Sorcery and Sovereignty: Taxation, Power, and Rebellion in South Africa, 1880-1963.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2009 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Sorcery and Sovereignty: Taxation, Power, and Rebellion in South Africa, 1880-1963 (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Redding, Sean|
Sorcery and Sovereignty: Taxation, Power, and Rebellion in South
Africa, 1880-1963. By Sean Redding (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press,
For the past several decades, scholars have investigated the multiple reasons why black South Africans did or did not resist the racial discrimination that has characterized much of South African history. Many historians have examined the Frontier Wars of the nineteenth century, the battles between settlers and the Zulu in the mid-nineteenth century, and the violence between ANC supporters and the apartheid government in the 1970s and 1980s. However, relatively few scholars have asked how rural black South Africans understood and resisted the increasingly oppressive rule of a white-led government in the twentieth century. Consequently, many scholars either ignore the existence of rural struggles against racial oppression or subsume those moments into a general narrative of ANC resistance to apartheid rule. Sorcery and Sovereignty by Sean Redding offers an important intervention by focusing on the ways in which rural South Africans attempted to make sense of the new powers that invaded their everyday lives throughout the twentieth century.
Redding primarily focuses on a group of Xhosa-speaking peoples, the Mpondo, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Beginning with the annexation of the region by the British in 1894, Redding examines the different ways in which Mpondo peoples understood the powers wielded by European magistrates and why, with a few notable exceptions, they did not engage in open rebellion despite increasingly severe oppression. Redding works almost exclusively with the problem of taxation: why did rural South Africans continue to pay taxes despite their belief that taxes were unfair? Why did these people not break into open rebellion more frequently?
To answer this question, Redding turns to the ways in which rural South Africans understood the power wielded by their conquerors--white government officials. She states that South Africans largely saw the ability to collect taxes in supernatural terms, "Taxes imbued the state with supernatural powers through the medium of the census and, at least in the early period, through the use of money itself; the tax receipt could be used to ward off the malevolent legal and supernatural powers of the state." (p. 29) Redding argues that South Africans sought to make sense of their new position within a society of white power through recourse to the supernatural. Through their ability to use various coercive means to collect taxes, white government officials endowed themselves with certain supernatural powers that the African population generally dared not challenge. She continues to assert that government officials were not only aware of the connection that their African subjects made between tax collection and supernatural powers but that these officials viewed this connection as further evidence of the general backwardness of the African population.
Using the Comaroffs' theory of colonization of the consciousness and James Scott's theory of "hidden transcripts," Redding is careful to assert that, while open rebellion was not frequent throughout the early twentieth century, rural African subjects remained critical of the new order to which they were submitted While African subjects may have consented to certain European practices such as taxation, they did so by assimilating such practices into existing belief systems of power and authority, (p. 52) Open rebellion did happen, and Redding provides several examples of the ways in which rural Africans defied the power of the white government throughout the twentieth century: the Bambatha Rebellion in Natal, the Wellington and la Fleur movements, and the Mpondo Revolt.
While Redding's account of the ways in which tax payment and the supernatural provide an important avenue by which to understand the dynamic interaction between African people and white officials, there are several serious shortcomings in the analysis. First, Redding's conception of resistance is open, sustained rebellion against the white government or against those Africans identified as government collaborators. Despite her references to 'hidden transcripts," throughout her analysis, Redding fails to conceptualize resistance as something that permeates everyday life and everyday interactions with the state. Here, Redding would have benefited greatly from recourse to the literature associated with the Subaltern Studies group and their investigations of resistance in colonial South Asia.
Redding's focus on the primacy of taxation is also problematic. First, it is not at all clear that, as Redding states, Africans continued to pay taxes despite the increasingly predatory nature of the state. Magistrate records throughout the Eastern Cape in the twentieth century abound with complaints about sustained tax evasion by Africans. Moreover, officials frequently complained to superiors in Pretoria or Umtata about various difficulties encountered in the collection of taxes.
Redding also draws too strict a division between white and African conceptions of tax collection. White officials conceptualized taxation in purely secular terms while their African subjects conceptualized the same phenomenon in "quasi-magical" terms, (p.29) The conflicts that did occur between Africans and the white government throughout the twentieth century consequently emerge out of a fundamental miscommunication between two different groups: modern secular society clashing with traditional societies. While Redding never explicitly adheres to the modern v. traditional theory of resistance that is so common to the literature on colonial resistance, this theme unfortunately runs through her analysis.
A final difficulty with Redding's study of resistance in rural South Africa also concerns her exclusive focus on taxation. Willingness to pay taxes functions as an indicator of the potential to resist. While taxation was an important component of the criticisms leveled against the government during the various rebellions of the twentieth century, it was by no means the only or the primary concern of rural Africans. Rural Africans also voiced concerns about the interference of white officials in political matters such as succession to chiefship or the appointment of headmen, the allocation of land, and disruptions in social structures due to the increasing role played by migrant labor in the region. Additionally, when rural Africans did break into open resistance to white rule, most notably in the Mpondo Revolt (1959-1961), their demands were not purely reactive. Instead of merely demanding that the white government address certain injustices such as taxation rural insurgents proposed radically new conceptions of society in which the white government played no part. While Redding does acknowledge that other factors influenced African's decision to openly resist the state, she does not pay sufficient attention to these factors and to the interplay between these factors and the willingness to pay taxes.
Despite these difficulties with Sorcery and Sovereignty, Redding raises a number of important questions about how rural South Africans attempted to make sense of white rule through a language of the supernatural. Redding also makes an important contribution to the study of South African resistance to racial discrimination and oppression. As a result, Redding's work raises a series of important questions about life in rural South Africa and calls for more sustained research into rural resistance throughout twentieth century South Africa specifically and the colonial world more generally.
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