Why traditional healers are consulted first by approximately 60% of the South African population.

There is no doubt that the earth itself is medicine to many sicknesses and that some of the solutions to our problems are right in our backyard, it does not surprise us that approximately 60% of the South African Population consult a traditional healer or herbalist before seeking help from a western trained doctor. Marijuana has recently been made legal in South Africa and it has been proved to have medicinal qualities for years, Shea butter that comes from the earth has the ability to remove skin rashes, aloe has been used for years even in western medication but this is another herb that comes from the earth. When western medication was not affordable to the black community or even thought of yet; things like leaves, trees, herbs were used to cure, heal and medicate.

Estimates of the number of indigenous traditional healers in South Africa ranged up to 200,000 in 1999, compared to 25,000 Western-trained doctors. Years later this number has obviously increased on both ends with hospitals being built this also increases the need for trained doctors as opposed to the Sangoma’s who operate from their homes. Which makes us almost conclude that consulting a traditional healer would be easier on the pocket, although the cases of fraudulent sangoma’s and scam artists are not one we can ignore.

There are many controversies around the practices of Sangomas between those who believe in them and the remaining 40% of this population that doesn’t. An immediate assumption would be that the remaining 40% is predominantly a white population but you would be surprised at the increased rate of white Sangoma’s who have been trained and are operating.

While there are recorded instances of white sangomas before 1994, since 1994 an increasing number of white people have openly trained as sangomas in South Africa. The question of authenticity is still an ongoing discussion. According to Nokuzola Mndende of the Icamagu Institute, a Xhosa sangoma and former lecturer in religious studies at the University of Cape Town:

An igqirha is someone who has been called by their ancestors to heal, whether from the maternal or paternal side, they can’t be called by [somebody else’s] ancestors.

Nokuzola Mndende

Traditional healers and western medicine.

The formal health sector has shown continued interest in the role of sangomas and the efficacy of their herbal remedies. Botanists and pharmaceutical scientists continue to study the ingredients of traditional medicines in use by sangomas. Well known contributions to world medicine from South African herbal remedies include aloe, buchu and devil’s claw. Public health specialists are now enlisting sangomas in the fight, not only against the spread of HIV/AIDS, but also diarrhea and pneumonia, which are major causes of death in rural areas, especially in children. In the past decade, the role of traditional healers has become important in fighting the impact of HIV and treating people infected with the virus before they advance to a point where they require (or can obtain) anti-retroviral drugs.  A conclusion from a review by UNAIDS in September 2000, regarding collaboration with traditional healers in HIV/AIDS prevention and care, found that modern and traditional belief systems are not incompatible, but complementary.

While for many they provide the healing needed, there are some causes for concern. Charlatans who have not undergone thwasa charge exorbitant prices for fraudulent service, and not all countries in southern Africa have effective regulatory bodies to prevent this practice. Some sangomas have been known to abuse the charismatic power they have over their patients by sexually assaulting them, sometimes dressed up as ritual. Repeated use of the same razor blade to make incisions for muti carries HIV transmission risks in regions where the disease is rife. Western-style doctors have seen a number of cases of patients with serious gastrointestinal problems through the use of muti, especially in enema form, and have coined the phrase “ritual enema induced colitis” to describe the phenomenon.[

Traditional healers of South Africa are practitioners of traditional African medicine in Southern Africa. They fulfill different social and political roles in the community, including divination, healing physical, emotional and spiritual illnesses, directing birth or death rituals, finding lost cattle, protecting warriors, counteracting witchcraft, and narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition. There are two main types of traditional healers within the Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, and Tsonga societies of Southern Africa: the diviner (sangoma), and the herbalist (inyanga). These healers are effectively South African shamans who are highly revered and respected in a society where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or through neglect of the ancestors. It is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 indigenous traditional healers in South Africa compared to 25,000 Western-trained doctors. Traditional healers are consulted by approximately 60% of the South African population, usually in conjunction with modern biomedical services.

Although sangoma is a Zulu term that is colloquially used to commonly describe all types of Southern African traditional healers, there are differences between practices: an inyanga is concerned mainly with medicines made from plants and animals, while a sangoma relies primarily on divination for healing purposes and might also be considered a type of fortune teller. In modern times, colonialism, urbanisation, apartheid and  transculturation have blurred the distinction between the two and traditional healers tend to practice both arts. Traditional healers can alternate between these roles by diagnosing common illnesses, selling and dispensing remedies for medical complaints, and divining cause and providing solutions to spiritually or socially centred complaints.[

Each culture has their own terminology for their traditional healers. Xhosa traditional healers are known as amaxwele (herbalists) or amagqirha(diviners). Ngaka and selaoli are the terms in Northern Sotho and Southern Sotho respectively, while among the Venda they are called mungome. The Tsonga refer to their healers as n’anga or mungoma.


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