Sunday, August 26, 2012

Magic and violence in South Africa

Susan Njanji, in an August 25, 2012 Mail and Guardian article called "Lonmin tragedy lays bare violent inter-union rivalry in SA," begins by discussing the extent to which the violent strike at the Lonmin platinum mine grew out of a conflict between two unions. That's certainly worrying, but the strangest feature of her article comes at the end. Under the heading "black juju" she reports:
Belief in black juju has also taken root and was partly blamed for the workers' defiance during a standoff with police before 34 of them were gunned down.
Local media report that a video report shot by the police from a helicopter during the strike, showed naked men lining up to be rubbed with herbs that were believed would make them bullet-proof.
"The use of muti has become so institutionalised in everything they (unions) do," said [Crispen] Chinguno [described as "an industrial relations researcher at the University of Witwatersrand"].
He said some of the 17 000 workers sacked and later reinstated at Impala [another platinum mine where a "violent strike" took place earlier in 2012] believed they regained their jobs thanks to juju.
Chinguno might be mistaken. The local media report about the police video might too. But the Mail and Guardian is, I believe, a quite reliable news source, and so I think it is quite likely these reports are at least in good part correct. Though it is not often discussed, my impression is that belief in magic or witchcraft remains an important feature of South African culture.

It is, of course, a risky business to discuss anyone's religious or cultural practices. None of us can really be sure of the answers to the ultimate questions; there's a long and nasty history of Western condescension towards African beliefs in particular; and of course there are many mainstream Western beliefs that nonbelievers might see as bizarre.

But equally it is a mistake to attempt to understand people's choices and actions while deliberately disregarding beliefs that they themselves hold dear.

So this at least should be said: if South African strikers are now embracing magic as a source of invulnerability to weapons, then they will be less deterred from violence in the future, because they will believe themselves protected from the risks of retaliation. And if union leaders or politicians find it in their interests to fuel violence as a strategy, then they will have reason to ally with the purveyors of magic so as to encourage their followers. Perhaps the terrible shootings at Lonmin will short-circuit this process, but believers quite often seem capable of withstanding empirical refutation of their beliefs. Finally, this: if there is a gathering storm of believers in magic and violence, that is a frightening prospect for South Africa. 

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