Isak Niehaus

Social Anthropology

Room: Marie Jahoda Room 139
Brunel University
Uxbridge, UB8 3PH
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)1895 267413



  • PhD Social Anthropology, Witwatersrand (1997)
  • M Soc Sci in Social Anthropology, Cape Town (1987)
  • B Soc Sci (Honours) in Social Anthropology, Cape Town (1984)
  • B Soc Sci in Social Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology, Cape Town (1982)

Personal Biography

After attending school in Oudtshoorn (a semi-desert town which is the centre of South Africa’s ostrich farming industry), I studied social anthropology at the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand. Since then I held teaching positions at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Pretoria; and lectured at several universities in Europe and in the United States. In 2007 I joined the staff of Brunel University. 

I have conducted fieldwork in two different ‘homeland’ areas of South Africa. From 1983 to 1986 I did research on the social effects of population relocations in Qwaqwa. This work was done in the tradition of anti-apartheid exposé ethnography. Since 1990 I have studied the escalation of witchcraft accusations in Bushbuckridge. My more recent South African fieldwork focuses on HIV/AIDS, masculinity, de-industrialisation and on anti-crime squads.


Research Overview

I am a social anthropologist with a regional interest in Southern Africa and a long-standing fascination in the topics of politics, cosmology and withchcraft, masculinity and sexuality, social aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and also of crime and violence. I have been conducting multi-temporal fieldwork in the Bushbuckridge municipality of the South African lowveld, visiting the area each year since 1990. This provided valuable insight into social change, and also into the topic of history and culture.  

Member, Centre for Research in International Medical Anthropology (CRIMA)


Current Projects

British Academy
A Man is an Axe: Masculinity and Generation in De-Industrialising South Africa
2007 -
Isak Niehaus (PI)
This project develops my existing work in the Bushbuckridge region of South Africa, by documenting the effects of de-industrialisation on masculinity. Through interviews and participant observation conducted over a period of twenty-two years, I investigate the effects of the closure of mines and factories, and drastic unemployment, on men’s status. The project investigates the history of gender constructs, the changing significance of kinship and marriage, and also the upsurge in different forms of domestic violence including rape and homicide. I am writing a monograph on this theme that promises to provide novel insights into these neglected topics.

Society, Culture and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic in the South African Lowveld
2003 -
Isak Niehaus (PI)
My research project documents the onset and development of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the Bushbuckridge region of South Africa. It draws on interviews conducted with people who are HIV positive and their caregivers, as well as participant observation in diverse therapeutic settings, including HIV clinics, the homes of diviners, and churches. I focus on how networks of social relations have affected the transmission of HIV and experiences of suffering.  

Witchcraft, Power and the Person: A Ethnographic Study of the South African Lowveld  
1990 -
Isak Niehaus (PI)
I have been doing ongoing ethnographic research on witchcraft beliefs and accusations in the Bushbuckridge region of South Africa since 1990. My rearch has focused on escalation of witchcraft accusations in the light of modern changes, on the engement of movements for national liberation in witch-hunting, and also in the political management of witchcraft during the post apartheid era. More recently I have explored how the HIV/AIDS epidemic has led to the resurgence of witchcraft accusations and in the redeployment of older forms of vengence magic.


PhD Supervision

Brigida Marovelli: Food and food markets in Sisely, Italy: an ethnographic study; submitted in September 2012

Silvia De Faveri: Witchcraft, Violence and Insecurity in Kinsasha, Democratic Republic of Congo; 2010 -


Undergraduate Programmes

Module convenor

  • An Introduction to Anthropology – Beliefs and Institutions (level 1)
  • Contemporary Ethnographies (levels 2)
  • History of Theory (level 2)
  • Kinship and New Directions (level 3)


  • Ethics Officer
  • Anthropology in London: Conference Organiser

External Activity

  • Editorial Board of the journal Africa-Studies in Art and Culture
  • External Examiner, PhD theses in Development Studies, London School of Economics (2010 - 2011)
  • External Examiner, PhD theses in Anthropology, Goldsmiths (2011 - 2012)
  • External Examiner, PhD in Anthropology, University of Copenhagen (2010)



Journal Papers

(2013) Niehaus, I., AIDS, speech and silence in South Africa, Anthropology Today 29 (3) : 8- 12

(2013) Niehaus, I., Averting danger: Taboos and bodily substances in the South African lowveld, Critical African Studies 5 (3) : 127- 139

(2013) Niehaus, I., Anthropology and whites in South Africa: Response to an unreasonable critique, Africa Spectrum 48 (1) : 117- 127

(2012) NIEHAUS, I., From Witch-Hunts to Thief-Hunts: On the Temporality of Evil in South Africa, African Historical Review 44 (1) : 29- 52

(2012) Niehaus, I., Gendered endings: Narratives of male and female suicides in the South African Lowveld, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry: an international journal of comparative cross-cultural research 36 (2) : 327- 347

(2012) NIEHAUS, I., Endnote: Comparing South Asian and South African Suicide, Contributions to Indian Sociology 1 & 2 209- 231

(2012) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft and the South African Bantustans: Evidence from Bushbuckridge, South African Historical Journal 1 1- 18

(2010) Niehaus, I., Maternal incest as moral panic: Envisioning futures without fathers in the South African lowveld, Journal of Southern African Studies 36 (4) : 833- 849

(2010) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft as subtext: deep knowledge and the South African public sphere, Social Dynamics 36 (1) : 65- 77

(2009) Niehaus, I., Beyond the utility of violence: interpreting five homicides in the South African lowveld, Focaal 2009 (54) : 16- 32

(2008) Niehaus, I., CA Comment. Life & times of magda A: Telling a story of violence in South Africa, Current Anthropology 49 (2) : 238- 239

(2007) Niehaus, I., Death before dying: understanding AIDS stigma in the South African Lowveld, Journal of Southern African Studies 33 (4) : 845- 860

(2006) Niehaus, I., Biographical Lessons: Life Stories, Sex and Culture in Bushbuckridge, South Africa, Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 1 (181) : 51- 73

(2006) Niehaus, I., Doing politics in Bushbuckridge: Work, welfare and the South African elections of 2004, Africa 76 (4) : 526- 548

(2005) Niehaus, I., David Hammond-Tooke: An Obituary, Anthropology Today 2 26-

(2005) Niehaus, I., CA Comment. Forum on Anthropology in Public. How to Ignore Corruption, Current Anthropology 1 115- 116

(2005) Niehaus, I., Witches and zombies in the South African lowveld: Discourse, accusations and subjective reality, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11 (2) : 191- 210

(2005) Niehaus, I., Dr. Wouter Basson, Americans and Wild Beasts: Men’s Conspiracy Theories of HIV/AIDS in the South African Lowveld, Medical Anthropology 24 (2)

(2004) Niehaus, I. and Stadler, J., Muchongolo Dance Contests: Deep Play in the South African Lowveld, Ethnology 43 (4)

(2003) Niehaus, I., Inaugurating an Age of Bliss? The Millenial Aspects of Witch-Hunting in the South African Lowveld, Anthropology Southern Africa 1 53- 62

(2002) Niehaus, I., Perversions of Power: Witchcraft and the Sexuality of Evil in the South African Lowveld, Journal of Religion in Africa 3 1- 31

(2002) Niehaus, I., Ethnicity and the Boundaries of Belonging: Reconfiguring Shangaan Identity in the South African Lowveld, African Affairs 3 557- 583

(2002) Niehaus, I., Renegotiating Masculinity in the South African Lowveld: Narratives of Male to Male Sex in Labour Compounds and in Prisons, African Studies 1 77- 97

(2002) Niehaus, I., Bodies, heat and taboos: Conceptualizing modern personhood in the South African lowveld, Ethnology 41 (3) : 189- 207

(2000) Niehaus, I., Coins for Blood and Blood for Coins: From Sacrifice to Ritual Murder in the South African Lowveld, 1930-2000, Etnofoor 2 31- 54

(2000) Niehaus, I., Towards a Dubious Liberation: Masculinity, Sexuality and Power in South African Lowveld Schools, 1953-1999, Journal of Southern African Studies 3 387- 407

(1998) Niehaus, I., Society. Religion and the Making of Witchcraft: Continuity and Change in the South African Lowveld, 1864-1995, Africa Zamani: A Journal of African History 6 50- 82

(1998) Niehaus, I., The ANC's Dilemma: The Symbolic Politics of Three Witch-Hunts in the South African Lowveld, 1990-1995, African Studies Review: the journal of the African Studies Association 3 93- 118

(1995) Niehaus, I., Witches of the Transvaal Lowveld and their Familiars: Conceptions of Duality, Power and Desire, Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 2 (138) : 513- 540

(1994) Niehaus, I., Disharmonious Spouses and Harmonious Siblings: Conceptualising Household Formation Among Urban Residents in Qwaqwa, Afrioan Studies 1 115- 135

(1993) Niehaus, I., Witch-Hunting and Political Legitimacy: Continuity and Change in Green Valley, Lebowa, 1930-1991, Africa 4 498- 530

(1989) Niehaus, I., Relocation into Tseki and Phuthaditjhaba: A Comparative Ethnography of Planned and Unplanned Removals, African Studies 2 157- 182

(1988) Niehaus, I., Domestic Dynamics and Wage Labour: A Case Study Among Urban Residents in Qwaqwa, African Studies 2 121- 143

Book Chapters

(2012) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft. In: Oxford Bibliographies Online. New York : Oxford University Press 1- 8

(2011) Niehaus, I., Religion - South Africa. In: The World and Its Peoples: Sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia and the Pacific. New York : Marshall Cavendish 315- 320

(2010) Niehaus, I., Adam Kuper: an anthropologist’s account. In: James, D., Plaice, E. and Toren, C. eds. Culture Wars: Context, Models and Anthropologists' Accounts. Oxford, New York : Berghahn Books 170- 188

(2010) Niehaus, I., 'Like something that happened to Jacob Zuma’: on corruption and conspiracies in the South African Lowveld. In: Chabal, P. and Skalnik, P. eds. Africanists on Africa: Current Issues. Berlin : Lit Verlag (41) : 153- 168

(2009) Niehaus, I., 'Witchcraft', 'Magic' and 'South African Anthropology'. In: Barnard, A. ed. Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

(2009) Niehaus, I., Leprosy of a deadlier kind: Christian conceptions of AIDS in the South African lowveld. In: Becker, F. and Geissler, W. eds. AIDS and religious practice in Africa. Brill Academic Pub 309- 333

(2008) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft: Witchcraft and Politics. In: Middleton, J. and Miller, J. eds. New Encyclopaedia of Africa. Farmington Hills : Charles Scribner's Sons (5) : 232-235-

(2007) Niehaus, I., Divination Objects from the South African Lowveld. In: Dungamanzi/Stirring Water. Johannesburg : Wits University Press 175-194-

(2007) Niehaus, I. and Sikhauli, E., Tsonga Divination in the South African Lowveld. In: Dungamanzi/Stirring Water. Johannesburg : Wits University Press 171- 174

(2005) Niehaus, I., Violence and the Boundaries of Belonging: Comparing Two Border Disputes in the South African Lowveld. In: Violence and Belonging: The Quest for Identity in Post-Colonial Africa. London and New York : Routledge 91- 111

(2005) Niehaus, I., Masculine domination and sexual violence: Interpreting accounts of three cases of rape in the South African Lowveld. In: Reid, G. and Walker, L. eds. Men behaving differently: South African men since 1994. Cape Town : Double Storey 65- 88

(2004) Niehaus, I., Dreams. In: Peek, P. and Yankah, K. eds. African Folklore: An Encyclopaedia. London and New York : Routledge 99- 101

(2004) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft and Witch-Cleansing Movements. In: Kuper, A. and Kuper, J. eds. The Social Science Encyclopaedia. London and New York : Routledge (2) : 1067- 1070

(2004) Niehaus, I., 'Now Everyone is Doing It': Conceptulaising Transformations of Sexual Violence in the South African Lowveld. In: Welpe, I., Thege, B. and Henderson, S. eds. The Gender Perspective. Frankfurt : Peter Lang 368- 401

(2003) Niehaus, I., A Critical Review of the Ralushai Commission Report. In: Witchcraft Violence and the Law in South Africa. Pretoria : Protea Book House

(2002) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft in Anthropological Perspective. In: Haviland, W., Gordon R. and Vivcano, L. eds. Talking About People: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Boston : McGraw Hill 194- 199

(2001) Niehaus, I., 'Witch Doctor' and 'Zombies'. In: Blakemore, J. and Jennet, S. eds. Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Body. London : Oxford University Press 699- 710

(2001) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft in the New South Africa: From Colonial Superstition to Post-Colonial Reality. In: Moore, H. and Sanders, T. eds. Magical Interpretations, Mystical Realities: Modernity, Witchcract and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. London and New York : Routledge 184- 205

(2000) Niehaus, I., Christianisme, apartheid et genese de la sorcellerie le Lowveld Sud-Africain. In: Dynamiques Religieuses en Afrique Australe. Paris : Karthala 207- 238

(1997) Niehaus, I., Dreams and Dream Interpretation. In: Encyclopaedia of Africa South of the Sahara. New York : Simon and Shuster (Volune 1) : 500- 5002

(1997) Niehaus, I., A Witch Has No Horn: The Subjective Reality of Witchcraft in the South African Lowveld. In: Culture and the Commonplace: Anthropological Essays in Honour of David Hammond-Tooke. Johannesburg : Wits University Press


(2012) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa. Cambridge University Press

(2009) Niehaus, I. and McNeill, F., Magic: AIDS Review 2009.. Centre for the Study of AIDS

(2001) Niehaus, I., Witchcraft, power and politics: exploring the occult in the South African lowveld. London: Pluto Press

Page last updated: Thursday 27 June 2013