Adam Ashforth

Faculty / Academic Staff
African Studies
Intellectual Biography: 

My early work on South Africa grew out of my D.Phil. thesis on commissions of inquiry in the “Native Question” in the twentieth century. This was published as The Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth Century South Africa (Oxford, 1990). The book examines schemes of legitimation devised by that curious institution the commission of inquiry (of which South Africa has always had many) framing official knowledge for the governance of Africans within the state.

Shortly after my first book was published in 1990, I was awarded a grant to visit South Africa to study the transition to democracy. On the invitation of friends of a friend in the U.S., I was invited to the June 16th commemorations in Soweto. After spending that weekend in Soweto, my political science research project went out the window and I became immersed in life in Soweto. For the next decade or so, Soweto became my home – even after I had to return to the U.S. each year in September to teach. I’m pretty sure I was the only Australian to be found in Mapetla Extension at that time.

During my years in Soweto, I struggled to understand the transformation of the apartheid state from the perspective of everyday life in Lekoka Street. Over the years, two aspects of life remained puzzling and preoccupied my efforts at writing. The first concerned the experience of living in a world devoid of a serviceable sense of justice, the sense that there is a power – the Law? – represented in the institutions and personnel of the state, standing above all, and setting wrongs to right. The second was the sense of insecurity arising from the fact of living in the world with witches.

I have published two books, and a number of articles, based on my experience in Soweto: Madumo, a Man Bewitched (Chicago and Cape Town, 2000) and Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa (Chicago, 2005). The first is written as a novel, telling the story of my friend’s struggle against the curse of witchcraft. The second is an attempt to lay out a way of thinking about the condition I call “spiritual insecurity” and its implications for democratic governance in the post-apartheid state.

For the past six or seven years I have been working primarily in Malawi, where I have a project with Susan Watkins in which a group of young Malawian writers keep journals documenting conversations relating to AIDS, sex, love, life, death, and whatever else takes their fancy. A selection of about 1,000 of these is publicly available on the web at

My interest in thinking about theory from the south derives from the conviction, drawn from life in Africa, that relations between persons and invisible entities must be treated analytically as relations, rather than merely as “beliefs.” Doing so, I’ve come to realise, requires not merely a radical rethinking of the various theories of modernity, but a jettisoning of the concept, and all the baggage it carries, altogether.

While we can remain agnostic about the existence of particular parties to a relationship – say, between human and spiritual beings - and recognize thereby that we can have only a limited understanding of the relationship as it is lived, or imagined, by those engaged in it, we can nonetheless treat the relation itself as real while treating the non-human entity as virtual. Hence, this approach is a form of relational realism.

Theory from the south, that is to say, has to be more than merely another theorizing of modernity, but rather a reframing of the analysis of relations within which human lives are lived.