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HARNESSING THE ANCESTORS: MUTUALITY, UNCERTAINTY AND RITUAL PRACTICE IN THE EASTERN CAPE PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA

  • Andrew Ainslie
Abstract

In the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, chronic economic uncertainty has seen social relations stretched to breaking point. Informants speak of a ‘war between men and women’. While grinding poverty, death in the shape of HIV/AIDS and suspicion stalk the land, and the project of building the umzi (homestead) falters, hope for the future and, with it, trust between people leach away. One response to such uncertainty is a turn to ritual. Through a nearly relentless schedule of ritual activity that invokes the ancestors and the Christian deity in various forms, Xhosa people attempt to shore up trust, secure ongoing investment in the rural homestead and sustain ties of reciprocity both among rural people and between them and their urban kin. It is also through the staging of these rituals that women, acting together and in support of each other, are increasingly assertive – often in the face of a violent rearguard opposition from men – in their efforts to exercise agency over the differentiated, fragmented and fragile social and economic relationships within their homesteads and across their villages.

Dans la province sud-africaine de l'Eastern Cape, les tensions sociales sont au point de rupture, exacerbées par l'incertitude économique chronique. Les informateurs parlent de « guerre entre les hommes et les femmes ». Tandis que rôdent la misère noire, la mort par VIH/SIDA et le soupçon, et que vacille le projet de construction d'unités d'habitation umzi (homesteads), l'espoir pour l'avenir se perd, et avec lui la confiance entre les personnes. Face à cette incertitude, certains se tournent vers le rituel. À travers un programme quasi continu d'activités rituelles qui invoquent les ancêtres et la divinité chrétienne sous des formes diverses, les Xhosa tentent d’étayer la confiance, de sauvegarder l'investissement dans le homestead rural et d'entretenir les liens de réciprocité au sein des populations rurales et entre ces populations et leurs parents urbains. C'est également en mettant en œuvre ces rituels que les femmes, par la coopération et l'entraide, agissent avec une assurance croissante (souvent face à une opposition réactionnaire violente de la part des hommes) pour aider les relations économiques et sociales différenciées, fragmentées et fragiles au sein de leurs homesteads et dans leurs villages.

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Africa
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