After decades in the shadows, South Africa’s traditional sangoma healers are modernizing and becoming big business, raising questions about the need for 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 colored powders and roots.
Each is carefully labeled 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 disheveled and old-fashioned sangomas waving sticks around and operating from dingy huts in rural backwaters.
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 practicing for five years and consults her clients face-to-face or via Skype.
Embracing technology for consultation is “a logical, natural step” making her “more accessible” to patients needing her services, she said.
It “allows me the freedom and flexibility to express my gifts in ways that are less restricted and more true to who I am as a young woman,” she said, adding the decision to become a sangoma was a “calling, my destiny.”
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.
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.
Data about how many South Africans visit traditional healers is hard to come by, but it is clear that millions of South Africans regularly consult the tens of thousands of practitioners operating across the country.
For many, it is a cheap and trusted alternative to expensive Western medicines.
Gradually, sangomas have gained official recognition for the role they play in South African society.
Today some traditional healers are receiving training in basic pediatric oncology and in managing the treatment of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
And a network of “pharmacies” retail neatly packaged herbs, some of which are also found in some conventional chemists in Johannesburg shopping malls.
One Johannesburg medical doctor, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her license, said she has used sangoma’s herbs herself and sometimes prescribes them to patients.
“I found them to work beautifully ... and sometimes I recommend them, if they are willing, and if they are not then I go the conventional way,” she said.
Favorable court rulings notwithstanding, the sector is almost unregulated, leading to uncertainty about the efficacy of medicines and fears of abuse by quacks and charlatans.
Many less scrupulous “healers” claim to have powers to increase wealth.
Instances of traditional medicine crossing the line into witchcraft and even human sacrifice are not unheard of.
Traditional healers are angry that medical boards are not ready to give African medicine the same standing as Chinese medecine, Ayurvedic, aromatherapy or a panoply of other complementary treatments, which have begun the process of certification.