Launch of the South African Traditional Medicinal Plants from KwaZulu-Natal (Book Launch)

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13 November 2012
Chairperson: Dr B Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The purpose of the meeting was to launch a book titled ‘South African Traditional Medicinal Plants from KwaZulu-Natal’. The authors of the book are Berit Smestad Paulsen, a professor in Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy, University of Oslo; Hegel Ekeli from the University of Oslo, Department of Pharmacy; Quinton Johnson, a Medical Physiologist, the Managing Director of The International Phytomedicince Centre at the University of Stellenbosch as well as Kaare R. Norum, a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of Oslo.

The book was based on notes from a Norwegian doctor, Henrik Greve Blessing, who paid a visit to South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal in the years 1901-1904; he was in search of plants which were used locally for the treatment of illnesses, pains and poisoning. Dr Blessing was successful in identifying 98 plants and documented them through writings and drawings in his journal, which now forms part of the book under discussion. The plant names documented by Dr Blessing were in Zulu pseudo names, therefore it was the authors of the book who collaborated in the translation of these names into English and also to identify and ascribe to them their scientific meanings and uses.

The main points that were raised throughout the presentations emphasised the value of the partnerships between South Africa, Norway and Sweden, and that instead of preserving the negative stereotypes associated with the use of traditional medicine, traditional medicine should be regulated and registered as part of the national healthcare system. The main reasoning behind this logic was that the majority of South Africans, were poor and unemployed and about 70% of them did not have medical insurance. Some of the challenges of registering traditional medicine were that of insufficient evidence, and quality and safety mechanisms to support its endorsement. However, it was widely accepted that traditional medicine complements and scientific and modern medical advances, and that the book laid a solid foundation for further medical research, both within and outside the borders of South Africa.

Meeting report

Mr Quinton Johnson, the programme director, who is also one of the co-authors of the book, began by introducing the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Dr. BM Goqwana (ANC).

The Chairperson acknowledged the important role played by ancestry and the importance of valuing African cultures and traditions. He briefly outlined the history of African indigenous medicine and that the main shortcoming at the time was that traditional healers and doctors did not understand the importance of measuring and prescribing the correct quantities of medicine and that there were no systems in place to test these medicines before prescription. He then expressed concern about the current title of ‘traditional medicine’ and questioned its relevance in the present day. Lastly, the Chairperson stated that the current title of ‘traditional medicine’ was a legacy from previous exploitative colonial experiences; he thus proposed that the current title awarded to the field be revised.

The Chairperson then introduced Dr Mathole Motshekga, the ANC Chief Whip. Dr Motshekga began by stating that the book under discussion served a variety of functions, such as the renewal of the bonds that existed between South Africans and Norwegians as well as the recovery of South Africa’s indigenous medical breakthroughs. He also noted that government had a responsibility to acknowledge and incorporate traditional medical practitioners into the national health care system as more than 70% of South Africans rely on traditional medicine as a primary source of health care. As a result traditional medicine should be standardised. Dr Motshekga further stated that as South Africans move towards a more modern lifestyle, many of them were suffering grave health consequences, such as the side effects of stress, diabetes, heart disease and a general lack of well-being, therefore traditional medicine could be incorporated into modern lifestyles, complementing modern/ Western medicine. Traditional medicine therefore played a preventative role for serious disease.

Dr Motshekga stated that the Norwegian researcher who took part in the compilation of the book should be applauded for recognising and highlighting traditional/ indigenous medicine. Dr Motshekga ended by drawing attention to the fact that the majority of South Africans were poor, unemployed and had no access to medical aid. Therefore modern medicine was not accessible as it was expensive, so traditional medicine was more accessible and affordable, and should therefore be acknowledged as complementary to modern medicine.

Mr Johnson then introduced Mr K Eltervag, a representative from the Norwegian embassy who acknowledged that the book under discussion was a starting point for further medical research, both within and outside the borders of South Africa and that the African continent was rich in plant species valuable for meaningful medical breakthroughs. He further emphasised the strong relationships and partnerships between South Africa, Norway and Sweden, in a variety of fields, more especially in the field of medical research. Mr Eltervag also gave a brief introduction of the work previously done by Dr Henrik Greve Blessing, a Norwegian medical doctor who paid a visit to KwaZulu-Natal in the years 1901- 1904 in search of plants which would advance his medical research at the time.

Mr Johnson stated that traditional practitioners contributed a great deal of knowledge and expertise to the field of medicine, and that it was the peoples’ mindsets regard that needed to change so that the country could succeed in moving forward- he termed this ‘the revolution of the mind’. He also acknowledged that evidence to support the use of traditional medicine in South Africa was still lacking, as well as quality and safety mechanisms to support its usage. He suggested that in order to improve knowledge and increase the endorsement of traditional medicine, the country needed to invest in the future of young people, by helping them to improve literacy levels by strongly advocating for the availability and accessibility of reading material for these young people. Mr Johnson then noted that Africa had one of the lowest literacy levels in the world.

Mr Kaare R Norum, one of the co-authors of the book further emphasised the relevance of the partnership between South Africa and Norway, stating that it formed the basis for further advances in medical breakthroughs. He also spoke briefly of Dr Blessing and his journey to KwaZulu-Natal, and how he was successful in identifying about 98 plants which had medicinal properties. Dr Blessing recorded these plants and documented them as hand drawings in his journal, which had also been included as part of the book. He also noted that the book profile was both indigenous as well as scientific.

Dr Berit Semestad Paulsen, one of the co-authors of the book, began by excusing Ms Hege Ekeli, the final co-author of the book, from attending the book launch and that she would was looking forward to being present, but unfortunately she could not make it. Dr Paulsen gave a brief introduction of the research methodology that went into the compilation of the book. She noted that in his journal, Dr Blessing had originally recorded about 98 plant species, and that upon the compilation of the book, 95 of these plants were identified and translated from their Zulu pseudo names into English, which according to Dr Paulsen, was one of their greatest challenges. She also noted that it was interesting to find how science adequately explained and supported the traditional uses of the plants, which was why the book had both a scientific and indigenous element to it as it sought to retain the indigenous culture and beliefs associated with the various plants. Dr Paulsen then concluded by stating that the book laid the foundation for the production of affordable medicine for the African continent, more especially the people of South Africa.

The last speaker was Professor P Eagles, the Chairperson of the Medicines Control Council (MCC). Hes poke briefly about the ANC drug policy and how it was of utmost importance that traditional medicine had to be regulated and that the book under discussion was the basis for this.

The Chairperson thanked all the relevant participants and attendees of the book launch and the meeting was adjourned.


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