The Shape-Shifter on the Borderlands: The Trickster Figure and the Relationship Between Twentieth Century Oral Narrative in Xhosa Speaking Communties in South Africa and their Socio-Political and Spiritual Context

Prof. Felicity Wood
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This study analyses the connections between the trickster figure in African oral narrative and the legendary South African millionaire inyanga (medicine man) Khotso Sethuntsa, who owed his fame and fortune to the power of stories. Khotso, as he is commonly known, spread many tales about himself, partly to veil himself in an aura of mystery and secrecy; and also as a form of self-promotion, to foster belief in his powers. His stories gave rise to other, similar narratives, particularly in the Xhosa-speaking communities where Khotso lived and worked. These served to reinforce the conviction that his wealth and renown were linked to the control he reputedly wielded over some of the most perilous and potent supernatural forces in the traditional belief systems of the Xhosa-speaking people of South Africa.

In many of these stories, as well as in aspects of his life history, Khotso displays some of the key qualities of the trickster figure of African oral narrative. Like the latter, he proved adaptable to circumstances, changing, chameleon-like, to suit his socio-political, economic and spiritual context. Furthermore, Khotso was rumoured to be a shape-shifter, another feature of many African trickster figures, thereby avoiding capture and scrutiny. Indeed, all his life, he remained an enigmatic, mysterious peronality, wreathed in the mists and shadows of story. Moreover, just as the trickster, Khotso moved on the edges of his society, a creature of the borderlands. Like the trickster, too, he was a creature of contradictions: innocent and wily, gentle and ruthless, and open-handed and tight-fisted; a man who loved laughter, whose life history tended towards tragedy. Then, Khotso was a sunny, jovial person who sought, above all, the glare of publicity; yet at the same time a darkness surrounded him. It was alleged there was a shadowy, secret, possibly even sinister side to his life.

In exploring the links between Khotso and the trickster figure, this study highlights the way in which a well-known feature of African orality is brought to life in one individual's extraordinary life history. At the same time, it brings to the fore the way in which narratives speak to their socio-political and spiritual context, enabling us to perceive certain aspects of the latter more clearly; and, the way that context speaks to the narratives that arise from it, shaping them and giving them direction. Through this, the nature and function of aspects of orality in Africa are examined.

Keywords: Indigenous Beliefs, Xhosa-speaking Peoples, South African Supernatural, Oral Narrative, Khotso Sethuntsa, Trickster Figure
Stream: First Nations and Indigenous Peoples
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Shape-Shifter on the Borderlands, The

Prof. Felicity Wood

Senior Lecturer, English Department
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Fort Hare

South Africa

Dr Felicity Wood is a senior lecturer in the English Department of the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Her primary research interest is South African oral narratives, particularly those from the Eastern Cape and adjacent regions which engage with and rework aspects of the indigenous South African supernatural. She has published a number of articles relating to this field. In her research she has focused, especially, on oral narratives dealing with mystical and magical snakes. She is at present completing the biography of the renowned South African inyanga (medicine man) Khotso Sethuntsa, whose wealth and fame was based, especially, on his reputed control over such serpents.

Other research interests include literary explorations of the socio-political, which is connected, in part, to her interest in aspects of South African oral narrative. She has published articles dealing with this issue and her PhD was also on this subject.

Felicity Wood has had a number of her own short stories published and she is co-ordinates and facilitates the Fort Hare English Department's Creative Writing course. She is interested in poetry teaching at first year level. (This often involves teaching poetry to students who have never studied a poem before.) She has co-published a book on this subject with Dr Brian Walter, formerly of Fort Hare.

Ref: H06P0360