Professor Adam Ashforth and Professor Sally Matthews
Professor Adam Ashforth and Professor Sally Matthews
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How do we write laws for that which we cannot see?

Date Released: Mon, 5 August 2019 11:54 +0200

How do we write laws for that which we cannot see?

By Siphokazi Mathe, Postgraduate Diploma in Media Management student


In July 2019, the Rhodes University Political and International Studies Department welcomed its 2019 Nelson Mandela Professor of Political Studies, visiting Professor Adam Ashforth, to give a public lecture.

Prof Ashforth is a Professor of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in the United States of America. With a vast knowledge of the formation of the state and the political implications of spiritual insecurity in everyday life in South Africa, he delivered a presentation that explored the desire to understand how claims to truth, the pursuit of justice, and demands for security work in contemporary Africa.

Prof Ashforth began his presentation, In Defence of Witch Trials: The Quest for Justice and Security in a World with Witches, by guiding attendees through the history of legal customs of 18th century Britain – highlighting an era of superstition and ignorance – to the state laws of contemporary Africa, where post-colonial notions of the state and state law seemingly contradict a traditional African understanding of witchcraft.

Drawing on his book, The Trials of Mrs. K.: Seeking Justice in a World with Witches, Prof Ashforth began to discuss the interplay of state law and customary law in our understandings of witchcraft and subsequent punitive measures, arguing that the imposition of state law in Post-Colonial Africa poses a conundrum for laws in African countries, where state laws have been used to undermine the authority of chiefs and spiritual and religious leaders.

Prof Ashforth’s presentation was centered on ideas about the history of legal customs and their interactions with public opinion, challenging notions of responsibility, innocence, confession and coercion. Enthused by the arguments presented by Prof Ashford, the audience sparked up a dialogue regarding gendered accusations of witchcraft and the nature of witchcraft trials, the role of the state in traditional understandings of witchcraft, and the traditional solutions to state laws that present a friction in customary understandings of witchcraft and witch trials.

Ashforth concluded his presentation by asking, “How do we write laws for that which we cannot see?”, indicating a need for the state to reframe its rhetoric and understanding of witchcraft in African societies.

The extensive dialogue between the Professor and the audience showed a public interest in developing and understanding witchcraft in contemporary Africa in an effort to impact state and customary laws.