Traditional Healers Draft Bill: presentation by traditional healers

Arts and Culture

13 November 2001
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


13 NOVEMBER 2001

Mr MW Serote

Documents handed out:

The Committee and traditional healers discussed the formulation of legislation that will culminate in the formation of a council for traditional healers in South Africa. Most importantly a national centre for traditional healers will be established at Vlakplaas. This will begin with a cleansing and reconciliation ceremony the will be held on the 15 and 16 of December 2001 at Vlakplaas. This cleansing ceremony, according to traditional healers, will change Vlakplaas from a place of murder and torture, to a place of healing and reconciliation. Four Committees will coordinate this event; Arts and Culture, Land Affairs, Health and Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

The traditional healers performed their ritual before the Committee, they invoked ancestors by burning herbs (impepho). The Committee appeared confused about this exercise but were later told this is done before traditional healers could perform any exercise.

The Chairperson said it is very good that the country has accepted the practice of different cultures and religions. Research has shown that there are 200 000 traditional healers in South Africa. During his recent visit to Mali they were shown scripts written on traditional healers dated back to 1204. In the public hearings that they conducted around the country it became obvious that one of the oldest key institutions of indigenous knowledge systems is traditional healing.

There have been requests from traditional healers around the country for government to organise a dialogue between traditional healing institutions and religious bodies. When the Committee visited the Northern Cape one of the oldest traditional healers from the Khoisan pleaded with government to find a way to recognise traditional healing, arguing that there must be a dialogue between traditional healing, the nation and the church.

Dr Serote told the Committee that there is extensive research being done on the different herbs used by traditional healers. But the problem is that this research is being done by people who do not recognise traditional healing as a field of its own. They do not respect traditional healing, they only take what is important for them. At the beginning of 2002 the Indigenous Knowledge System Bill, which raises all of these issues, would be passed.

He said they thought it would be very important to identify some of the practical projects that emanate from indigenous knowledge systems. One of those projects will be conducted at Vlakplaas, which is where the opponents of apartheid South Africa were tortured, mutilated and murdered. Vlakplaas stands as evidence of how the human mind can degenerate because of the deeds that were done in that 100 hectare piece of land.

Some people died there, some disappeared and some have gone mad because of the torturing. There has been much blood letting there and therefore the place will be cleansed and used as a place of healing. It can be used as a place of counseling for victims and families. The place can also be used to enter into dialogue for reconciliation.

They are in the first leg of entering into a dialogue with traditional healers. He introduced Makhosi Leslie Moropodi and Makhosi Madlamini, convenors from Gauteng and Mpumalanga respectively. Traditional healers are given the title Makhosi to respect and salute the ancestors, they are not called Mr, Ms or Mrs.

The two convenors were asked by the forum to facilitate discussion with the Committee to look at how they could deal with the issue of Vlakplaas. The Vlakplaas project is an initiative of a number of organisations partnering with the Committee. On 15 December they would start looking at the need to transform Vlakplaas into a national centre for traditional healing and reconciliation.

Presentation by Makhosi Madlamini
Madlamini said it is very historical for them to be given recognition by the government after a long time. They have been fighting for recognition, empowerment and for the dignity that this profession used to enjoy for centuries. Now that there is a democratic government this is going to be made possible.

Makhosi Moropodi
Moropodi said traditional healing is a religion of its kind. In previous years traditional healers were referred to as witchdoctors. This was done because the western world could not understand the African's noble practices. This stigma was carried by traditional healers for generations. To be a traditional healer one must get that call from the ancestors and from God. One does not have to be educated to be a traditional healer.

For a person to be a traditional healer one has to undergo an initiation called "ukuthwasa". After that the person can graduate to be a traditional healer. Moropodi claimed that traditional healers could cure illnesses that the western-trained doctors cannot cure. According to Makhosi Moropodi traditional healers even cure people who are suffering from mental illnesses.

Mr S Dithebe (ANC) said there are some unscrupulous traditional healers who are spreading the myth that if a person infected with HIV/AIDS has sexual intercourse with children or babies they will be cured. He had no doubt that traditional healers present in the meeting were no quacks. The Committee, together with Health, need to work very closely with traditional healers to ensure that their institution gets that respect within the community.

Ms T Tshivhase (ANC) wanted to know the difference between diviners and traditional healers.

Makhosi Madlamini responded that traditional healing is very broad, there are various categories in the field. However, there is infiltration from people who call themselves traditional healers whilst they are not. In trying to explain the different categories there is a Sangoma (diviner), a person who is given that ability by ancestors to see things before they happen. A Sangoma is initiated and ancestors show the person a screen that enables him or her to see thing that happened in the past, present and the future.

Herbalists (inyanga) are those people who may have grown up with a herbalist in the family. Maybe the person used to accompany his/her father, mother or relative who was a herbalist and began to know the different herbs. But the person does not see the past, present and future, a patient merely explains the problem and is given the necessary medication.

There are those people who are called traditional surgeons (Iingcibi). During the time of initiation or circumcision, whether for boys or girls, there are special people in the community who conduct the circumcision operation. She added that there are different types of traditional healers, depending on the power that the person was given by God and the ancestors.

The coordination of all traditional healers in SA is needed. Traditional healing is a very spiritual thing. A person has to meet certain requirements before being accepted as a traditional healer. Legislation will be able to deal with those people who claim to be traditional healers whilst they are not.

Makhosi Moropodi said that because unemployment is too high certain people decide to be traditional healers, which is why there are traditional healers who say if an HIV-positive person meets a virgin he will be cured.

Moropodi added that traditional healing takes form in different ways. People's gifts are not the same and this also applies to traditional healing. Some people use herbs for healing and there are those called spiritual healers (abathandazeli) who pray using water for healing people.

There are also traditional midwives (ababelekisi). In the past African old ladies used to administer and conduct midwifery by themselves. There are certain herbs that a pregnant woman had to take because a caesarian section was non-existent years before. When the time of delivery came the woman in labour used to deliver with ease with the help of the old women and other bed attendants using the traditional herbs. He reiterated the fact that traditional healing is a gift from God and ancestors.

Ms N Mndende (UDM) asked who is above the other between the Sangoma and the clan. She said she believed that when one is initiated the clan comes first, in fact initiation is done by the clan. Everything is controlled by the clan.

Makhosi Madlamini responded that the clan as an institution in African culture has been and still is very powerful. This means that the clan is more powerful than a Sangoma. One cannot do anything without the support of the clan.

Ms Mndende's second question was that the traditional healers are talking of medicines, midwifery and traditional surgeons. She said as far as she knows these are found in all religions. For instance if they talk about midwifery, does midwifery have a relationship with religion? She said there is a need to define religion because medicine is found in all religions, whether Islam, Hindu or Judaism.

Madlamini replied that the issue of religion is very complicated and suggested that there should be a conference that will deal with it specifically. It is difficult to explain what is meant by religion because this could mean different things to different people. For instance other people when they talk about religion they think about buildings, church and uniforms. According to her everything is religion, the lives of the people, culture or music.

Thirdly Ms Mndende commented that if the traditional healers talk about cleansing in Vlakplaas it meant that they want to do away with impurities in that area. Who is supposed to cleanse Vlakplaas? The people who committed those atrocities or the victims and their families? According to her the people who committed those atrocities should go there to ask for forgiveness for what they did, not the other way round. She said she is worried about the use of the word cleansing because it is their ancestors who are lying there and the families of the victims need to take the spirits of those victims home. Otherwise the place has to be cleansed by those who were responsible for torturing and killing people.

Makhosi Madlamini explained that if, as Sangomas and traditional healers, they go to a place like Vlakplaas where people died, the place is regarded as being dark. Sangomas do not normally go to places like that. She said when somebody dies in her family they must slaughter a goat to cleanse her because attending a funeral to her means that she has been to a dark place. A place where somebody died is regarded as dark by traditional healers, even if it is a member of the family. So Vlakplaas needs to be cleansed first before traditional healers could work there.

Ms A Van Wyk (NNP) commented that South Africa is very lucky to have such an enormous wealth of knowledge on traditional healing. Traditional healing is a very important part of the health sector and it needs to be regulated properly and slotted in as an essential component within the community system. She supported the call for proper legislation and very strongly supported the coordination between the various departments with regard to traditional healing.

Ms M Njobe (ANC) aligned herself with the sentiments about the importance of traditional healing. It is important that traditional healers themselves recognised the need to be part of the health system in the country. The question of coordination is very important among the sectors that are relevant to traditional healing here in Parliament and in the Departments.

Ms Njobe said she was glad to hear that traditional surgeons and midwives are also part of traditional healing. She confessed that she was learning something new, especially on midwifery. She quickly made an example of her relative who was to have her fourth child, all the other three children were born through caesarian section. So this was the last caesarian she could have and she was warned about it because her health was at risk. They were involved as a family and when labour began they were to take the woman to a hospital far away because the nearby hospital did not have the facilities for such a caesarian section. In the course of her pregnancy she developed very terrible veins. She was sent to her home where her herbalist treated her using traditional herbs. To Ms Njobe's surprise when they visited her after a week those veins had disappeared completely. The hospital has been trying for all those months to treat those veins but to no avail. This to her showed the strength of traditional medicine.

When she went into labour Ms Njobe and her husband were very far from the area. On their arrival there they found that the woman had a baby girl, which was born naturally. It is important to have qualified and capable traditional midwives.

She said her only problem is the increasing number of quacks, some who pose as traditional healers whereas they are not. She asked what is being done about those people. What are the genuine traditional healers doing about this because it is damaging the image of traditional healers? For instance on the subject of initiation, the Eastern Cape is terribly affected by the death of initiates (abakhwetha) because of the fly by night traditional surgeons. These quacks should be exposed.

Makhosi Moropodi replied that there will be a process where traditional healers will be monitored by the proposed council of traditional healers. When the council is formed there will be no more quacks. The council will promote training, research and professionalism in the field of traditional healing. The council will also develop a code of ethics. The most important thing as of now is for them to be regulated.

How are traditional healers going to contribute towards reconciliation given their involvement in the Vlakplaas project? Are there any traditional healers of other races?

Makhosi Madlamini responded that people of all races have got the power to see things. She was having a problem with white people becoming Sangomas, telling people about their culture. She was not sure how these white Sangomas were initiated and who initiated them.

Makhosi Moropodi added that the issue of reconciliation was very important. The democratic government is succeeding because it embraced the concept of reconciliation in this country. It is true the people who caused all these problems in Vlakplaas were the ones who have to appease the families of the victims. Even in the African tradition after the death of a member the family mourns the death of its member and afterwards the cleansing is done to keep the place clean so that the family can do other things on a clean ground. With Vlakplaas, there is a need to cleanse the place so that traditional healers could heal people on pure grounds.

The Vlakplaas project
The cleansing of Vlakplaas takes place on the 15 to 16 December 2001. Each province will be represented by 60 traditional healers.

Dr Serote said the research has shown that 8000 people have been tortured and murdered in Vlakplaas. He said this could mean 8000 families and the major problem is that they cannot have resources to accommodate all these people. The most important factor is that traditional healers do not see the difference between traditional healing, religion and science. They see this as a means of giving a quality of life for the nation.

Dr Serote said he has already written to the speaker of Parliament asking that the Committee should conduct hearings on the need for Vlakplaas to be transformed into a national centre for traditional healing and reconciliation. All the Members of the Committee will be expected to be present in those hearings , although it was not clear when those hearings are going to be held. In terms of coordination he said there are four Committees that will be involved, it is the Committee of Arts & Culture, Environmental Affairs, Land Affairs and Health. He has already met the Chairpersons of these Committees to discuss what is to be done.

Lastly Dr Serote said there are three things which the Committee need to apply its mind on. Firstly the event on the 16 December which is slightly shifting from being a cleansing ceremony to a ceremony of reconciliation that will be led by traditional healers. Secondly, the Portfolio Committee has to lead the process of passing legislation to establish the national centre for traditional healers in Vlakplaas. Thirdly, the national centre is being established at Vlakplaas and a museum will also be established to reflect what this place was before.

The meeting was adjourned



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