns of witchcraft accusa- tion. Different social structures yield different modes of transgression, and hence different expectations about the means and ends of magical evil. All of which is to say, after Munn (1986), that witches produce “negative value”: they unravel human relations and moral commu- nities. It was this that persuaded Marwick (1965) to describe allegations of malevolence as a “strain gauge”; to argue, that is, that such allegations occur at critical points of stress in any so- ciety. From this perspective, in sum, witchcraft has both an ethical and a social rationality.

These anthropologies of the African occult, all of them dating back to the colonial era, were written with a specific set of interlocutors in mind: state functionaries, missionaries, set- tlers, and other agents of empire who regarded “native” ideas of witchcraft as primitive, often dangerous, superstitions.4 For its part, the colonial state outlawed accusations of mystical evil (Schapera 1938), treated ritual murder as a common crime (Jones 1951), and liked to think that, under its civilizing influence, vernacular ideas of the occult were disappearing. Beyond the purview of colonizers, however, witchcraft retained a lively salience for most Africans; for many, it still does. Only members of the Christian elite spawned by the mission churches eschewed their existence – at least in public, and even then not all of them. As we noted a moment ago, – the substance of these beliefs varied across space and time. For now, following what we have already said, a few summary points, focused on South Africa, will suffice:

(i) Witch beliefs and practices saturated everyday life. The presence of mystical evil, and the need to protect against it, was taken for granted; most rural people, and many in town, consulted doctors regularly to divine the cause of affliction, to guard against at- tack, to give a competitive edge over rivals, and to ensure their well-being. The scope of activities subject to magical attention has increased over the generations: it now covers such things as passing school and university examinations, success in job applications, and the effort to win elections.

(ii) For those who believe in it, witchcraft is the presumed first cause of misfortune. Un- less another explanation is found for an affliction, the activities of a witch are blamed.

(iii) Symptoms of witchcraft have always been said to be fairly nonspecific; they include physical illness, delusion, the death of a child or livestock, loss of work, the disappea- rance of possessions, crop failure, and sudden, inexplicable misfortune. However, its prime effects are often those associated with aborted reproduction and production.

(iv) Human organs – especially of children, cut out while the victim is alive, or those ta- ken from fresh corpses – were, and still are, held to make potent medicines. At the same time, ritual murder was rare in the colonial period (see e.g. Jones 1951).

(v) According to local oral history, occult techniques have always been both desired and dreaded: people want access to them – and yet fear anyone who has it. Tautologically, a person of great wealth, especially wealth gained by invisible means, is liable to be sus- pected of having dabbled in the arcane; s/he will almost certainly inspire moral opprobrium and, simultaneously, the uneasy respect accorded to the powerful.

(vi) Indigenous ideas of witchcraft and healing have come to live easily with Christianity, even though they were demonized by colonial missions. This is owed, in part, to the relativizing tendencies of the vernacular cultures of South Africa; unlike post-enlighten- ment European epistemology, they posited no contradiction in the coexistence of more than one order of knowledge in the world. As a result, the African occult is an evanes- cent hybrid of iconography and ideology, of signs and practices.

(vii) Occult movements, particularly outbreaks of witch-finding, occurred intermittently in Africa during the colonial period, perhaps the best known being that described by Ri- chards (1935) in Northern Rhodesia. But such outbreaks were rare in South Africa.

It is against this cultural archaeology that the recent rise of occult-related violence, and the moral panic to which it is a response, must be read. Before addressing the contemporary mo- ment, however, let us turn briefly to the emergence of the “new” South Africa.

The Making of the New South Africa: legality, identity politics, and the question of youth

The fall of apartheid, and the rise of the new South Africa, is one of the great liberation narratives of the 20th century. The official story – often told in black and white, washed clean of its complexities – speaks of an unremitting struggle, of untainted heroes and unvarnished hopes, of the turning back of history on itself, of a post-racist future of infinite possibility. As Ro- bins (1998, 9) notes, this “heroic nationalist narrative” was sundered by often angry, often poig- nant, occasionally revisionist evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose task it was to lay some very restless ghosts; also by such things as the controversial film Apartheid did not Die, made by John Pilger in 1998, and Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull (1998), an agonistic reflection on the past and the difficulties of recuperating its “truths.”

If the past is proving more elusive than it first seemed, so is the present: the political, economic, and cultural sociology of the postcolony, still in its infancy, is also a matter of ani- mated public debate. A few features of that contested sociology are especially relevant here.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the emergence of the “new” South Africa is the way in which it reversed the teleology of the anti-apartheid struggle. That struggle was grounded in a vision of African socialism; or, rather, visions of anti-capitalism, since the spectrum of ideologies that congealed in the liberation movements was strikingly broad. Indeed, the founding document in the fight against white domination, the Freedom Charter of 1956, undertook to nationalize major industries and to mandate a state-directed, welfare-freighted economy (see e.g. Walshe 1971; Lodge 1983). And yet, from the moment it took office, the ANC, constrained by its perception of global economic realities, has committed itself unequivocally to neoliberal capitalism (Sharp 1998, 245). It has courted global corporations, sought foreign investment, en- forced wage restraint, and reigned in the labor unions. Many blacks who believed that the new regime would deliver jobs, housing, wealth, and well-being, now accuse it of not meeting its promises, of favoring the powerful over the poor, of being rife with corruption, of allowing crime to run rampant, of failing to ensure a future for its youth. Middle class whites and the national media make similar complaints: that the wealth gap is widening dangerously, that unem- ployment is even higher than the unofficial 38% to which the state admitted in the late 1990s, that unstable labor conditions are discouraging investment, that urban violence is scaring off tourists, and so on. So much so that, in 1998, the press spoke of imminent economic “melt- down” – although, since then, public opinion on the matter has become more nuanced.

Whether or not this alarmist scenario turns out to be justified, the anxieties are real en- ough. What is more, they are deeply implicated in the occult-related violence across the north- erly provinces. At the same time, there is more to the sociology of the “new” South Africa than a precarious economy. Three features of that sociology are noteworthy for present purposes.

(i) the culture of constitutionalism, legality, and rights:

Among the most protracted, contentious processes in the construction of the postcolony was the writing of its constitution. The document itself is remarkable for its sheer scope. Emphatically modernist, Eurocentric, and liberal – individual rights take precedence over all other claims – it does nonetheless protect “traditional beliefs.” The faith in the capacity of this constitution to resolve social problems by appeal to legalities verges on fetishism: the Constitutional Court is presented with an extraordinarily broad range of issues on which to adjudicate. Likewise, other courts have to deal almost daily with unprecedented forms of conflict arising out of cultural difference.

The tolerance of the new constitution for “traditional beliefs” – which, after all, are held by the majority of South Africans – raises several pressing issues. The most ob- vious is whether, and in what form, indigenous ideas of the occult are to be recognized by the state and with what implications (i) for the treatment of accused witches and (ii) for those who take action against them. Recall that witchcraft allegations were outlawed by colonial governments. The prospect of admitting them into law – efforts are currently being made to draft a new Witchcraft Act – has consequences that are only beginning to be understood; apart from all else, those who presume the reality of the African occult, and who see witches as anti-constitutional, antisocial figures par excellence, are skeptical that any law might keep them in check. More immediately, however, the consti- tutional protection of custom raises a number of general problems. Are cultural rights held by persons or ethnic groups? And what happens when such rights violate those of individuals? Add into the mix a great deal of popular criticism against the constitution for not protecting communities – note, not necessarily cultural communities – against crime, corruption, and avarice, and it is clear that there is room for serious conflict over the proportional significance and articulation of different kinds of rights. This conflict has profound material and ideological implications for the future of South Africa.

(ii) the rainbow nation and the rise of identity politics:
The dominant ideological trope in the fight against the old regime – indeed, its final objective for many – was “nonracialism.” Intellectuals have long argued about the meaning of the concept; nor was it accepted by all anti-apartheid organizations (see Gerhard 1978). Still, it featured prominently in the Eurocentric ideal of the nation-state to which the ANC aspired: South Africa was to be a “rainbow” nation, one that made no distinctions of color or creed as it fashioned a strong sense of unity to embrace the cul- tural traditions of its polyethnic population.

Notwithstanding the official narrative of nation-building, postcoloniality, as we have already intimated, has been accompanied by a vigorous politics of difference, of identities seeking to assert collective interests, even to reinvent themselves. Often moreover, such claims are made by appeal to primordial affiliations, not least by “peop- les” whose ethnogenesis dates to the colonial epoch. In the upshot, the accommodation of their life-ways within the post-apartheid polity has become controversial; to wit, it is just this that frames the debate now joined over “traditional” practices deemed danger- ous by the state and by others who do not share in them.

The waxing politics of identity in South Africa may be read as an effect of local processes: either as a legacy of the colonial past or as a reaction to postcolonial circum- stances, in which the mobilization of collective interest, mandated in the name of culture, seems the only available protection against the overwhelming force of the market and a new ruling class. On the other hand, it may be interpreted as an outworking of the rise of a neoliberal capitalist order which appears everywhere to have intensified identity poli- tics. These, as it turns out, these are not alternatives. They are conditions of each other’s possibility. We shall return to them.

(iii) the youth question:
Public discourse in contemporary South Africa, as in many other places, is deeply concerned with the “problem” of youth” (Comaroff and Comaroff n.d.[a]). This “prob- lem,” fundamentally, boils down to the “challenge” of making young blacks – many of whom were brutalized by the old regime, more of whom have been left un(der)employed by the new one – into “responsible” citizens. The nightmare citizens of the postcolony are liberation fighters who have turned their skills to illicit ends; without the prospect of a secure livelihood, or the means of becoming fully adult, they are commonly assumed to be the material from which violent, vengeful outlaws are made.

NGOs, churches, and overseas donors have introduced innumerable small self- help projects, built community centers and sports clubs, and established training prog- rams in order to address the problem. The youths we interviewed saw little value in such projects. For them, there is only one solution: regular jobs and incomes. Even in the remote countryside, they were quick to point out that the “new” South Africa has made some people very rich. In a rapaciously consumerist culture, where the politics of desire is measured in the possession of commodities, those without are constantly confronted with their privation. As we shall see, this sense of privation manifests itself explicitly in occult-related violence.

Clearly, these aspects of the “new” South Africa constitute only a small part of its postcolonial sociology. As we have said, however, they chart the context in which an occult economy, driven largely by youth, has arisen. We now move from background to foreground.

FRAMING THE PROBLEM: (ii) foreground

The Rise of the Postcolonial Occult Economy: from global capitalism to local illegality5
The Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders in the Northern Province was set up in 1995 to deal with a growing sense of crisis in the countryside. A melan- ge of eyewitness evidence, case records, observations, and recommendations, its Report6 calls for tight control of occult-related violence, including a possible return of the death penalty. But, it notes, most Africans regard magical attacks as normal, everyday events – a reality incompati- ble with European law, which criminalizes witchfinding. It adds also that the majority of black po- lice believe in witchcraft and are reluctant to intervene when suspects are attacked (see below). The Report concludes that there is no clear answer to the legal problem; nor does it dispute the facticity of witchcraft itself. It does, though, advocate means of stemming the brutality with which accused malevolents are hunted down. The urgent tone of the Commission is underscor- ed by a rising demography of violence: from 1985 to 1995, 300 witch-related killings were recor- ded in the North (p.31); in the first half of 1996 there were 676. “[A]s the Province… burn[ed],” as “witchcraft violence and ritual murder” were becoming endemic, “something had to be done, and very fast” (p.i)

There are several ironies here. For one thing, this was a triumphal moment of exodus from colonial bondage. And yet many were convinced that their communities harbored trench- ant human evil, that familiar landscapes were alive with phantasmic forces, that the state had failed to shield them from those forces. For another thing, it was youth, not men in authority, who felt most moved to execute “instant justice” and to cleanse the countryside of malevolence. Singing freedom songs (p.62), they marked Nelson Mandela’s release from prison with a fu- rious spate of witch burnings. All this was fed by a growing fear that some, usually old, people were turning others into zombies: into a virtual army of ghost workers, whose lifeblood fueled an energetic immoral economy beneath the slow rhythms of rural life.

We have already said that none of this is entirely new. In Africa, the colonial encounter gave plenty room for the play of the occult. As this suggests, and it is a point on which we shall expand, witchcraft is a profoundly historical phenomenon. Shifts in the cultural conception of the witch often register the impact of large-scale transformations on local worlds (see e.g. Aus- lander 1993), writing global processes into vernacular vocabularies of cause-and-effect; s/he has a genius for distilling complex social forces into the language of intimate, interpersonal rela- tions. It is this that underlies the intensification of witchfinding in postcolonial South Africa, where it has coincided with a fluorescence of other magical technologies that link the occult, by thoroughly modern means, to the workings of the free market.

Thus ritual murder is said to have become “big business” in the northern provinces. In 1995, for example, rumors spread widely that dismembered corpses had been found in a casi- no freezer in Mmabatho, capital of the Northwest. The casino was built in the apartheid years, when betting and interracial sex, banned in South Africa, were allowed in the ethnic “home- lands.” Here, in the grey interstices of the transnational, whites came to purchase carnal servi- ces and to gamble. In the postcolony, black bodies were again for sale, but in different form; the macabre trade now nested within the orbit of everyday commerce, circulating organs to whom- ever could buy them for dipheko (medicine). Much the same thing was apparent, too, in the allegations that some local entrepreneurs were turning people into working zombies in order to profit from their labor. But more fabulous still were stories about Satanism, held in the North-west to be the most global of occult enterprises. Dabbling in the diabolical was especially attractive 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 of the translocal power of the black arts – among them, an ability to travel great distances at miracu- lous speed to garner wealth at will.

What we have here, then, is an expanded array of enchanted means of producing value. Enchanted yet also ordinary. Witchcraft, money magic, and unnatural death are discussed, al- most every day, in churches and comic strips, on radio and television; newspapers and magazi- nes regularly advertise “dial-in-diviners.” This turn to the mass-media has also spawned innovative ritual technologies. One, an update of water bowl oracles, requires clients to drink an alcoholic potion and watch a white “screen” on which the figures of miscreants take shape; their transmission mimics the manner in which satellite dishes, broadcast networks, and the long-dis- tance magic of witches condense images and sounds from afar. While an adept might help to unscramble the ethereal pictures, these are received directly by his “customers,” who sit in the archetypal posture of family viewing-and-listening.

Who are the actors in these theaters of the banal? Who are the witches? And who kills them? Our evidence shows that young men are the most identifiable perpetrators of occult-rela- ted violence. The purported malevolents, on the other hand, are the usual suspects of African witchcraft – people of conspicuous, unshared wealth and undue influence – although it is old, defenseless females who tend to be attacked; however much they may be rumored to engage in the arcane arts, the rich and powerful are more difficult, more dangerous, to accuse or to assail. In a notorious case recorded by the Witchcraft Commission, “youths” of Madura village, most of them unemployed, killed an elderly woman in the early 1990’s (p.193f). Witnesses recall that, after gathering at the local school – where a noisy agreement was made to extermi- nate all witches in their midst – they went off in search of suspects; echoes, here, of Ashforth’s (2000) thesis that, without apartheid to blame for their misfortunes, South Africans are turning inward to find scapegoats. When they reached the yard of their victim, they doused her with petrol and set her alight. Dying, she cried: “Why are you killing me, my grandchildren?” Her as- sailants responded: “Die, die you witch. We can’t get work because of you!” (p.206, 212).

There could hardly be a balder statement of antipathy between young and old. Given that, for most rural youth, the end of apartheid has brought none of the employment or empow- erment that it had promised, given also that the global economy of desire is experienced in the backveld largely as traces on television screens, it seems non-coincidental that the most spirit- ed witchfinding should occur where conditions are most straitened. And where inequality has become most blatant. The North is the poorest province in the country, with the remote regions of the Northwest not far behind;7 Reconstruction and development has had little impact here. Furthermore, the migrant wages that had once subsidized faltering agrarian endeavors, and had granted young men some autonomy, are now diminishing. Agriculture is still practiced, but most of it by older women on a pitiable scale. Household budgets have often to be buttressed by petty business – brewing, sex work, carpentry, leather craft – much of it erratic. As a result, cash resources vested in the elderly, notably pensions, have risen in value; they are the object of fierce jealousy, criminal assault, and mystical activity. At the same time, the creation of the ethnic homelands under apartheid funded the emergence of small elites, elites marked by ass- ertive patterns of consumption, elites that have been able to take advantage of the few oppor- tunities for enrichment that have lately presented themselves. And so, in places like Madura, new material distinctions have become discernible among neighbors. Such differences are made incarnate in prized commodities: in houses, cars, televisions, cell-phones.

In sum, concerns about wealth in the countryside – about its production, distribution, and scarcity – have been translated into bitter generational, gendered opposition. Young com- rades, their manhood compromised, forge identities against the foil of an emasculating geronto- cracy; significantly, those attacked are called “old ladies,” even when they are men (cf. Ritchken 1995, 344). Their antisocial greed, real or imagined, is epitomized in the idea of unnatural pro- duction and reproduction; also in images of debauched, ungenerative sexuality. The Commis- sion speaks repeatedly of the inability of witches to bear children, of their red vaginas and their “rotten” sperm (cf., again, Ritchken 1995, 325; also 363). Killing such “perverts” by fire evinces the desire, literally, to engender a more propitious, “natural” mode of reproduction.

Threats to local well being, as we said before, were also associated with the creation of a zombie workforce. Zombies, long a feature of Caribbean vodoun, are often said to be new in Africa (Geschiere 1997), although they have local precursors (Junod 1927, 299, 488f; Harries 1994, 221; cf., on Tswana, Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 143). Whatever their source, these nightmare figures have been spliced into vernacular mystical and moral economies. Allegedly killed and revived by witchcraft, they are believed to toil for their creators, usually unrelated neighbors. Bereft of tongues to give voice to their affliction, these living dead 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 jobs, there are even “part-time zombies”: people who are made to serve unwittingly in the deep of the night to feed the greed of a malign master.

Although they have no tongues, zombies speak of a specific time and place. By 1994, when South Africa finally threw off its colonial shackles, much of the continent had learned the harsh truth about the postcolonial predicament, having experienced unprecedented economic hardship. Such conditions disrupt narratives of progress. But they do not necessarily dispel their animating desires. In these circumstances, there tends to be an expansion in modes of producing and redistributing value – modes, like crime and magic, that often break the bounds of legality. Which is why violence, both ordinary and occult, is such a common feature of post- colonies. The living dead are the monstrous citizens of this parallel world. Reduced to raw labor power, their toil is pure surplus value: it has, in Marx’s (1976, 325) phrase, “all the charms of something created out of nothing.” As spectral capital, the zombie is an apt icon of the occult economies of contemporary Africa. The rise of a phantom proletariat, after all, offers a ready explanation for the scarcity of work,for the impotence of youth and the relative wealth of their elders, for the destruction of the labor market, conventional patterns of reproduction, and “the community.” It is also a potent metaphor for the emptiness of democracy sans a substantive right to material well-being.

But zombies are not the only object of moral panic. So-called “muti (medicine) killings” have also been the subject of graphic media accounts; since the early 1990’s, moreover, the press has reported intermittently on the going rate for various organs, making it clear that ritual murder has become highly responsive to market forces.8 We reiterate, again, that this traffic is neither new nor confined to South Africa; that there is a global economy in body parts, which flow from poor to rich countries, from south to north, young to old; that some governments are said to raise revenue by farming corneas and kidneys for export; that, from the Andes through Africa to Asia, mysterious malevolents are alleged to extract blood, fat, members, and living off- spring from the unsuspecting (Frow 1997, White 1997, Scheper-Hughes 1996). Often at issue in these panics about corporeal free enterprise is a fear of the commodification of life itself: of a relentless process that renders human being(s) susceptible as never before to the reach of the market.

Note the stress in all this on movement. Throughout the north, people ponder its signifi- cance in the production of new wealth, which appears hinge on the capacity to siphon goods, persons, and images across space. Mobility adds value. But how? How are its mechanics to be mastered? Among Tswana, it is this question, as much as anything else, that has given rise to – a growing fascination with Satanism, which seems to be enjoying renewed interest in many other places of late, from the east coast of Africa through Britain to the west coast of America (Wright 1994, LaFontaine 1997, Meyer 1999). Discourses of the diabolical center in this part of southern Africa center upon the most recent in a long line of overseas missions, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus) of Brazil, a denomination that promises instant goods and gratification to its members; it is also rumored to issue charm- ed credit cards which register no debt. Here Neo-Pentecostalism meets neoliberalism: one of the early chapels of the Universal Church at the capital of the North West Province was a store- front in a shopping precinct. It held services during business hours, appealing frankly to merce- nary motives, mostly among the young. The ability to deliver fast returns on spiritual in- vestments, itself a potent form of space-time compression (cf. Harvey 1990), is given as the measure of a truly global God. Pictures of BMWs and lottery winners adorn the altar under the legend: “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalms 37:4).

For middle-class Tswana schooled in a more ascetic Protestantism, the crowds that packed the storefront were lured there by the devil – notwithstanding his denunciation by the Church. Nor is this hard to understand. With the radical reorientation of local contours of wealth, desire, and despair, and with the failure of democracy to deliver material returns, the diabolical has taken on provocative, inscrutable powers. Like the mission of the Universal Church, Satan- ism is a globalizing discourse: “The devil,” says the Church website, has “been deceiving peo- ple all over the world.” Recall, in this regard, the TV programs in which “reformed” devil wor- shipers spoke to callers. Asked to compare the diabolical with witchcraft, one youth said,

“Satanism is high octane witchcraft. It is more international.”9 By such means are old ideas ex- tended to meet altered conditions.10 These devil worshipers claimed to have traveled far and wide, fueling the accumulation of riches with human blood. The petrochemical image suggests that the basis of their potency was an ability to move instantly 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.

This returns us to our opening conundrum, albeit now in a slightly different key. Insofar as occult activity is on the rise, at least in the popular imagination, it has evoked a populist im- pulse to punish mystical evildoers; to police them, that is, by available cultural means. Those means, from a modernist legal perspective, are less judicial or just than they are criminal: they involve “informal” modes of divination, “kangaroo” courts, and unregulated, retributive violence. But they are rooted in “traditional” beliefs protected by the constitution, a fact of which the new regime is acutely aware; hence the Witchcraft Summit. How, then, might we expect the state to police the occult? How does it deal with the kinds of cultural policing to which the allege epide- mic of magical evil has given rise?

Policing the occult

The law is no good. The courts don’t believe in witchcraft…They should bring a proven witch into the court room. That would convince them. – Inspector Jackson Gopane
South African Police Service, 1997 11

We have noted that the African occult has long presented a challenge to the modernist rule of law. Colonial administrators, as Fields (1985) shows for Central Africa, were caught in a quandary over the policing of witchcraft. To ignore it was to leave its (often violent) prosecution in the hands of local authorities, a situation incompatible with “civilized” governance. But to out- law magical practices and the means of disciplining them seemed to recognize their reality – and to acknowledge their significance. It also risked introducing legislation that European admi- nistrators could not enforce. What is more, from the “native” viewpoint, curbs on the power of indigenous rulers to bring witches to book rendered their subjects defenseless against mystical attack, a perception that, in times of crisis, contributed to mass witchfinding movements. Not surprisingly then, colonial regimes were inconsistent in dealing with the matter, which sometimes gave impression that they were themselves in thrall to the occult.

In apartheid South Africa, the Witchcraft Suppression Act (1957), an extension of coloni- al law, made it illegal to practice witchcraft, to accuse anyone of doing so, or to use “occult sci- ence” in its detection. While diviners were prosecuted for “sniffing out” suspects, the authorities were more concerned to ensure that offenses under the Act were not tried in customary courts. For many blacks, this limitation of chiefly jurisdiction was a prime instance of the European suppression of African culture; it is often said, in retrospect, to have been responsible for driving magical evil underground. In fact, the reality was more complex: “ritual” offenses were brought to local rulers, albeit in other guises.12 But one thing is clear. The end of apartheid permitted a more overt acknowledgment of witchcraft by ordinary people – and, with it, both an alarming spate of witch burnings and an anguished public debate. Hence the question put by social com- mentator John Matshikiza during a nationally-aired debate on the topic: “How can the nilling be stopped? Must we deny our traditional beliefs, or is there another way?”13 In reducing the conundrum to its bare bones, Matshikiza transposed it into a practical key.

The postcolonial state is seeking “another way.” But, like colonial authorities of old, the ANC has had difficulty in dealing with the challenge posed by communal witch burning to the rule of law. It is hard for any liberal democratic government to put a stop to retributive violence perpetrated under the sign of “traditional” precepts of truth and justice, especially when those precepts enjoy mass support. In South Africa, the matter is made all the more delicate, and the problems of principle, policing, and prosecution all the more acute, by the fact that the consti- tution explicitly embraces cultural relativism and moral pluralism. Under pressure to address the “crisis,” the Minister of Safety and Security pledged, at the Witchcraft Summit of 1998, to discuss it with the cabinet – and to consider making witch killing a “priority crime.”14

This undertaking did little to assuage the moral panic in the countryside. For one thing, it was taken as an admission by the ANC that the state had failed to protect its citizenry from a clear and present danger. For another, it promised to act against the victims of magical evil, not against its perpetrators, criminalizing those who would defend themselves by recourse to traditional ways and means. Even more fundamentally, it ignored the paradox at the core of theCommission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murders, namely, the incommen- surability between a Eurocentric national law founded on liberal principles and vernacular Afri- can beliefs in the occult; beliefs that defy investigation or interrogation under the usual terms of Western legal reason. State functionaries who speak to the issue generally try to resolve this in- commensurability by drawing a clear distinction between culture and violence. Said Seth Nthai, a former Minister of Police, Northern Province, “The people have a right to believe in witchcraft. It does not make them part of `African Darkness’. But [that] cannot be allowed to lead to the killing of others and the destruction of their property.”15 On the face of it, this seems perfectly rea- sonable. To be sure, it is the assumption on which is based the existence, and everyday operations, of the Occult-Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS). In offering their workshops on the forensics of witchcraft, ritual killings, Satanism, and other “dan- gerous” practices – and in going about their routine work – its personnel insist that their busi- ness is not culture but the conviction of common murderers.

In point of fact, the separation of culture from crime is not quite so straightforward; recall the question raised in this regard about the constitutionality of the Occult-Related Crimes Unit (above, p.2). It is more openly raised by a small vanguard of diviner-detectives in the SAPS, and those of their colleagues – we came across a substantial number – who see in their work an alternative policing capable of dealing with magical evil; also an alternative to “mob” witch burnings. Among them are Sergeant S. P. Moshupa and the celebrated Inspector Jackson Gopane, who seek to address “both sides” of the paradox of culture-as-crime by “crossing into the spiritual world.”16 Described in the national media as “one of the few success stories in a po- lice force that has almost collapsed under the strain of democracy,” Gopane uses methods that require a high level of local knowledge. At relevant moments, he exchanges his police uniform for the paraphernalia of a traditional healer: in him, the forensic and the oracular, scientific in- vestigation and social diagnostics, become one. Photographed beneath a smiling portrait of Nelson Mandela, he makes a strong case for the efficacy of combating occult killings by occult means. In the same vein, the chair of the national Traditional Healers’ Association, Dr. Hitler Letsoalo, has pledged the services of his members to help the state “put out the fires”17; this offer being consistent with the objectives of the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Program, a par- liamentary initiative to “protect and promote indigenous knowledge within a legal framework, and harness indigenous technology in rural development and international trade.”18 While such efforts remain unorthodox and limited, they do seem to be spreading; the SAPS Liaison Officer in the Northwest Province, Patrick Asaneng told us that dealing with the occult has become part of the mundane work of policing in the countryside.

It is yet to be seen if and how further bridges will be built between conventional law en- forcement and vernacular forensics. In the meantime, the state and its criminal justice system insist on sustaining the distinction between witch beliefs (a constitutionally-protected right to cul- ture) and retributive violence against witches (a common felony). This is in spite of the fact that, both for those who perpetrate it and for those in whose name it is perpetrated, the latter is an enactment of the former: witch killing is the practical expression of a customary belief recogniz- ed under the Bill of Rights. Hence our term “cultural policing” to describe it. With most SAPS cadres unwilling or unable to intervene effectively in cases of the occult, or to provide a convincing alternative for this kind of cultural policing, it is no wonder that “mass action” against alleged malevolents continues to enjoy a large measure of populist legitimacy.

Neither is it any wonder that the judiciary has also found it hard to hold the line between culture and crime (Comaroff and Comaroff 2004). Perhaps the difficulty is best illustrated by an ideal-typical case, versions of which have come before the courts in the northerly provinces with gathering frequency in recent years. Reduced to its bare bones, with names of people and places appropriately altered, the story goes as follows:

A late middle-aged woman, Temane Makgetla, widowed and living alone, is alleged to have put several children to death in order to harvest their body parts; these, according to local rumor, have been used to make magical potions for sale to rich clients. Convinced by the “evidence” against her – evidence at once forensic (dipeko, medicines, seen in her home), social (unusual appetites, selfish behavior), and material (assets not easily accounted for) – her neighbors decide that she must be killed in order to prevent further predations on “the community,” the sprawling village of Metsing, 50k from the capital of one of the northerly provinces; this after informal public discussion has congealed diffuse gossip into a specific accusation. Approached by the local chief, Kgosi Monei, to arrest the suspect, the nearest SAPS station commander, Captain Segogelo, responds that he cannot do so without physical proof of wrongdoing; efforts to find witnesses or missing children yield nothing. Initiative to act is taken by a large, but indeterminate, number of young men, most of them aged between 16 and 25, most of whom live in Me- tsing or a nearby village. It is unclear whether they have been encouraged by the older generation. Led by one Moeketsi Monareng, some of their names come to the attention of the police after they tell kin and friends about the circumstances of Temane’s demise. Seven are arrested by Captain Segogelo. Arraigned before the court, they plead self- defense: their act of cultural policing – “protecting our village as our forefathers did,” was the phrase used by one of them – had been made unavoidable by the inaction of “government.” In doing what they did, they had not shed blood for its own sake, nor to enrich themselves. Their sole motive was to prevent more deaths, thereby to “save” their community from a active serial killer. Many of the members of that community, Kgosi Monei quietly among them, fete Moeketsi and his peers for having served the public interest. Some say quite openly that the “boys” should be forgiven and allowed to go home. They are not, however. Sentenced to 25 years each, they plan to appeal, confident that a higher court – one that “understands the Constitution,” said Moeketsi to us – would concur in their plea. “This is the way our people do these things.”

Pleas of self-defense in cases of this kind – in which the “punishment” meted out to an alleged witch is invariably said to have met culturally accepted canons of proof and due process – are not unlike pleas of self-defense in US murder trials: they justify the use of lethal force by invok- ing the right of persons to protect themselves against a clear and present danger to their lives. Indeed, we have heard the comparison explicitly drawn.

South African courts are faced with more and more legal arguments made in the name of African “tradition”; hardly surprising, this, in an African postcolony. In the upshot, some judg- es, black and white alike, have come to recognize vernacular conceptions of evil as a sufficient basis for mitigation. Oddly, this often is clothed in the language of diminished responsibility. For example, in sentencing five Tswana youths for burning to death a 52-year-old man – they said that he had slain their fathers and made them into zombie workers – the High Court of the Northwest treated “a belief in witchcraft” and “excessive drinking” as extenuating factors,19 thus equating an indigenous culture with a state of inebriation. Pejorative? Certainly. Ironic? Not in- tentionally. But it does resonate with an old belief, as jailed witch-killer Anderson Tshibalo once explained to a national tv audience, that those overcome by witches lose consciousness of their deeds – and, with it, responsibility for them.20 It also has led to a situation in which, increasingly, courts convict those found guilty of occult-related violence and then, tacitly acknowledging the force of culture, hand down very light or suspended sentences. All of which drives a wedge bet- ween judgment and justice.

For all such strategic resolutions to the problem, these cases evoke large questions in South Africa, questions that have become the stuff of argument in public spheres across the postcolony. Can there ever be a clear-cut formula for balancing legal rationalities against moral relativities, the universal rights of citizens against the demands of culture? Can they ever be brought into the same orbit, synthesized, mediated, proportioned? Or is the contradiction bet- ween them irreducible, an inevitable corollary of postcolonial constitutions that embrace, simul- taneously, cultural difference and the legal indivisibility of the nation-state?


Our concern here is not to answer these Big Questions. It is to understand why they pose themselves so persistently, so publicly, in the “new” South Africa. Only then does it be- come possible to make sense of the ways in which occult violence – and “dangerous” cultural practices tout court – are regarded in the postcolony; only then might we grasp fully the contra- dictions at the core of its legal culture. Our quest leads us toward the intersection of three ana- lytic frames.

Modernity and its enchantments

The first concerns the relationship of enchantment to modernity. Most efforts to make sense of the recent “epidemic” of witchcraft accusations seek an explanation in the continuing hold of “tradition”: the effort to police magical evil by cultural means is seen as a call to return to the values, and to the ways and means, of the African past. Perhaps the aphorism that best captures conventional wisdom is Gluckman’s (1959) famous “magic of despair.” It suggests that indigenous peoples tend to look to their customary ritual practices in the face of the anguish wrought upon them by historical forces beyond their control. Extending the same point to ecs- tatic religious movements, Lewis (1971) argues that they may be understood as vernacular res- ponses to a growing sense of “deprivation.” These functionalist explanations resonate with the view, still held by many anthropologists, that ritual is a conservative species of communal action, one which reinforces prevailing modes of authority and order (e.g. Bloch 1989). They are also a corollary of the classical theories of witchcraft, discussed earlier, that take the African occult to be a timeless mechanism for sustaining the moral and material status quo.

In our view, the recent spate of witch killings in South Africa has to be approached quite differently. In Modernity and its Malcontents (1993) we showed that ritual is not an endemically ahistorical or conservative species of action, let alone an autonomic mechanism of social, cul- tural, or moral reproduction (cf. Tambiah 1985, 123f); that it is often a site of experiment and social invention, a site for the production of new understandings of the world, indeed for making history ane; that technicians of the sacred – diviners, prophets, witch finders – regularly deploy the heightened sensitivities of ceremonial occasions to distill order out of the ambiguous, incho- ate forces that configure any social environment. Especially a troubled, changing one.

Seen from this vantage, incidents of cultural policing and occult-related violence – like the Madura witch hunt – are moments of social divination: ritualized moments, that is, in which participants seek, as they assign blame and punish moral infraction, to account for the transfor- mation of their world. And to test out ways of redirecting it. Recall here how divination itself has undergone a semiotic revolution, carving out new techniques for the electronic age. In short, these forms of ritual practice are an altogether contemporary phenomenon, part of an effort (i) to render explicable the bewildering realities of the “new” South Africa; (ii) to fashion a universe in which both the demands of moral community and the ambitions of individuals may be satis- fied, in which young people may find work and the wherewithal to marry and reproduce, in which those who endanger the commonweal are banished; (iii) to resolve the ultimate paradox of the postcolony, the fact that is a place of both infinite possibility and utter impossibility, one wherein fabulous wealth seems to be produced without visible effort by some people and yet eludes everyone else; in other words, (iv) to alter the very trajectory of the present – thereby to realize the promises of democracy.

It is precisely because the African occult is finely tuned to the contradictions, mysteries, and irrationalities of the here-and-now that it holds such sway for so many South Africans. And it is precisely because it holds such sway that it poses so stark a challenge to the liberal moder- nist state, especially to its legal foundations. Which, in turn, is why there is so much vexed argument about the proper place of culture in the postcolony. But this anticipates a topic to which we shall return.

The nation-state in an age of revolution

The second frame concerns twenty-first century nation-states. And citizenship within them.21

The European nation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Benedict Anderson (1983) famously noted, imagined itself as a culturally homogeneous community, a community- of-the-whole with a deep sense of “horizontal fraternity.” This imagining was always more aspi- ration than achievement: throughout its history, the modernist polity has been a work-in-prog- ress, one that has evinced great variation over time and space. Further, for all the idea that it was made up of right-bearing persons equal before the law, it was inhospitable to difference; to be sure, many were excluded from its commonweal. Still, the fiction of a unity of essence, aff- ect, and interest mandated the legitimacy of the state: government was the ultimate guarantor of the well-being of all citizens. Hence the hyphenated indivisibility of nation and state.

Much has been said lately of the “crisis” of the modernist polity under the impact of global capitalism: of its shrinking sovereignty; of its loss of control over economic policy, cultural production, and the flow of people, currencies, and commodities; of a widening disjunction between nation and state (cf. Appadurai 1990). Whether or not “the” nation-state is flourishing, ail- ing, or metamorphosing – we prefer the third alternative – one thing is clear. The received notion of polities based on fraternal homogeneity, real or fictive, is rapidly giving way to imagined communities of difference, of multiculturalism, of ID-ology; the pursuit, that is, of interest in the name of shared identities. This is true even in places as long antagonistic to otherness as England, which, despite recent race wars on the streets of its northern towns, now projects itself, with apologies to Benetton, as United in its tolerance of Color and Culture. There has, of course, been considerable scholarly debate over the causes-and-effects of the heterogenization of so many nation-states; also of the rising incidence, since 1989, of cultural struggles and ethnopolitics (J.L. Comaroff 1996). We do not need to retrace that debate here. It is enough merely to take note of the phenomenon itself.

For most postcolonies, the politics of identity are not new. Heterodoxy has been there from the first. Born of long histories of colonization, these polities typically entered the Neo World Order with legacies of ethnic diversity invented or exacerbated in the cause of imperial governance. Colonial regimes, intent on the management of racial capitalism, never built na- tions in the Euromodernist sense of the term, even where they introduced the ceremonial trapp- ings of nationhood. In their wake, they left behind them not just an absence of infrastructure, but a heritage of fractious difference. This has been heightened, since fin de siecle, by some of the cultural and material corollaries of neoliberalism: the movement across the planet of ever more people in search of work and opportunities to trade; the transnational mass-mediation of signs, styles, and information; the rise of an electronic commons; the growing hegemony of the market and, with it, the distillation of culture into intellectual property, a commodity to be – possessed, patented, exchanged-for-profit. In this world, freedom is reduced to choice: choice of commodities, of life-ways, and, most of all, of identities. In the upshot, the great irony of our times is that identity has become, simultaneously, a matter of voluntary self-production and a matter of ineluctable essence, of genetics and biology.

In short, notwithstanding their different histories, and their histories of difference, both European and postcolonial nation-states are having to come to terms with heterogeneity as never before. And, with it, fundamental changes in the nature of citizenship.

The explosion of identity politics after 1989 has not manifested itself in ethnic assertion alone. Difference is also vested, increasingly, in gender, sexuality, generation, race, religion, life-style, and social class. And in constellations of these things, sometimes deployed in highly contingent, strategic ways. While most human beings continue to live as citizens in nation-states, more and more are only conditionally citizens of nation-states: their composite personae may include elements that transgress political borders or mandate claims against the common- weal within them. In consequence, identity struggles of one kind or another appear immanent almost everywhere as selfhood is immersed into collective essence, innate substance, and primordial destiny. What is more, the assertion of autochthony – which elevates to a first principle the interests, “natural” rights, and moral connectedness that arise from a shared place of birth – has become an ever more significant mode of exclusion within polities; this in propor- tion to the extent to which “aliens” are held to erode the Wealth or Security of the Nation. It is, putatively, in the name of the latter that the state is becoming a metamanagement enterprise in the neoliberal world:22 in the name of subjects who, even as they seek to be global citizens in a planetary economy, demand also to be shareholders in the polity-as-corporation. Herein lies the complexity: the fractal nature of contemporary political personhood, the fact that it is overlaid and undercut by a politics of difference and identity, does not necessarily involve the negation of national belonging. Merely its uneasy, unresolved, ambiguous co-existence with other modes of being-in-the-world.

Of the modes of being that constitute the twenty-first century political subject, cultural at- tachment is often taken, popularly, to run deepest. As we have said, ethnic consciousness, like all ascribed identities, represents itself as grounded ineluctably in blood, essence, emotion, and common purpose. Add to the equation the fact that culture is increasingly regarded as a “na- turally” copyrighted, legally-protected species of intellectual property and it will be clear that we are witness to the dawn of the Age of Ethnicity, Inc. (Comaroff and Comaroff n.d.[b]). Observe, in this respect, that more and more ethnic groups around the world are incorporating themselves; that many have opened businesses to market their heritage, their landscape, their knowledge, their religious rites, their artefacts; that some have sued for the unremunerated reproduction of their symbols, sacred and secular. Thus it is that identity, in the age of partible, conditional citizenship, is defined, ever more, by the capacity to possess, privatize, profit, and consume; that politics is reduced to the pursuit of individual or collective entitlement; that social being in general, and social wrongs in particular, are translated into the language of “rights.”

Self-evidently, under these conditions, the term “multicultural(ism)” is insufficient to des- cribe the fractious heterogeneity of many contemporary nation-states – and, most of all, postco- lonies. Demeaned in popular usage, that term evokes images of Disney’s “Small World,” of world music, fusion food, and ritual calendars respectful of human diversity; in short, of benign indifference to difference. Neither as noun nor as adjective does it disclose the critical limits of liberal pluralism: the fact that, notwithstanding the utopian visions of progressive philosophers, the recognition afforded to culture even in highly permissive democracries falls far short of allo- wing claims to political or legal sovereignty. In those postcolonies in which ethnic assertion plays on the simultaneity of primordial connectedness, natural right, and corporate interest – and in which the majority of citizens evince strong ethnic affiliations – the nation-state is likely to be less multicultural than policultural. The prefix, “poli-,“ marks two things at once: plurality and its politicization. Far from denoting merely an appreciation on the part of the national majority for the customs, costumes, and cuisine of minorities, it bespeaks an argument, grounded in cul- tural ontology, about the very nature of the pluri-nation, about its constitution and citizenship within it; about the spirit of its laws and its hyphe-nation. In South Africa this takes the form of an ongoing confrontation between Euromodern ways and means and variously expressed, va- riously formulated notions of “traditional” governance, the latter represented by a vocal lobby under the organizational umbrella of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa. Because its members have the capacity to affect national elections, Contralesa has been fairly successful in husbanding the interests of African “custom” and in enclaving those domains of life in the countryside in which vernacular law still obtains. It has also fought a long fight to change the constitution in such a way as to allow even more to Africanity.

It is the grafting of policulturalism onto the ontological core of the Euromodernist nation- state that gives cultural policing its shadowy claims to legitimacy – and that, by asserting the so- vereignty of difference, renders murky the distinction between culture and crime. Which brings us to our third analytic frame.

The postcolonial state and the language of legality

Postcolonial states vary widely in the extent to which they condense legitimate power in themselves, suppress the politics of difference, contrive popular consent, and ritualize the sub- jection of citizens to their authority. Some seem to be irrecoverably weak, others much strong- er; some highly intrusive, others scarcely visible; some energetically protective of corporate en- terprise, others less so; some brutally violent, others hardly in control of the means of coercion; some prone to ostentatious ceremony, others matter-of-fact in their regulatory routines; some institutionally integrated and fairly efficient in their technologies of rule, others in perpetual dis- array (cf. Cooper and Stoler 1997). These variations are owed to a range of historical factors too broad to list here. So, too, is the degree to which partisan blocs – business interests, ethnic groups, and the like – have insinuated themselves into, and appropriated, the mechanisms of government, including the use of force.

But, whether weak or strong, these states share one thing. They speak of and for them- selves. Incessantly. Like its Euromodern precursor, “the” postcolonial African state is a state- ment, an ongoing claim: it gives voice to an authoritative world view, sometimes backed by dis- plays of might, sometimes by carnivalesque ritual (Mbembe 1992). Its language, however, is not arbitrary. It is the language of legality. Modern state-formation, note Corrigan and Sayer (1985, 1f), was a “cultural revolution.” At its heart lay the Spirit of the Law. Many scholars have tied industrial capitalism, modernity, the nation-state, governmentality, the right-bearing citizen, and the rise of lex naturae into a single historical knot. We seek to add a modest addendum: that it is this Spirit, this language, hegemonically re-tooled for the neoliberal epoch, that gives postcolonial nation-states their delicate sense of unity and coherence. We would go yet further. The more disarticulated and/or impotent any given postcolonial state, the more the language of law – especially the appeal to a common culture of democratic constitutionalism – affords them a means to make political facts appear out of fantasies, concrete realities out of fragile fictions; to represent themselves as guarantors of the commonweal; to legitimize their power, both coer- cive and capillary, and their right to mediate diverse identities and interests.

This language also constitutes the currency of the public sphere. Not only does it lay down the terms of cooperation, commerce, competition, and contention among people of differ- ent cultural worlds, social endowments, and material circumstances. It also provides an osten- sibly neutral medium for them to enter into contractual relations, to transact commodities, and to deal with conflicts. In so doing, it creates an impression of consonance amidst contrast, of the negotiability of incommensurables, of the existence of universal standards which, like mo- ney in the domain of the market, facilitate exchanges across otherwise intransitive boundaries. And it establishes the state as the axis mundi of order within diversity. Indeed, by deploying the language of legality, postcolonial regimes, bereft of many of the political and economic resour- ces of modern governance, regularly try to delineate the moral frontiers of civil society; also to criminalize vernacular cultural practices deemed uncivilized, politics deemed primitive. Law, in short, is the hydra-headed instrument by which postcolonial states seek nowadays to extend control over the space and time, the cultures and identities, of their subjects.23

The enormous significance of the language of law in postcolonies arises in part from the past. In ruling their “native” subjects, colonial states tended to rely heavily on legal instruments – proclamations, decrees, orders-in-council, statutory acts, commissions of enquiry – to impose their will (cf. Ashforth 1990; Mamdani 1996). Tswana-speaking South Africans referred to this, in the 19th century, as “warfare [with] papers” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997, 378); elsewhere we have called it “lawfare,” the deployment of legalities to do violence to people and their property by indirect means (J.L. Comaroff 2001). In so doing, and in narrating nations that did not exist, imperial regimes tended to draw the attention of emerging indigenous elites to their legal disabilities and social exclusion. As Davidson (1992) argues, it seems overdetermined that early demands for independence made by African nationalist movements should have appro- priated the terms of European politics, with its deep roots in the culture of constitutionalism and the language of the law. It seems overdetermined, too, that, with the passage into postcolonia- lity, this same culture, this language, should come of age as the argot of authority, the source of civility, the guarantor of unity amidst difference – and should also be invoked by those who would perpetrate their own kind of cultural justice.


Draw these three strands together – the increasing appeal to enchantment in dealing with the mysteries of Brave Neo World; the changing nature of the nation-state, its new forms of citizenship and its gathering policulturalism; and the role of law in the postcolony – and it will be clear why the Big Questions of moral relativism and liberal universalism, of cultural difference and legal rationality, are so pressing here. And why they are the object of so much public de- bate. To put the matter in a nutshell, postcolonial nation-states cannot but live with both sides of an unresolvable equation. They have no option: this contradiction is their historical legacy. The best they can do in addressing the pragmatic problems that arise when the demands of culture run up against liberal universalism is to arrive at contingent solutions, strategic compromises; hence, for example, the accommodation forged between judgment and justice in handling ca- ses of witch burning (above, p.000). Occult-related violence rings such alarm bells – and calls forth the urgent attention of the state – precisely because it brings into life-and-death focus the contradiction at the core of the “new” South Africa and other postcolonial polities. These poli- ties, as we said at the outset, are cut from the modernist mould of nationhood: they are founded on constitutions that speak of One Law for One Nation, constitutions with Bills of Rights that set specific limits to heterodoxy, subjecting it to a transcendent legal and moral unity – and to the universal rights of citizens. Yet they are all confronted by the very differences that, simultane- ously, they recognize and embrace: by the entitlement of their subjects to their own cultural practices. That entitlement, we stress again, does not grow out of a politics of recognition for minorities; the kind of thing on which philosophical debates over multicultural citizenship tend to fixate. In places like South Africa, in which the democratic will of the majority is taken very seriously, most people “have” culture; most subscribe to ways and means that, in at least some respects, depart from Euromodern liberal orthodoxy. Those ways and means often include practices that, to others, appear dangerous; indeed, that cross the line between culture and crime. What makes the problem so acute is that such practices are not trivial “customs.” They may be existentially critical: occult-related violence in the northerly provinces of South Africa, as we have seen, is perpetrated in reaction to a perceived threat to life, livelihood, community, and commonweal. It is also an instrument of discovery and divination by which local populations seek to grasp the secrets of a world in flux. And act upon them.

There is another facet to all this, another piece to bring to conclusion: cultural policing of the kind entailed in burning evil-doers is, itself, a more-or-less explicit indictment of the state. To the extent that the arrival of democracy was taken by black South Africans to promise material melioration and a new measure of personal security – a promise reiterated repeatedly by the ANC – the witchcraft “epidemic” bespoke its dramatic failure. Witches, after all, destroy material wealth and pose a mortal threat to personal security. As this suggests, the moral panic to which the “epidemic” gave rise was, among other things, a statement about the inability of govern- ment to make good on its mandate to safeguard its citizens. Occult-related violence, not sur- prisingly, is almost invariably accompanied by complaints against the inaction of the South African Police, inaction predicated, in part, on the sheer difficulty of intervening in accusations of magical malevolence; vide the role of Captain Segogelo in the death of Temane Makgetla. The “informal” justice dealt in such cases is warranted by appeal to another democracy: the populism of tradition. Ironically, it is also rationalized by recourse to the fetish on which the liberal democracy of the postcolony is founded: the rule of law. Only it turns the Law of the Nation upside down, calling for a mode of policing, rooted in the vernacular, that meets the occult on its own cultural ground; much as do Inspector Gopane and Sergeant Moshupa, who seek – in a manner still exceptional among police cadres – to cross the planes of the bureaucratic and the spiritual. And, as it does so, as it invokes the sanctity of traditional knowledge, this mode of policing confronts the state where it is most ideologically vulnerable: in its assertion of a univer- sal law against the claims of difference enshrined in its own founding constitution. Hence, we repeat, the seriousness with which the problem of occult violence is being regarded. And all the controversies which it has fueled.

The phenomena of which we write here, phenomena that have their most vivid expres- sion in postcolonies like South Africa, may seem far removed from other parts of the world. And yet the antinomy between universalism and difference, inherent in the nation-state since its in- ception, has been sharpened by the emergence of neoliberal capitalism across the globe. This epochal process has had a mixed bag of consequences. Among them has been the growth of occult economies all over the planet, especially as those left out of the millennial promise of new wealth try to divine its arcane sources; the erosion of modernist state power, producing, in many places, the privatization of policing and the means of violence, the assertion of sub- and transnational identities, and early manifestations of Ethnicity, Inc.; the rise both of populist de- mands for cultural rights and of religious movements, sometimes framed in open opposition to the state; and a growth, almost everywhere, of a new faith in legality and constitutionalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). All of these are ingredients for the emergence of policulturalism and ID-ology of the kinds on which cultural policing in South Africa are founded. Perhaps we have here, in embryonic form, harbingers of things to come elsewhere. Perhaps a new struggle between the imperatives of culture and the hegemony of liberal universalism is just dawning.

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