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Medicine Murder in Colonial Lesotho

The Anatomy of a Moral Crisis

Colin Murray, Peter Sanders

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Medicine murder involved the cutting of body parts from victims, usually while they were still alive, to be used for the preparation of medicines intended to enhance the power of the perpetrators. A ‘very startling’ increase in cases of medicine murder apparently took place in Basutoland (now Lesotho), in southern Africa, in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. It gave rise to a dramatic crisis of late colonial rule. Was this increase a real one? If so, why did it happen? How far does it explain the crisis? What other factors contributed? This book offers some comprehensive answers to these difficult, complex and controversial questions and a highly readable analysis of how the crisis arose and of how it fell away. The authors draw sensitively and critically on many different and often conflicting sources of evidence.


Tables, Figure and Graphs
Note on names, orthography and pronunciation
A defining moment 1
Official and popular reaction 4
Key questions 8
Investigating medicine murder 11
‘Ritual murder’: the potential for broader study 16
CHAPTER 1 Basutoland: ‘a very prickly hedgehog’ 20

A policy of benign neglect 21
Economic failure and chiefly abuse 30
The Pim Report 38
The Khubelu reforms of 1938 41
The Treasury reforms of 1946 46
Disputes over the succession 51

The case of the cobbler’s head: Morija, 1945 68

‘A migratory body’ 68
The investigation 72
The preparatory examination and the trial 77
The judgement 83
Discords 89

CHAPTER 2 Medicine murder: belief and incidence 97
Sesotho beliefs in medicine 98
Early evidence of medicine murder 107
The incidence of medicine murder:
‘a very startling increase’? 109

‘The chiefs of today have turned against the people’:
Koma-Koma, 1948 128
‘Something going on in this village’ 130
The investigation and the preparatory examination 137
The High Court trial and the judgement 140
Struggles in the Makhabane chieftainship 145
Allegations of police misconduct 147
The failure of appeal 156

CHAPTER 3 Medicine murder: the debates of the late 1940s 161
‘This country is … overcast with a terrible cloud’ 162
Chiefs, politicians and police 165
The High Commissioner, the chieftainship and the question of

About the Author

Colin Murray has a background in anthropology and intensive experience of field research over many years in Lesotho and the Free State (South Africa). He recently retired as Professor of African Sociology at the University of Manchester. Peter Sanders served as an administrative officer in Basutoland (now Lesotho) from 1961 to 1966. He wrote a biography of Moshoeshoe (1975) and, with Mosebi Damane, an edited translation of the praise poems of the Basotho chiefs (1974).


A stunning contribution to studies which seek to get under the skin of the relationship between violence and political power in Africa … This book is destined to be one of the classics of African historical and anthropological studies. It will generate a lot of controversy. And it is above all a really great piece of scholarship.
- Richard Rathbone, formerly Professor of African History, School of Oriental and African Studies
Controversial, a fascinating read … this book will be widely read and debated, probably acrimoniously in some quarters, for many years.
- Jeff Guy, Professor of History, University of KwaZulu-Natal

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