Horror scene: No facilities for chained men found in sangoma’s back yard

2008-12-12 00:00

CHAINED up under a tree without water or toilet facilities, a group of young men, supposedly suffering from mental illness, spent International Human Rights Day on Wednesday fighting off swarms of flies and mosquitoes attracted to their resting place by pools of stagnant water and human excrement.

The group of eight shackled men were the patients of a kwaDabeka sangoma who claims to be able to cure the mentally ill. More fortunate patients of the traditional healer had their ankles shackled, but were free to hobble around to seek shade and relief from the stench and flies.

With dozens of men crammed into a tiny back yard and no toilet facilities, the area was awash in human waste and litter, and teeming with rats and insects.

The plight of the men was discovered by chance. On Wednesday morning, kwaDabeka police tracked down a notorious armed robber to an area near the sangoma’s property.

After staking out the area, police spotted the robber driving around the area in a car stolen during an armed home invasion.

Police immediately called the house robbery task team and stormed a shack the robber was seen entering — only to find the wanted man had managed to sneak out of his filthy hovel, possibly after a tip-off from local residents who spotted police cars arriving on the scene.

After searching the shack, police recovered numerous items of stolen property, including a kettle.

One of the hallmarks of the wanted robber is that his gang often steals kettles during house robberies they commit.

During the police operation, residents of 18th Avenue, Kwadabeka, repeatedly approached a reporter from the Citizen newspaper asking if police had come to question the sangoma operating nearby. Curious as to why residents thought the police would want to question him, the reporter explored the area behind the sangoma’s home — and discovered a house of horrors.

Behind the robber’s shack, a group of young men sat motionless staring at the proceedings from behind washing hanging on a clothes line that obscured them from police searching the area.

From a distance, the men appeared to be simply interested spectators, but on closer examination, rusted chains and padlocks tethered the men to each other — and to a large Natal mahogany tree.

Kwadabeka police, alerted to the situation, began inquiries into just what was going on.

Simmi Pillay of the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) said that after confirming with Kwadabeka police that the men were indeed being kept chained together, the HRC liaised with police and the Durban and Coast Mental Health Society to have the men released from their shackles and taken to hospital.

Said Pillay: “The law is very clear on this: only the police and properly registered mental health institutions can legally restrain someone. What this sangoma was doing amounted to multiple serious violations of human rights. We want the sangoma arrested and prosecuted.”

Pillay said that the Durban and Coast Mental Health Society visited the scene and made arrangements to remove all the shackled men to hospitals for diagnosis and treatment.

She said that the HRC has intervened before. “Very often the mentally challenged suffer severe forms of discrimination and abuse … As the HRC, we have been trying to highlight the plight of the mentally challenged, and we hope that this will become a landmark case.

“There are circumstances where patients do need to be restrained, but not on the orders of a sangoma keeping them in his back yard .… Quite possibly there is little or nothing wrong with them — the sangoma is not qualified to make a diagnosis. Even if the men are mentally ill, most conditions can be easily controlled.”

The sangoma allegedly charged a flat rate of one cow per patient to cure them of mental afflictions, regardless of the type of affliction. According to the patients, the cure lasts around a month, but sometimes patients have to remain for much longer periods — which costs their families additional cows.

A cow costs roughly R5 000, and the sangoma is the only person who decides when his cure is complete.

The shackled men all appeared to be cheerful and friendly, and asked for water, cigarettes and sweets. All the men asked to be taken back to their homes, complaining of insect bites, heat, thirst and hunger.

The men claimed to have been in the care of the sangoma for various periods of time. One shackled man claimed to have been under the sangoma’s care for six months — saying his family paid the sangoma a number of cows for his treatment.

The legs of some of the men bore old scars that corresponded to the position of their shackles.

Chains of various types, some rusted and with sharp edges, had been secured around the men using old padlocks of various types.

Lindiwe Shayi of the SA Federation for Mental Health said the conditions the men were being held under were not only shocking, but also a human rights violation.

Shayi said that her organisation consults with traditional healers.

“We have held talks with traditional healers and told them that in cases where they cannot cure the person they should contact the federation for assistance.”

Bertha Peters-Scheepers of the Health Professions Council said: “If someone uses the title doctor and masquerades as a medical doctor, offering medical services, then they are committing fraud. The community need to report such cases to the police.”

The sangoma has no medical training and no qualifications. Repeated visits to his house failed to find him home.

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