Sangoma healers go hi-tech


After decades in the shadows, South Africa’s traditional “sangoma” healers are modernising and becoming big business, raising questions about the need for strict regulation.

“Granny” Mahlasela Matcheke runs her practice from a squeaky clean white floor-tiled home in Johannesburg’s up-and-coming Soweto Township.

Her consultation room is ringed by orderly shelves of transparent jars containing a kaleidoscopic collection of coloured powders and roots.

Each is carefully labelled and ready to be prescribed to patients who undergo a physical examination that accompanies divination involving bones, sea shells, dice and coins.

The scene is far from the common perception of dishevelled and old-fashioned sangomas waving sticks around and operating from dingy huts in rural backwaters.

Embracing technology

While that image still rings true in some cases, a new generation of urban practitioners are presenting a much more modern spin on the traditional practice.

Social science graduate Nokulinda Mkhize, 28, has been practising for five years and consults her clients face-to-face or via Skype.

Her @noksangoma Twitter feed has nearly 7,000 followers and her slickly designed website features an online store, a brief autobiography and some newspaper columns she has written.

Embracing technology for consultation is “a logical, natural step” making her “more accessible” to patients needing her services, she said.

Talking to the dead

Sangomas have played a key role in South Africa for decades, and are consulted not only on illnesses but also for communication with the dead.

New practitioners must go through long initiations, learning the uses of herbs and other items before they are considered ready to start a practice.

But they still lack the sort of formal qualifications and regulation that have increasingly become necessary for practitioners of Chinese alternative medicine, aromatherapy and the like.

Millions of South Africans regularly consult the tens of thousands of practitioners operating across the country.

A Durban-based economist, Myles Mander, led a study four years ago that estimated the trade in traditional medicine to be worth nearly three billion rand ($280 million) each year.

“There’s big demand for the medicine and it’s not going away,” said Mander. “Almost in every town, there are hundreds if not thousands of market players.”

Gradually, sangomas have gained official recognition for the role they play in South African society.

Notes accepted

The country’s top court last year ruled that sick notes handed out by sangomas are valid and should be accepted by employers.

Today some traditional healers are receiving training in basic paediatric oncology and in managing the treatment of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.AFP