Summary of the Event
South African Zulu folk singer Khulekani "Mgqumeni" Khumalo died in 2009. Last week, a man claiming to be Khumalo appeared in Khumalo’s hometown in the KwaZulu-Natal province in Southern Africa. Speaking to a crowd of thousands, he announced his “resurrection,” explaining that a witch had abducted him and kept him in a cave with zombies, where he was forced to sing and ate only mud (causing his weight loss), and that he would have become a zombie himself had he not escaped to Johannesburg. Upon his return, his grandparents, two of his wives, and his daughter confirmed his identity, while an ex-lover and childhood friend rejected the claim. At his “unveiling,” he refused to sing, and instead recited his clan names. The police used water cannons on the crowd after the thousands of people who had walked to catch a glimpse of him became rowdy. The police were immediately suspicious of fraud, and on Tuesday “Khumalo” appeared at Nquthu magistrate court. Fingerprinting ascertained that the man is actually Sibusiso John Gcabashe; it is unclear whether the man believes his own story or not.
While this story at first appears to be first-rate tabloid matter, it plays on several different tensions within African culture. Most obvious is the tension between the traditional belief in witchcraft and the modern disparagement of that belief. To a westerner, witchcraft is a remnant of a ‘primitive’ society, and encourages feelings of superiority, but to a traditional African, it is a part of existence, and a form of theodicy. Witchcraft explains suffering in such a way that it can be dealt with; the witch can be sought out and forced to amend his or her evil actions. Gcabashe’s claim, that a witch physically abducted him after casting a spell on him, plays on ideas of community and interconnectedness—alone and separated from his family, he does not have the power to reverse the witch’s curse.
Interestingly, some reports use the terminology “witch doctor” (BBC News February 7) or even “healer” (Huffington Post) rather than witch; both terms actually refer to someone who negates a witch’s power, not one who uses that power themselves for malicious purposes. I do not know whether Gcabashe himself erroneously used that language or whether the western newspapers mistranslated the terms. In either case, the conflation of witch with healer represents a larger culture of suspicion towards witchcraft, in which all who claim an intimacy with magic are deemed either evil or fraudulent. The actions of the police are also suggest that they are participants in the westernized view of African witchcraft.
Along with witchcraft, the other sensationalist element in this story is the zombies. While it is a particularly opportune time for zombies here in the west, there is also an older South African conceptualization of zombies, in which a witch can kill and possess a person in order to use him for slave labor. These fears rose to the front...