The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe 2000-2020 header

The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe 2000-2020


Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the African Griot about your book The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe 2000-2020! Can you please provide a brief overview of your book?

This book is about a multi-faceted, cultural-political phenomena in Zimbabwe that I call ‘the politics of the dead’. While this phenomena resonates widely across the region and beyond, this book explores various particular forms that it has taken in Zimbabwe over recent decades. These all turn, in some way, upon the demanding, problematic and uncertain presence of human corporeal and/or immaterial remains; and, ultimately, on the unfinished nature of death itself. The book has seven substantive chapters, which are top and tailed by an introduction setting the book in its broader comparative, thematic and theoretical contexts, and a conclusion which ties its strands together and points towards new areas of potential future research. Given that the intersection of politics and spirit possession/mediumship in Zimbabwe is already a very well-worn path of scholarship, the book deliberately begins by centering the role of human material remains in its politics of heritage, commemoration and violence; as unsettled bones and tortured bodies, and the proper (or not) transformation from one to the other that funerary and burial processes normally involve. Engaging critically with the ‘materiality’ and ‘corporeality’ turns in anthropology and related disciplines, it discusses the deepening salience of demands for the exhumation and reburial of human remains dating to different periods of violence during Zimbabwe’s colonial and postcolonial periods, stretching from the unsettled dead of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, to the silenced victims of the gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s, and more recently, to the brutalised bodies and interrupted funerals of devastating election violence in the 2000s, especially 2008. The core focus here is what bones, bodies and human substances do, and how these corporealities shape ongoing contestations over Zimbabwe’s troubled and unresolved violent pasts. A central theme is the politics of uncertainty that derives from the excessivity of human material and immaterial remains. In chapters four, five and six the focus shifts towards the uncertainties of the immaterial, in the form of rumours about assassination plots and what I call ‘political accidents’, and a reconsideration of the uncertain ‘precariousness’ of spirit possession and mediumship. These chapters lead towards a larger argument about uncertain and unfinished nature of death more generally. The book finishes by discussing Robert Mugabe’s contested and unfinished death and burial in 2019, which in many ways epitomised Zimbabwe’s politics of the dead in which he himself had been a key player.

The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe
Bones, Rumours & Spirits

£75 / $99
March 2022
James Currey

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£45 / $59.40

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JOOST FONTEIN is Professor of Anthropology, University of Johannesburg. He was previously Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Remaking Mutirikwi: Landscape, Water and Belonging (James Currey, 2015), shortlisted for the African Studies Association 2016 Herskovits Prize.