Sangomas revel in new status

From her township on the eastern fringes of Johannesburg, Agnes Gaobepe offers herbal remedies and advice to the legions of sick who turn to the 36-year-old mother of four for treatment.

As one of South Africa’s 200 000 traditional healers, Gaobepe was officially recognised as a health care professional under new legislation passed by Parliament on Thursday.

“We are happy that the country is recognising us,” says Gaobepe, who describes herself as a “sangoma”, a healer whose distinctiveness lies in her spiritual link with the ancestors.

“Under apartheid, we were referred to as witch doctors, which is something that is opposite to what we do,” says Gaobepe.

“We concentrate on curing. Witches are people who manipulate people’s health.”

The Traditional Health Practitioners Bill was passed by a near unanimous vote in Parliament with Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang describing it as “groundbreaking legislation”.

The health ministry estimates that close to 70% of South Africans consult traditional healers.

The legislation provides for the creation of a council to oversee the licensing of traditional healers who will be able to claim fees from medical aid. The body will also act as a watchdog against quacks.

Only those healers who are registered can practice medicine and they will be barred from making diagnosis or treating terminal diseases such as Aids and cancer.

A conviction under the terms of the proposed legislation can lead to a fine or imprisonment of up to 12 months.

For Gaobepe, the new legislation is a milestone in the long road travelled by traditional healers to safeguard their ancient African practices.

Growing up, she recalls the “stigma” that was attached to the healers.

“If a child died and there was a traditional healer living on that street, he was accused of being responsible,” she says.

The end of apartheid brought traditional healers out of the shadows. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, invited them to take part in official events.

With the new-found status has also come the realisation that traditional healers have limited abilities.

“We can heal a person, but if a person comes to us and is dying, we take him to the hospital,” says Gaobepe.

“We are working hand-in-hand with some hospitals already.”

The move to regulate traditional healers comes amid efforts to cope with one of the world’s highest HIV/Aids rates affecting 5,3-million adults, or one in nine South Africans.

In her round hut cluttered with glass jars of powder and herbs, tam-tams and beads, “inyanga” (Zulu for African doctor) Monica Mashabela, a senior “sangoma” has also displayed a poster that reads: “My friend with Aids is still my friend. Say ‘no’ to ignorance and discrimation.” - Sapa-AFP

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