Jean and John Comaroff: Identity, Law, and the Paradoxes on Personhood in Contemporary Africa: The Return of Khulekani Khumalo

Welcome to a lecture by Jean and John Comaroff, Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. 

After the seminar, coffee and snacks are served in our lunch room. The event is open to all, no registration required.

Jean Comaroff

Jean and John Comaroff


What might imposture tell us about personhood in ‘postcolonial’ times? About the means of producing selfhood, identity, social viability? While the figure of the false double has long haunted Western ideas of personhood, imposture of various kinds has become ever more striking in late modern times. It is especially common in post-apartheid South Africa, for instance, where identity theft, plagiarism, fakery, even counterfeit crime are everyday occurrences. Taking a celebrated national case – the alleged ‘return’ of a famous Zulu musician who died a few years ago – this lecture explores what such acts of imposture might tell us about postcolonial self-fashioning, about personhood under contemporary social conditions, and about the difficulties posed by all this for law, evidence, and the meaning of recognition.


Jean Comaroff was educated at the University of Cape Town and the London School of Economics. After a spell as research fellow in medical Anthropology at the University of Manchester, she moved to the University of Chicago, where she was remained until 2012 as the Bernard E. and Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory. She is also Honorary Professor at the University of Cape Town.

Her research, primarily conducted in southern Africa, has centered on processes of social and cultural transformation – the making and unmaking of colonial society, the nature of the postcolony, the late modern world viewed from the Global South. Her writing has covered a range of topics, from religion, medicine and body politics to state formation, crime, democracy and difference. A committed pedagogue, she has won awards for teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and has championed programs that enable college students to study abroad, especially in Africa.

John Comaroff grew up in South Africa under the apartheid regime. In late 1960s, he and his wife anthropologist Jea Comaroff moved to Great Britain to pursue a PhD in anthropology. John Comaroff is Professor of African and African-American Studies and Anthropology, and Oppenheimer Research Scholar, at Harvard University. Prior to teaching at Harvard University, John Comaroff was the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, Honorary Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation.

His current research in South Africa is on crime, policing, and the workings of the state, on democracy and difference, and on postcolonial politics. His interests also include corporate Christianity, witchcraft, political culture, colonialism, the history of consciousness, politics, and historical anthropology.

Throughout the course of their anthropological career, John and his wife Jean have co-authored several books which include: The Truth about Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order, 2016; Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, 2011; Zombies et Frontières A l'Ere Néolibérale, 2010; Ethnicity Inc, 2009; Picturing a Colonial Past: The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera, 2007; Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, 2006; Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, 2000; Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa: Critical Perspectives, 2000; Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa, 1993; Ethnography And The Historical Imagination (Studies in Ethnographic Imagination), 1992; Of Revelation and Revolution (Vol. 1 and 2), 1991.

Seminar contact: Keir James Cecil Martin

Published Feb. 2, 2017 9:54 PM - Last modified May 30, 2017 3:57 PM