Anti-Anti-Witchcraft: Why Humanitarian Concerns About “Witchcraft Violence” in Africa are Misplaced

Winter 2013 African Studies Distinguished Lecture

In recent years international organizations and humanitarian groups, along with refugee activists and lawyers, have become concerned about violence against suspected “witches” in Africa, particularly when it involves “vulnerable groups” such as women, children, the disabled, or the elderly.  This paper argued that that the problem of witchcraft violence in Africa is extremely important, though not in the way humanitarians perceive it to be.  The extent of violence against suspected witches is minimal.  The violence putative witches are perceived as perpetrating against members of their families and communities, however, is vast.  While violent punishment of “witches” does from time to time occur, the vast majority of witchcraft cases are dealt with without violence.  Witchcraft, however, produces profound problems of security and justice.  Drawing on recent research in Malawi, this paper examined witchcraft trials in a chief’s court and a magistrate’s court to show how local authorities are working to create a sense of justice and security in the face of what are perceived to be immense dangers.

adamashforthAdam Ashforth has published extensively on state formation and the political implications of spiritual insecurity in everyday life in South Africa.  During South Africa’s transition to democracy he spent many years living and writing in Soweto.  He is currently researching responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in everyday life in rural Malawi and ethnic conflict in Kenya’s Rift Valley.  His publications include three books: The Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth-Century South Africa (Oxford, 1990); Madumo, A Man Bewitched (Chicago, 2000); and Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa (Chicago, 2005) [winner of the Herskovits Award, 2005].

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