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The role of the traditional health practitioner in modern day South African context

by | Print Articles, Spiritual Living, Spring 2022

Institutional Context: The practice of African traditional medicine (ATM) in South Africa was historically informal and very rudimentary as previously eroded by the introduction of western culture in the continent. The practice of ATM remains a spiritual calling more than a career. I was privileged in that, as I started my journey as a healer in 2000, there was a conscious effort by South African healers to get formal recognition by the South African government, through direct interaction with the national Department of Health.

African traditional health practitioners worked tirelessly with the national Department of Health between 2003 and 2010 to officially recognise and formalise our healing work. The pinnacle of this process was that former President Thabo Mbeki assented to the Traditional Health Practitioners Act No.22 of 2007 in a landmark parliamentary ruling. The act allows government to regulate the work of all traditional health practitioners in South Africa and to deal with misconduct by healers. A special Directorate of Traditional Medicine was established within the Department of Health and the at least 10 per cent of the national health budget was reallocated to this directorate. An Interim Council for Traditional Medicine is also in place since circa 2008. We argued that we, as healers, could not be regulated by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) due to the complex nature of our work and inadequate documentation of our work, let alone our modes of training and practice approaches. It is my hope that the interim council will soon transform into a permanent council.

The Traditional Health Practitioners Act No.22 of 2007 classifies traditional healing work into four categories viz.

  • Herbalists;
  • Diviners;
  • Traditional Birth Attendants (midwives);
  • Traditional Surgeons (circumcision ritual specialists).

This classification does not recognise the entire spectrum of healing in South Africa but provides a comprehensive perspective of the situation on the ground. The recognition of traditional healers in South Africa has not been an easy journey and remains incomplete at this stage. We do hope that the finalisation of the Council on Traditional Medicine will provide for the standardisation of training approaches, medical aid claims and professional recognition for healers. It remains a bridge too far.

Outside of the scope of government, healers have made inroads into the establishment of formal tertiary qualifications for traditional healers. A case in point is the Mhlabuhlangene School of African Medicine in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal. They offer diplomas, bachelors, honours, masters and PhD programmes in African traditional medicine as well as theology and are fully accredited by the relevant higher education authorities up to National Qualifications Framework Level 10. Amongst the highest qualifications they offer is a PhD in healing science. The entire mindset that healers are barbaric, unhygienic, dirty, uneducated, misguided and dangerous to society has to change rapidly. We have worked tirelessly to change the face of healing in this county. What is actually amazing is that the calling to become a traditional healer (herbalist, diviner or prophet) has nothing to do with one’s educational background. We have academics, politicians, bureaucrats, sports personalities and ordinary working-class citizens who have been called to heal by their ancestors. I should also caution those who think that healers worship their ancestors. On the contrary, we venerate our ancestors and worship God. This is part of our unfortunate history in that, when the Christian missionaries and explorers first landed in Africa, they changed our ways of living and belief systems. Traditional and Indigenous belief systems were demonised as being barbaric and ungodly. It is my ongoing wish that young South Africans will in future register for higher education studies in healing as well as indigenous knowledge systems.

I have not been privy to recent studies and surveys, but we estimate that we have in the region of 750 000 traditional health practitioners in South Africa currently. In the early 2000s, this number averaged circa 550 000. Traditional health mentors (‘abo Gobela’ in familiar speak) remain very key in achieving successful traditional healing outcomes, as they play a significant role in the training and mentoring of healing initiates.

The policy on African traditional medicine is central to the implementation and praxis of our traditional belief systems. We use mostly herbs, shrubs, trees (90 per cent) as well as salts and chemicals (five per cent) coupled with animal skins, bones, and oils (five per cent) to make healing herbal preparations that keep our people in good spiritual, mental and physical health. One of my greatest wishes would be to see a primary health care system for South Africa that encompasses integrated approaches and collaborations between clinical medicine and African traditional medicine.

My perspective on the role of traditional health practitioners in South Africa
The African traditional healer of the precolonial era was a leader in society. These healers were very pivotal in regional and national decision making, seated next to our kings and queens. They were responsible for a lot of societal deliverables that included, among others, the following:

  • Rain making for the local regions;
  • Assisting the kings, queens and other traditional leaders with advisory and decision making in the context of ensuring the wellbeing and protection of the nation;
  • Precolonial primary and tertiary health care systems, including surgery and midwifery;
  • Strategy and scenario planning for the nation through prophecies, divination and predictions;
  • Domestic animal welfare and care;
  • Overseeing cultural rituals and ceremonies;
  • Counselling the general population;
  • The regular sourcing of herbs and shrubs for processing and the ultimate treatment of humanity.

Beyond precolonial Africa a lot has changed due to the advent of ‘modern civilisation’, colonisation, repression, political systems and the resettlement of our people, education and technology. The modern-day traditional healer works in a highly restrictive and regulated environment that stifles the creativity and versatility of our approaches and methods. It remains our task to ensure that traditional healers operate in optimal environments despite facing numerous challenges. When we introspect our roles in present-day South Africa, we realise that our central role remains to foster social cohesion and nation building, this to be followed by the building and rebuilding of nuclear families. We are, alongside traditional leaders, custodians of our culture and heritage. Our core daily duty remains to divine and treat our patients. We also have a mammoth task of balancing the earth’s energy points through several spiritually inspired rituals and ceremonies that include rain making. We are an integral part of the practitioners that have to ensure that we live in harmony with nature and its ecosystems. The complexity of colonisation compels us to educate the youth on African indigenous knowledge systems. We have to strive to empower the African children and adults to thrive in the diverse and interfaith community that we have become.

The ancestral calling is unique and not limited to black Africans only. South Africa boasts a few white, coloured and Indian traditional healers who were trained and mentored amongst familiar lines. We have to preserve the beauty and integrity of our diverse community. I personally had to sacrifice an entire professional career in the built environment in order to take up work as a traditional health practitioner on a full-time basis. This is my 22nd year in the field and I have gathered a lot of wisdom in the process.

My appeal to the younger and recently initiated traditional healers is that their conduct should remain dignified and full of integrity at all times.

Godfrey Madlalate, Dip (Herbalism) has been working as a traditional health practitioner since 2001 and is based in Soweto, Johannesburg. In 2000 he spent a year receiving training as a healer. He specialises in bones divination, physical treatment and energy balancing of individuals using African traditional medicine modalities. His other passion remains patient counselling and life path alignment.

He is the owner and MD of Madlalate Management & Development Consulting. He’s a part- time management consultant and previously worked in the private sector in a management capacity since 1993. He is highly experienced in the fields of project management, urbanisation development, enterprise development, corporate strategy and scenario planning.