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Dr. Magnus Echtler

Senior Researcher

+49 341 9737 733

Areas of interest

  • Religions in Africa
  • Ethnicity and Power Practice Theories
  • Materiality – Space – Bodies
  • Rituals and Performance

African secularities of culturalisation: the Zulu case

In my project I investigate ‘culturalisation’ in the context of the Zulu of South Africa, that is processes whereby structures, practices and discourses are assembled into distinct units labelled as ‘cultures’ which are afforded with relative autonomy in relation to other social spheres as well as other cultural units. I claim that if ‘secularity’ refers to the variable delineation of religion from other spheres, then most contemporary African secularities involve modes of culturalisation.

In most regions of sub-Saharan Africa, secularity was decisively shaped by the cultural encounter of colonialism. Colonial states, in national variants, established ‘religion’ as a distinct social sphere, but restricted access to Christianity and Islam. At the same time, African traditions were not recognised as ‘religion’, but could be legitimised as ‘culture’. Colonial administration ordered multiple and shifting identities into collective units, and certain structures, practices and discourses were labelled as customary for specific cultural units and afforded legal recognition. Culturalisation thus formed part of the colonial encounter, and African agents took leading roles in the creation or reification of cultural/ethnic identities, which have remained a potent political force in many post-colonial states in Africa. With my research, I intent to explore secularisation as culturalisation in South Africa from its colonial emergence to its current permutations.

The historical section of my project hinges on John Langalibalele Dube, who, as an US educated minister of the Congregational Church, promoted Black advancement through industrial education, and, as the first president of the African National Congress, advocated Black nationalist policy. Furthermore, he hailed from a chiefly lineage and became leading member of the Inkatha movement promoting Zulu nationalism. Located at the intersection of these divergent trajectories is his book on good manners (Ukuziphatha kahle, 1928) in which he discussed how traditional Zulu practices could be reconciled with modern Christian ones. Reworking the boundary of religion and culture, Dube partook in Zulu culturalisation, in the construction of secular arrangements that delineated and acknowledged a cultural just like a religious sphere. However, secular protection of cultural practices did not go uncontested, and remained highly conflictual in post-apartheid South Africa.

I analyse contemporary modes of Zulu culturalisation through public events, focussing on performance and materiality. The largest and most controversial public event celebrating Zulu royalty is the reed dance, (re-)invented in 1984, with some 30.000 virgins participating. Controversy centres on the practice of virginity testing, and some government agencies lobby against it, while other are involved in the organisation of the event as it relates to two conflicting reference problems of secularity in present day South Africa – the problem of individual freedom/rights and the one of communal non-interference. In the performance, culture is embodied and materialised, and contestation of Zulu culturalisation centres on female bodies and dress. In other events, Zuluness materialises in massed bodies of ‘Warriors’ (amabutho), like in the case of protests against the proposed dissolution of the Ingonyama Trust. In 2018, a parliamentary commission suggested to expropriate the trust, through which the Zulu king and traditional leaders (amakhosi) control about one third of the land in KwaZulu-Natal, for its failure to implement social transformation. At the subsequent ritualised performances of protest, which recalled members of the Inkatha Freedom Party wielding ‘cultural weapons’ in the low scale civil war with the ANC in the 1980s/90s, Zulu culturalisation and its claim to land outside state administration materialised in male bodies and outfit.


2019 - 2020

Fellow, Cluster of Excellence Africa Multiple: Reconfiguring African Studies, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth (GER)

2014 - 2018

Researcher, DFG Project Tradition and Innovation: Sacred Space in/off Durban, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth (GER)


PhD, Anthropology, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth (GER)

2005 - 2014

Lecturer, Study of Religion, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth (GER)


M.A., Anthropology, Philosophy, Study of Religion, Bayreuth University, Bayreuth (GER)

Relevant Publications

  • Echtler, Magnus. “Redeeming Zululand: Emplacing Cultural Resonances in the Nazareth Baptist Church, South Africa.” In Transnational Religious Spaces. Edited by Philip Clart and Adam Jones, 84–106. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Shembe, the Black Messiah: A Postcolonial Intervention.” In Postkolonialismus, Theologie und die Konstruktion des Anderen: Erkundungen in Einem Grenzgebiet. Edited by Britta Konz, Bernhard Ortmann and Christian Wetz, 2020.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Pissing the Sacred: Schlingesief’s African Opera Village as a Fundraising Heterotopia.” In Art of Wagnis. Christoph Schlingensief’s Crossing of Wagner and Africa. Edited by Fabian Lehmann, Nadine Siegert and Ulf Vierke, 134–50. Wien: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2017.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Shembe Is the Way: The Nazareth Baptist Church in the Religious Field and in Academic Discourse.” In Bourdieu in Africa: Exploring the Dynamics of Religious Fields. Edited by Magnus Echtler and Asonzeh F.-K. Ukah, 236–66. Leiden: Brill, 2016a.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Introduction: Exploring the dynamics of religious fields in Africa.” In Bourdieu in Africa: Exploring the Dynamics of Religious Fields. Edited by Magnus Echtler and Asonzeh F.-K. Ukah, 236–66. Leiden: Brill, 2016b.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Scottish Warriors in KwaZulu-Natal: Cultural Hermeneutics of the Scottish Dance (Isikoshi) In the Nazareth Baptist Church, South Africa.” In Africa in Scotland, Scotland in Africa: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Hybridities. Edited by Afe Adogame and Andrew Lawrence, 326–48. Leiden: Brill, 2014.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “The Clitoris Is Indeed Your Sweet: Negotiating Gender Roles in the Ritual Setting of the Swahili New Year’s Festival.” In Negotiating Rites. Edited by Ute Hüsken and Frank Neubert, 59–80. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “A Real Mass Worship They Will Never Forget: Rituals and Cognition in the Nazareth Baptist Church, South Africa.” In Body, Performance, Agency, and Experience. Edited by Angelos Chaniotis and Axel Michaels, 371–97. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Born-Again Witches and Videos in Nigeria.” In Global Pentecostalism: Encounters with Other Religious Traditions. Edited by David Westerlund, 73–92. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009.
  • Echtler, Magnus. Changing Rituals - the New Year’s Festival in Makunduchi, Zanzibar, Since Colonial Times. PhD Thesis. University of Bayreuth, 2008a.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “Introduction.” In Unpacking the New: Critical Perspectives on Cultural Syncretization in Africa and Beyond. Edited by Afe Adogame, 1–23. Wien: Lit, 2008b.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “The Recent Changes of the New Year's Festival in Makunduchi, Zanzibar – a Reinterpretation.” In The Global Worlds of the Swahili: Interfaces of Islam, Identity and Space in 19th and 20th Century East Africa. Edited by Roman Loimeier and Rüdiger Seesemann, 131–61. Berlin: Lit, 2006a.
  • Echtler, Magnus. “They Bewitched the Generator – State Power and Religious Authority at the New Year's Festival in Makunduchi, Zanzibar.” In Exercising Power: The Role of Religions in Concord and Conflict. Edited by Tore Ahlbäck, 51–68. Åbo: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006b.