Marginalisation of indigenous healers

Candles and incense on the floor. Picture: Leon Sadiki
Candles and incense on the floor. Picture: Leon Sadiki

The outbreak of the deadly Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic poses a serious threat to human life and socioeconomic order in the world today.

In South Africa, the virus has also exposed the continuing marginalisation of indigenous healers as key social partners as the democratic state responds to the crisis.

Nevertheless, one must commend the swift response to the deepening health calamity shown by the government, as well as other key facets of civic society, organised business, labour and faith-based organisations.

The position taken by the Ghanaian government in working closely with the country’s indigenous healers should be exemplary to South Africa.

Recognition from our own government – both in practice and attitude – the value of our indigenous knowledge systems of spirituality, medicine and healing by the government would be an affirmation of our African identity. Matters of holistic health cannot be the sole domain of Western medicine.

Our role, for instance, in educating fellow practitioners and broader society in dealing with of this deadly pandemic is vital. It must be incorporated into the public awareness value chain, and be properly defined by government through a consultative and mutually respectful process.

As we seek balance in these difficult times, let us ask our living-dead to provide sanctuary and ammunition in the fight against a devastating disease of both the body and spirit.

Over the years, our sector has done its best to comply with various pieces of legislation in health, human rights, education and ethical business conduct. We also continue to devise plans for rooting out fraudulent practitioners from our ranks. We always urge people to be vigilant and to report abuse to law enforcement agencies.

Government’s reluctance to consult widely with African indigenous spiritualists, medicine specialists and healers (and the condescension of Western healthcare practitioners towards our sector) during the fight against the pandemic is regretful, since there is a great deal of research to support our relevance to millions of people.

The main point is not to attack either Western, Eastern, African or other indigenous medical practices, but create a more inclusive approach towards holistic health and healing. As citizens, it is our democratic right to openly raise issues of concern and suggest a negotiated way forward.

It is a serious violation of our rights and dignities to be cast out, as if our spheres of medicine were inferior and unlikely to contribute positively to the fight against the immense and complex burdens brought on our nation by Covid-19.

The socioeconomic devastation that is anticipated in the wake of the pandemic is a big indicator that, unless traditional health practitioners are given their due recognition, they could easily fall into the category of affected groups who are simply not covered by current social rescue initiatives government has introduced.

The case can be illustrated further by revealing that, in the current climate of socioeconomic uncertainty, practitioners of indigenous African medicine and spirituality are affected in varied ways.

The sector include two broad lines of specialists: qualified healers and apprentice healers. The latter group often comprises people whose professions and careers may be in abeyance, because their ancestral calling has been disrupted or their regular sources of income have stopped.

Raising these issues openly is also an attempt to broaden understanding of our value in the overall holistic health and well-being of our society, especially given so many misunderstandings and outright distortions of who we are and what we do.

Our ancestors are first and foremost working through us and our internal cleansing so that we, in turn, become eligible vessels for the actualisation of healing powers through our minds and bodies.

Even in trying times such as these, we must fully embrace our ancestors and do whatever is possible and legally permissible to call for their appeasement and abiding wisdom, as we have done in times of famine, drought and other life-threatening disasters. The Covid-19 pandemic is another opportunity for all of us to become more grounded Africans and work harder at establishing a deeper connection with our beloved living-dead.

Those in our ancestral universe who love us must be central pillars in our prayers for wisdom and protection. This is the time to meditate deeply, as individuals and families, on the key life-giving values and lived experiences we know our ancestors regarded as sacred for blessings and longevity. As we seek balance in these difficult times, let us ask our living-dead to provide sanctuary and ammunition in the fight against a devastating disease of both the body and spirit.

Undoubtedly, our initiates at this time are facing insurmountable challenges, especially since the current lockdown regulations compel them to return home, whether their initiation programmes are complete or not. Some initiates, upon their return home, face ostracism, various forms of abuse and mistrust.

There is also a common misunderstanding in communities that tends to negatively pathologise a person’s ancestral calling. What is often misread is the fact that what may symptomatically present itself as an illness (in the ordinary way Western medicine defines illness) is in essence an uncomfortable, yet transitional phase towards self-healing mandated by the ancestors.

Our ancestors are first and foremost working through us and our internal cleansing so that we, in turn, become eligible vessels for the actualisation of healing powers through our minds and bodies.

The burdened and contested, but respected, life of the great Sanusi Credo Muthwa embodies these aspects of initial and – to some degree – perennial illness as a precondition for serving others as a healer.

Although his life was not one of wealth, many people in South Africa and across the world derived healing from the immeasurable gifts bestowed on him by God through his ancestors.

In 2018, certain aspects of the Traditional Health Practitioners (THP) Act came into force. Although the process was long and arduous, the progress is welcome, as it recognises that there are diverse healing practices in the country, not just Western medicine.

The act defines four categories of THPs: diviners (sangomas), herbalists (inyanga), traditional birth attendants (ababelethisi) and traditional surgeons (ingcibi).

There is no doubt that a more inclusive and mutually respectful working relationship between traditional health practitioners and the people’s government would benefit everyone. We, too, are ready to serve and play our part in the fight against the deadly coronavirus pandemic.


*Mkhize is president and founder of Umsamo Institute/Isigodlo Sase Mlambomunye

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