Accepted Paper:

In the Garden of Good and Evil: the moral economy and ambivalent representations of the snake/mermaid complex in Nguni healing cosmologies, South Africa.  

Author:

Penelope Bernard (Rhodes University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper will examine the ambivalent representations of the water divinities in South Africa, particularly amongst the amaZulu and amaXhosa Nguni-speaking groups. It will consider the role and representations of these divinities in relation to healing, fertility, rain/water and morality within the context of political-economic transformations and climate change.

Paper long abstract:

In many regions of Africa the penetration of capitalist economies and ideologies, the shift to individual accumulation and empowerment at the expense of communal wellbeing, and the resultant wealth and power disparities, have had a profound influence on how traditional religious symbols are currently interpreted. The imposition and spread of Christianity has led to further confusion and ambivalence towards traditional religious symbols especially in those cultures where snake veneration or ophidian worship occurred. This paper will examine the ambivalent representations of the water divinities in South Africa, particularly amongst the amaZulu and amaXhosa Nguni-speaking groups. Early ethnographic accounts reveal that these divinities, represented in the forms of snake and fish-tailed (mermaid) beings, were linked to communal wellbeing, fertility, rain, wisdom and healing; communal rituals were, and in some areas still are, dedicated to these divinities in order to secure such important benefits. The extremes of inequality and unexplained 'fast' wealth obtained by certain individuals in South Africa's post-democratic neo-liberal economies have led to a counter-hegemonic discourse 'from below' that speculates whether such wealth has been obtained illicitly by such individuals entering into private pacts with, or through manipulation of the powers of these water divinities. Such epistemic anxiety of the moral economy reveals a process by which traditional symbols and their referents become inverted to provide for critical commentary on differential access to wealth and power.

Panel P11
Living water: the powers and politics of a vital substance