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Limited Good, Witches and the Curse of Unemployment

Written by Bonelwa Nogqaza and Leslie Bank


In the 1960s, there was an intense debate in the social sciences about how culture and poverty were connected. At the time, the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1966, 1960) famously asserted, based on ethnographic research in two slums of Mexico, that it was possible to speak of a “culture of poverty”. In this sub-culture families and communities allegedly lost faith in upward social mobility and developed fatalistic and hopeless attitudes. The concept was poorly received as academics and policymakers argued that this assertion blamed the slum dwellers for their poverty and that the main drivers of poverty were structural, not cultural (see Valentine 1968, Leacock 1971).


In another part of rural Mexico at this time, anthropologist George Foster (1964, 1965) came up with the idea of “the image of limited good” for the rural poor. He suggested that peasant-proletarian-type communities were dominated by a “cognitive orientation” defined by the idea that all “good” (both material and spiritual) was in short supply and that one person’s gain would be another’s loss. The basic model, he suggested, was informed by a sense of maintaining social equivalence and avoiding anti-social inequality.


In apartheid South Africa, the concept of culture in relation to poverty was problematic as it appeared to dovetail with the racist ideologies of the state. However, the idea of culture has recently come back into circulation. Some scholars now use concepts like landscape, indigenous knowledge systems, belonging or life worlds to account for the non-linear, zigzag nature of rural social change and the persistent attachments of urbanising black South African families to their rural homes (see Bank and Hart 2019). In this context, it is difficult to find the right language which acknowledges culture without essentialising it, or over-estimating its significance. In this blog, we apply the idea of “the image of limited good” to the changing politics of service delivery and joblessness in the post-pandemic context of the rural Eastern Cape.


The State and Limited Goods

In 20th-century rural South Africa, the apartheid government enforced forms of social equivalence through policies that restricted families in the reserves or homelands from accumulating “too much” land, livestock, or material assets. Communal land tenure systems helped flatten out rural social differentiation and create a state-supported system of shared poverty to support the cheap labour economy. The policy aimed to ensure that rural households remained too poor to be independent while lacking the means to withhold their labour from the market. Low, bachelor wages were paid in the cities to naturalise racial inequality and reinforce shared poverty and social equivalence in the rural periphery. 


After apartheid, when the state no longer controlled the labour market through Influx Control and the migrant labour system, families were more inclined to express social differentiation by improving their rural homes and acquiring material goods. The long-standing expectation of social equivalence remained but was also challenged by the rise of consumer culture and social differentiation in the villages.


In this time of elections in 2024, rural communities are intensifying their demands on the state for equal rights and basic services. Rural folks know that public goods are in short supply and that even protest, and “presence” will not deliver results. Many feel pessimistic that their efforts will bring about change. At the same, officials and politicians emphasize how the social grant system delivers citizenship and equivalence for all. They warn that other political parties might not be as generous to the poor if they came to power.


In this context, there is enormous competition amongst villagers for control of what they have. When service delivery meetings are held by officials in one section or area, residents block other citizens from neighbouring communities from attending to monopolise whatever the government might be offering. They also shut schools to children from other village sections even if those schools are not full. The culture of limited good is built on the idea that what comes inside, for whatever reason, belongs to those who live inside. This creates inter-community competition and fracture and makes it difficult for the limited available public goods, like adequate education, water, proper sanitation and electricity, to reach all citizens in a large catchment area.


Since the pandemic, the government’s strategy has been to bring poverty relief to targeted groups such as the youth, unemployed and young mothers. These micro-targeted poverty relief programs are creating tensions between genders and generations. In a recent Women RISE workshop held in Cwebe with SASSA officials, tensions erupted between younger and older women over grant allocations and accessibility. It was also reported that “outsiders” from neighbouring villages were prevented from attending the grant workshop. Thus, although the Department of Social Development espouses an ideology of building family values it is clear that these rights-based policies have the unintended consequence of splitting and dividing families in this time of scarcity.


This makes one wonder whether a Basic Income Grant (BIG) would be a better poverty relief strategy to encourage intra-household cooperation. In the election year of 2024, the chronic failure of service delivery, together with the increasing isolation of rural communities, seems to have intensified competition over scarce resources, producing a culture that resembles Foster’s “image of limited good”.


Witches and the Curse of Unemployment


In this environment of suspicion, fear, and competition, some individuals and households appear to feel that inclusion or exclusion from opportunities is a matter of luck or good fortune. In Tsolo, some 50 kms north of Mthatha, where jobs are scarcer than ever before, many speak of the current level of unemployment as “unnatural”. Older men and women claim that there have never been so few jobs and remember a time when almost every family had a migrant in their household. The shift from periodic to permanent joblessness has become a contested issue.  Families without employed members are no longer seen simply as “disadvantaged” but rather as “damned” or cursed by witches” who are the thieves of luck,. This curse happens when individuals maliciously deny others their store of luck.


In one case study Nozipho, a young Makoti reported that “when God or the ancestors grants you an employment opportunity, an evil witch can hijack your luck and prolong the pain of unemployment”. She stated that those who steal luck get pleasure out of the misfortune of others. She added that these evil people, who steal the luck of others, possess a “microscopic spiritual eye” to predict when a person is going to be successful. They make it their mission to steal this luck before it materialises. She emphasised that, through magic, luck is being stolen by others thus trapping some families in a perpetual state of unemployment, making them “zombies”.


In another case study, a young woman Zimasa expressed confusion about the scarcity of job opportunities. She suspects that there must be a “third evil eye” that oversees their lives. In her own case, she reported that she had applied for multiple teaching positions without success. This has raised suspicions that her family is cursed. She continued to say that by stealing the luck of others witches enhance their own opportunities. She said, “To get to you they take something of yours, like an item of clothing or a lock of your hair and turn it into a curse”. “Once they have you under their spell”, she explained, “they can make all sorts of misfortune occur”. Zimasa said that even if you are employed, they will ensure that conflicts at work occur so that you get fired. If you are not employed, these witches contrive to make your work-seeking efforts fruitless. She emphasised that evildoers (witches) can travel everywhere with their spiritual magics to relentlessly pursue and punish you. Another community member in Tsolo spoke of bad omens taking hold of someone if nothing positive in their life happens. He said that witches often steal pictures of their victims to manipulate these images and control their lives. He stressed that these actions are often invisible and not known by those being manipulated and cursed.


One of the mothers interviewed in Tsolo, Nokwakha, said that she was certain her family had been targeted because she had four  children with post-school qualifications and none of them had been able to find a job. A local sangoma (healer) revealed to her that she had been cursed and was caught in a “spiritual state of unemployability”. The sangoma said that someone else was spiritually holding their employment blessings because they were envious of the education level of her family. The sangoma suspected that in a village with many school dropouts and drug addicts, the educational success of her children made her vulnerable to the work of witches. The sangoma recommended a ceremony called ukuqinisa umzi (fortification) which would break the curse. Nokwakwa explained that she had followed the sangoma’s advice and fortified the family but had yet to see results.


Some Christian believers in the village explained that it was God who released good luck and employment to people which Satan was always there to take away. Many in Tsolo continued to say that the issue of gaining access to jobs had become a matter of “spiritual warfare” as one can be given a job and then quickly become jobless and “trapped in the spiritual realm”. Many people we spoke to said that these curses were delivered by older members of the community, especially women, who could not find jobs and wanted to advance their own families with “stolen luck”.


In other field sites, we heard that spells of this sort had driven some young men to commit suicide. In Kwelera two men hung themselves in trees. The danger of being cursed caused many of those who returned during the pandemic to seek ways back to the city.  One educated young man said that when he went to public events, rituals and funerals these days, he always acted stupid and dumb so that he would not be targeted by envious witches who wished to steal the promise of his education and strip him of his luck.


Caution at Funerals


Since the pandemic, it has also been noted that funeral practices have been changed in Tsolo as families attempt to rectify spiritual deficits caused by lockdown regulations. In correcting these mishaps, many families have shortened burial rites and reduced their cost. In Tsolo, we have observed that the night vigil ritual stage (imilindelo) of the burial rites, where the coffin is opened, and the body washed and dressed in the presence of kin has been widely abandoned in favour of simply taking the sealed coffin to the grave on the day of the funeral. Another observation is that families are investing far less money in funerals, opting instead for much more modest family rituals. In the post-pandemic period, the general appetite for ostentatious funerals in the rural Eastern Cape has subsided.   


In considering these changes and reflecting on this ethnography of witches it appears that one of the real dangers of the night vigil is the spiritual vulnerability of the body and the danger this poses to the family when kin and neighbours visit. Some said that if any of the visitors at the vigil harboured evil feelings and ill intentions towards the family, it was a perfect time to curse. One man said you sometimes get "disrespectful neighbours or relatives coming to the house” who are “drunk and mean no good”. Keeping the coffin shut and restricting access to the corpse was one way to protect the family from misfortunate in these fragile and spiritually dangerous times.


In relation to the dramatic cutting of funeral costs, we heard that some community members felt that ostentatious funerals might attract bad luck. They said that hosting expensive funerals which project a sense of upward family mobility lacked sensitivity and could lead to poorer families feeling inadequate and shamed due to their lack of resources. This was said to be an ill-advised strategy in these chastened times.


Consequently, there appears to have been a decision in this community to stick with some of the COVID restrictions on funerals as they minimise the threat of spiritual contamination (due to the absence of the night vigil) while at the same time demonstrating a commitment to social equivalence by downplaying social difference and inequality.




In the 1960s the theories of the image of limited good and the culture of poverty were criticised for being ahistorical, insular, and over-generalised, although they were based on long-term, in-depth ethnographic enquiry in real-life situations in Mexico. In the discussion above we have explored aspects of the “image of limited good” as a frame of reference in a situation of increasing scarcity, inequality, and fear in rural South Africa. In an election year, when aspirations and hope are high, the failure of state service delivery to reach the poor has produced a new politics of competition within and between communities. Even targeted poverty relief measures and grants are dividing rather than uniting families, genders, and generations. Broken promises and collapsing services appear to intensify feelings of rural entrapment and isolation which help produce the cultural politics of “limited good”.


At the same time, we also found that inexplicable and unnatural levels of unemployment stoked beliefs that evil agents in the local community were stealing the luck of ordinary folk to enrich themselves.  There is a pervasive belief these days that luck is now in such short supply that it must be stolen to feed the desire for advancement amongst those, like the older generation, who are excluded from the job market. We also noted that in this climate locals have changed long-standing family ritual practices to protect their families. These views and practices have produced a new cultural politics where poor rural communities are involved not only in a struggle against structural exclusion but in an acrimonious struggle against themselves.



Bank and Hart, 2019. Land Reform and Belonging in South Africa: A Place-making Perspective, Politikon 46: 411-426.

Foster, George, 1964. Treasure Tales and the Image of a Static Economy in a Mexican peasant village. Journal of American Folklaw, 77: 39-44.

Foster, George, 1965 Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good. American Anthropologist, 67, 3: 293-315.

Leacock, Eleonor, 1971, The Culture of Poverty: A Critique. Touchstone

Lewis, Oscar, 1960. Tepoztlan Village in Mexico. New York: Harcourt Publishers

Lewis, Oscar, 1966. The Culture of Poverty, Scientific American 215, 4: 19-28.

Valentine, Charles, 1968. Culture and Poverty: A Critique and Counter proposal. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

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