Witchcraft in Africa: Political Power and Spiritual Insecurity from the Precolonial Era to the Present
Historically, witchcraft in Africa has not comprised a stable or uniform set of beliefs. The idea of witchcraft, which might loosely be defined as the belief that people exist who use supernatural means to harm others, has existed in African societies from the precolonial, through the colonial, and into the postcolonial periods. But ideas about the kinds of powers that witches are alleged to use and the types of people often accused of using witchcraft have shifted in response to the changing political, economic, and social landscape. While witchcraft beliefs can sometimes be understood as metaphors for political forces and social ills, they must also be understood as separate systems of signs and meanings that have their own historical trajectories rooted in local cultures. Beliefs in witchcraft are beliefs in systems of power derived from unseen forces, and for those people who believe in supernatural powers those forces are quite real and are not merely metaphorical allusions to other phenomena. In the precolonial era, the political power that many chiefs and kings had was based in supernatural powers; these occult powers were potentially usable for either positive, socially accepted ends or for evil, selfish, and greedy ends. In the colonial and postcolonial eras, states and politicians have also been seen to have supernatural powers but are believed to have used them largely for self-enrichment or empowerment.
Systems of global trade, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later colonial production of various commodities, both created wealth for a few and inflicted harm on many people. The perceived immorality of these economic and social networks was often captured in stories of witches ambushing people and selling them or consuming their life forces. The spiritual insecurity represented in these beliefs in witchcraft has continued into the postcolonial era.
Apartheid, the system of racial and ethnic separation introduced in South Africa in 1948, was a gendered project. The immediate goal of the white Afrikaner men who led the apartheid state was to control black men: to turn black men from perceived political and criminal threats into compliant workers. Under apartheid, African men would travel to work for whites in towns and on mines, but their homes would be in rural ethnic “reserves,” known as “homelands” or “Bantustans.” This vision depended on the labors of African women: while their men migrated to work, women were to maintain their families in the increasingly overcrowded and desolate countryside, reproducing the workforce cheaply while instilling a sense of ethnic difference in their children. “Coloured” (mixed-race) and Indian women were similarly charged with social reproduction on a shoestring, in segregated rural and urban areas. White women uniquely had the franchise and freedom of movement, but they were also constrained by sexually repressive laws.
Apartheid’s gendered vision of production and social reproduction faced continual resistance, and it ultimately failed. First, it failed because African women increasingly moved from rural areas to urban centers, despite laws limiting their mobility. Second, it failed because some women organized across ethnic and racial lines. They often organized as mothers, demanding a better world for a new generation. Both their nationally and internationally resonant campaigns—against pass laws, educational and health care inequities, police brutality, and military conscription—and the fact of their collective organization gradually undermined apartheid. Officials generally underestimated the power of women, and their contributions have continued to be under-appreciated since apartheid ended in 1994, because women’s political style emphasized personal and familial concerns. But because apartheid was premised on transforming how families lived, actions of women in fact undermined the system from its core.
Women played a central role in the development of Pan-Africanism. It can even be claimed that it was a woman, the South African Alice Kinloch, who initiated the modern Pan-African movement at the dawn of the 20th century. In the early 21st century it has become fashionable, mainly in some academic circles in the United States, to use the term “Black Internationalism” as an alternative to Pan-Africanism. This phrase was also first coined by a woman, Jeanne Nardal, an influential and important Martinican writer in Paris in the 1920s, who used the term internationalisme noir to refer to the growing links between “Negroes of all origins and nationalities.” There is no doubt that she also used the phrase to refer to the growing Pan-Africanism of the period, and therefore it is difficult to see what distinguishes the two terms.
There has never been one universally accepted definition of exactly what constitutes Pan-Africanism. It has taken different forms at different historical moments and geographical locations. What underlies the manifold visions and approaches of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Africanists is a belief in the unity, common history, and common purpose of the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora and the notion that their destinies are interconnected. In addition, many would highlight the importance of the liberation and advancement of the African continent itself, not just for its inhabitants but also as the homeland of the entire African diaspora. Pan-Africanist thought and action is principally connected with, and provoked by, the modern dispersal of Africans resulting from the trafficking of captives across the Atlantic to the Americas, as well as elsewhere. The largest forced migration in history, and the creation of the African diaspora, was accompanied by the emergence of global capitalism, European colonial rule, and anti-African racism.
Pan-Africanism evolved as a variety of ideas, activities, organizations, and movements that, sometimes in concert, resisted the exploitation and oppression of all those of African heritage; opposed and refuted the ideologies of anti-African racism; and celebrated African achievement, history, and the very notion of being African. Pan-Africanism looks forward to a genuinely united and independent Africa as the basis for the liberation of all Africans, both those on the continent and in the diaspora. However, it should be made clear that historically there have been two main strands of Pan-Africanism. The earlier form emerging during and after the period of trans-Atlantic enslavement originated from the African diaspora and stressed the unity of all Africans and looked toward their liberation and that of the African continent. The more recent form emerged in the context of the anti-colonial struggle on the African continent in the period after 1945. This form of Pan-Africanism stressed the unity, liberation, and advancement of the states of the African continent, although often recognizing the importance of the diaspora and its inclusion. The continental focus of this form of Pan-Africanism can be seen in the orientation and activities of such organizations as the Organisation of African Unity and the African Union. The more recent continental form of Pan-Africanism is likely to include the peoples and states of North Africa, while the earlier form sometimes does not.
Although women such Alice Kinloch and Jeanne Nardal have played an important role in the emergence and development of the modern Pan-African movement and its ideologies, there have been few studies devoted solely to women’s involvement with Pan-Africanism. Some significant organizations such as the Pan-African Women’s Organisation, founded in 1962 and still in existence, have no written history and have therefore been excluded from many accounts. It is evident that women were generally less prominent than men in the Pan-African movement, but also that the literature has often overlooked, underestimated, and sometimes ignored the role of women.
Aili Marie Tripp
While women were never fully equal to men in the political sphere, women in precolonial Africa governed kingdoms, established cities, launched military conquests, and founded states. Some governed as sole rulers often as queens, while others governed together with a king, as a mother or sister of the king. A third arrangement involved a tripartite sharing of power among the king, mother, and sister, and a fourth arrangement involved societies in which an age set or group of elders governed the society and in which women exerted either direct or indirect power.
Women lost out in such arrangements, first, with the spread of Islam and Christianity and later with colonization. Women participated actively in nationalist movements, but their motivations sometimes differed from those of men, and were related, for example, to taxation and the desire to improve female education. After independence, women were further sidelined from political life with a few exceptions. It was not until the 1990s that we began to see the reemergence of women political leaders. This happened with the opening of political space, which allowed for the emergence of women’s organizations, coalitions, and movements that pressed for an increased political role for women. The decline of conflict after 2000 created greater stability that enhanced these trends. Pressures from the United Nations after 1995 and from foreign donors strengthened domestic actors pressing for women’s-rights reforms in the area of political representation.
Gretchen Bauer, Akosua Darkwah, and Donna Patterson
Building upon their participation in anti-colonial struggles across Africa in the mid-20th century, African women have taken on many political roles in the post-independence period. While military rule and single-party rule precluded access to elected office in many countries in the early years after independence, female combatants fought alongside their male counterparts in ongoing struggles for national liberation in other parts of Africa, especially southern Africa, into the 1980s and 1990s. In many countries, national gender machineries established in the 1970s provided an institutional infrastructure for pursuing women’s rights even if they were often not fully implemented. State feminism, articulated through First Ladyism and state-led national women’s associations, sought to co-opt women’s struggles for political gain. In some instances, it did ameliorate women’s economic hardships and promote political participation. Women’s mobilization in the 1980s, in part a response to the severe impact of structural adjustment programs on devastated African economies, led to local-level organizing and eventually to a focus on women’s access to political office. Since the political transitions that swept the continent beginning in the early 1990s, women have accessed political office in all three branches of government in unprecedented numbers just as new forms of mobilization have emerged around issues like the rights of sexual minorities.
Mary H. Moran
Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847.
As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.
Women’s involvement in the processes of state formation is marked by a strong ambivalence in Guinea: female political mobilizations appear as an indispensable advantage for state power when they are deployed in support of it, but these mobilizations can likewise disrupt and generate major problems for the state when they are directed against it. The efficacy of female political involvement is closely linked to the historiography of relationships between women and the state in Guinea, a country that helped construct an image of female activism outside of areas considered to be exclusively political, and as a guarantor of social justice.
During the colonial period, as was the case for many other countries under French colonial rule, the influence of women was restricted to the domestic sphere: once households ceased to constitute a political resource for the colonial regimes (in contrast to the precolonial era), the influence that women were able to wield within, for example, matrimonial alliances was considerably reduced. Yet, women played a highly important role in nationalist conflicts and under the regime of Sékou Touré, who served as Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Presented as the “women’s man,” Touré sought high integration of women into his political party, based on structures inspired by the Soviet socialist model. This was a Guinean political originality. In this context, even though women were given official prominence, their demands nonetheless drew on conservative models that relied on a politicization of the maternal figure. Yet the domestic and apolitical character of female mobilization still lends it a spontaneous efficacy in a context in which laws supporting women are seldom enforced and in which the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for women due to male emigration and inequalities in property rights.
G. Thomas Burgess
The term “Zanzibar Revolution” refers to (1) the overthrow in January 1964 of the islands’ first postcolonial regime, barely a month after gaining independence from British rule; (2) a period of several weeks following the overthrow when Africans targeted islanders of mostly Arab heritage and identity for violence, plunder, and vengeance seeking; and (3) the years from 1964 through the 1970s, when Zanzibar’s revolutionary regime sought to level island society at the expense of Arabs and South Asians, whose numbers continued to dwindle, mostly through emigration, some of it coerced. While aided and advised by socialist experts from overseas, and inspired by socialist models such as China and the Soviet Union, the regime charted its own unique course, a course influenced by the revolutionaries’ own understanding of the role of race in island society.
The Zanzibar Revolution was exceptional in several ways. Arguably, it was the most lethal outbreak of anti-Arab violence in Africa’s postcolonial history. It was also remarkable in the extent to which it attempted to bring an end to long-standing social and economic inequalities. Since the early-19th century, all the wealthiest and most privileged islanders were Arab or South Asian. Yet after a decade of revolutionary policies, they and their less well-off kinsmen were killed, forced into exile, or reduced to relative poverty. Thus, despite its modest size and population, Zanzibar produced one of sub-Saharan Africa’s only postcolonial revolutions. While scholars may disagree as to what constitutes a “revolution,” if that term refers to a situation in which one regime overthrows another, and then afterwards seeks to “turn society upside down,” then it is an accurate characterization of Zanzibar in the 1960s and 1970s.