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South African Traditional Healers Face Increased Competition




 

In South Africa, traditional healers known, as sangomas, are deeply entrenched in the culture. So much so that a 2012 court case affirmed that workers can be allowed extended absences to consult a sangoma, much the way sick leave is used to see a doctor. Sangomas are believed to cure various physical and spiritual ills, protect livestock and to divine the future. But how do these traditional healers maintain their influence in modern society and modern cities like Johannesburg?

Traditional healers

Grace Bavumile burns incense to call the ancestors. She recieves several patients a week at her home, some seeking a cure for body pains and others hoping she can bring them luck or a job.

Bavumile has been a traditional healer, or a “sangoma”, for 12 years. When she began practicing there were few sangomas in this city, but now there are several on each street.

"We do have great relationships. Though there are some differences because of the place where we grew up, or different schools. So we are not performing the same," said Bavumile. "We usually talk about difficulties, yes the difficulties of being a sangoma, and so many things. But most of the time where we met, we talk about the field."

It is estimated that South Africa has about 200,000 traditional healers and more than 30 million people seek their counsel.
 
But in modern times, some fringe elements have tarnished their reputation.  South African authorities say there have been 300 murders in the last 10 years allegedly for body parts to use in traditional potions - known as muti.

Rebuilding reputation

In order to protect their image, sangomas created the Traditional Healer Organization, known as THO. Launched in the 1970s, it does lobbying and also trains and teaches new sangomas on the ethics of the job.

These new recruits are learning about physiology, HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases. Program manager Thlakele Shongwe helped create the code of conduct - which he says protects sangomas and their clients. “Yes, it's very important to protect their rights, because traditional healers are not really recognised by communities, by the government itself. So they are victimised, sometimes they are called witches... when in actual fact, we know that traditional healers are very important in the society because that is where we get healing, that is where people get counseling,” explained Shongwe.
 
Recognizing the cultural importance of sangomas, the government created regulatory guidelines in 2003 in the Traditional Health Practitioners Bill to protect both the public and the practice. But it has yet to be fully implemented.
 
Sangomas also face increasing competition from Western medicine as general health care has been made more accessible to more South Africans in the last 20 years.
 
Most sangomas are no longer able to earn a living from their practice alone. For 20 year old Rachel - who comes from a family of traditional healers - that could lead to blending traditional healing with Western medicine.  “I'm planning to go to school, because I think I'm still young, I won't sit at home and wait for patients. I was thinking of doing a degree in biomedicine," she added. "Because I think it's quite a good combination.”

A recent poll says 70 percent of South Africans still visit sangomas on a regular basis.



 


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Information in this article was accurate in February 25, 2013. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.