/ 3 June 2023

Cannibalism haunts the ruins of capitalism

Cannibalism is macabre but it is everywhere. In colonial Congo, the Belgian empire ate the labour, timber, hands and cocoa of the Congolese. Writing more than 60 years ago, Aime Césaire recorded the bloody massacres by European foot soldiers on the African continent. He reminds us that in the European quest to civilise the “barbarism” of Africa, colonial adventurers diced African bodies. 

He quotes one of the conquerors of Algeria: “It is true that we are bringing back a whole barrelful of ears collected, pair by pair, from prisoners, friendly or enemy.” Césaire describes villages as hideous butcheries, and colonisers as collectors of heads and ears who found sadistic pleasure in warm blood.

Now, we see increasing reports of mass cannibalism recorded on Instagram in Haiti, the discovery of mass graves in Kenya where a pastor had starved his congregants to death, an uncle who ate the innards of his nephew in Port St Johns, and a Soweto grandmother who has been apprehended for allegedly mutilating the bodies of two young boys including her grandson. 

In the plantation areas of Malawi, wealthy people were accused of being vampires and sucking the blood of the impoverished. The cult murders in Krugersdorp were immortalised in the television series Devilsdorp.

Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Sea and European foreign policy swallow entire boatfuls of Africans. In the first three months of this year, 661 Africans have perished in the waters dividing Africa from Europe. 

There is a lineage here. These forms of consumption are not random or even spectacular. We can thread the genealogy through our long history that is imbricated in ongoing racial capitalism that literally eats our bodies to feed wealth and deepen inequality. 

My recently published book, Riotous Deathscapes, explores this phenomenon by pointing to its pervasiveness. But it insists that cannibalism and related occult practices are not an index of African barbarism and backwardness. Instead, it suggests that as participants of global racial capitalism, we are all guilty of different iterations of cannibalism. 

An edited excerpt follows from my book where I think about cannibalism on South Africa’s deathscapes.

A 2017 news report that had people aghast told the story of a young man who had eaten his nephew at a seaside village on the outskirts of the Emampondweni seaside town of Port St Johns. He had reportedly cooked and consumed him. The boy’s grandmother discovered his arm near the homestead. Upon investigation, the uncle confessed to having cut him up and eaten him. Community members reported that he consumed the liver and heart as these are softer body parts that cook more easily. 

This story has been linked to the Vondo gang. The Mpondo vampires. 

Months before the young boy was murdered and eaten, the Vondo had reportedly been running riot in Lusikisiki. Their modus operandi were violent masculinist rituals. Their victims were mostly women who were raped, butchered, and whose blood was consumed. The blood sucking marked them as vampires. 

These are young people whose lust for survival requires them to butcher living people. Since black flesh belongs to the surplus bodies of the barely human, vampires are a part of the deathscape. 

A woman who had been a teacher at my primary school was allegedly killed by the Vondo. I remember her thin frame and hoarse voice well. In my recollection, I see the smoke from her cigarette form rings around her head. One of her shoes was found at the gate of the outside perimeter of her house. Her frail, brutalised body was not far away. 

The Vondo appear to have been most active near the technical college. The students from the college and surrounding community lived in fear. Tired of the terror and havoc wreaked by the Vondo, young people decided to look for members of this gang. Through means that remain unclear, they found two young men who were reportedly vampires. They proceeded to set them alight in a public demonstration of revenge. 

The fiery Vondo killing was recorded on cell phones. The images circulated on social media and were shown by an investigative journalism programme on television. I watched the killing from my Johannesburg home. The Cutting Edge: Vampires — Vondos programme can be watched on YouTube. As of mid-2022, it had been viewed 144 100 times. Murder on demand.

A few months after the cases of cannibalism and Vondo activities, the news erupted with reports of rampant cannibalism in the rural hinterlands of Escort in KwaZulu-Natal. The story broke because a self-confessed cannibal handed himself over at the local police station claiming that he was exhausted from living the life of a cannibal. He presented a human hand and a limb to assure the police that the story was credible. At his residence, they discovered eight ears in a pot. 

Cannibal confessions are not new, and they are particularly common in times of turbulence. Following the cannibal confessions, investigations revealed more human remains in the village of Rensburgdrift. Accusations circulated of heart eating, raping, murder, cutting women open and eating their flesh. So too did claims that human remains may have been dug up from graves. 

The Ladysmith Gazette reported that at least 300 people confessed to knowingly eating human remains served to them by a traditional healer in the Amangwe area. 

The sheer number of people knowingly participating in cannibalism further links the inequalities wrought by consumer capitalism to aspirations to the good life and invention through the occult. The logic of cannibalism is both seamless with that of the inequalities of capital accumulation and parodies the failures of capitalism. It is the logic of the postcolony and a mockery of the corrupt state. 

Everyone is trying to eat themselves out of their abjected position. The rural poor eat to counter the violence of abstraction and impoverishment.

As David McNally, the author of Monsters of the Market, notes, the fetishes that torment sub-Saharan Africa are a consequence of continued plunder for natural products, including diamonds, gold, cotton, cocoa, ivory and rubber. He contends that “with each manic effort to seize their continent’s wealth, Africans have been captured, whipped, beaten, worked to death, structurally adjusted — all so that … people might be downtrodden, and capital might accumulate.” In causing mass debilitation, forcing people off their land, grabbing their resources and stifling self-sufficiency, primitive accumulation occurs. 

People become dependent on paid work, but with soaring unemployment, desperation grips the countryside. 

Global, national and local capital circulates and is accumulated illicitly. Wealth is a magical force characterised by unfair competition, historical inequalities that privilege some and marginalise others nationally and in the local community. But capital accumulation is always elusive for the local communities. Those who want good fortune and wealth must consider occult means.

But cannibalism has material effects. Those of us who live with this practice must confront its truths. What is the smell of burned human flesh? What is the residue of dead Vondo left in the street after public burning? What do public burnings represent in South Africa? How do children remember the spectacle of death?

What do flames conjure for those who have witnessed the furnace of death? And when the dead were encountered in the woods, what of the smell of decay? How does the smell live on in sensorial memory? What hauntings and traces do the dead leave behind for those who touch and smell them?

What does facing the open casket reveal about the trail of neoliberal failure and devastation? What mourning effects emerge from the grave and how do these live on as an energy upon which future generations draw? What energy emits from the debris in the deathscapes?

Parts of this article are an edited excerpt from Riotous Deathscapes published by Duke University Press and co-published by Wits University Press. Hugo ka Canham is a writer and professor at the Institute for Social and Health Science at the University of South Africa.