“Do you want to reduce you vagina/bums?” (sic). “Do you want to know your future?” “Is he/she stingy with money?” Many of us have sniggered at the outlandish offers made by the likes of Prof Leon, the King of all Herbalists, and his compatriot Maama Neefah. I’m looking at a flyer touting the duo’s services, “Comparative Reflections with your Problems to get in 2013”, which could be a badly translated title of a French poststructuralist treatise.
I get a lot of these flyers when I’m in Cape Town, as my flat entrance is on a corner famous for people handing out flyers advertising pawn shops, purchasers of second-hand gold, traditional healers and the Democratic Alliance. So I never really notice them anymore. But something about this flyer struck a chord. Perhaps it was the recent comment by President Jacob Zuma, the famous one about how spending money on dogs is a white thing, that had suddenly made me re-evaluate how I deal with cultures and classes that aren’t entirely mine.
Or perhaps it was the address given for Prof Leon’s practice, a weird combination of precision and mystery, with popular landmarks cited but no actual building name: “6th Floor, Strand Street, Opposite Pick ‘n Pay Next to KFC Cape Town”. Clearly, in some mystical way, if you really need the Prof, you will find him, or at least pick up a Streetwise 5. This was confirmed by a visit to Prof Leon’s website, Professorhabi.co.za, that has the tagline “It's Not By Chance That You Have Found Me". Although this might be a reference to Google rather than something spiritual.
In the end, I think it was the website address that really intrigued me. To go from handing out paper flyers on a corner to a mobile-optimised website is edging towards a true multiplatform enterprise. And this might be dumb of me, but in the same way that Jacob Zuma might find white pet-owners a little less alienating if he actually owned a dog (I assume he doesn’t), I suddenly found street corner traditional healers a lot less alien now that they’ve got websites.
So instead of chuckling, I thought it’d be instructive to work out what traditional healers’ flyers reveal about our fellow South Africans (well, some of them obviously), and about what their lives are like. Some problems are perhaps universal. “Lost lover (Love Power – 5 mins)”, “Stop Drugs and Alcohol”, and “Penis Cream (7 in 1 for all Sexual Problems)” seem like things that would resonate from Cape to Cairo to Copenhagen. And lord knows there are multimillion dollar industries devoted to “Body shape (Breasts big or small)”, “Remove Stretch Marks and Bad Luck", and the aforementioned “Do you want to reduce you[r] vagina/bums?"
Some other issues are little more perplexing. What are “Short Boys to bring Money and Protection”? And why do men need “Quick Ejaculation (Strong Man Power)”? A quick scan of my spam folder seems to indicate that most sites are peddling the more usual staying power. Unless quick ejaculation is the problem, rather than the cure.
But it’s when you get to the ills of society rather than of ego, that you get a sad picture of life as part of South Africa’s majority poor in 2013. “Is your payment taking too long?” “Do you want to get a job?” “Clear all your Accounts, Loans and Debts.” And the truly heartbreaking: “Is your Pension Money delayed?”
Then you get problems that were begat by problems, like “Lotto, Casino, Horse Racing & Gambling (Same Day)”, and in turn will beget problems. If traditional healers are the crows that peck at the corpse of our country’s failure to provide for its citizens, then these are the Four Horsemen of that particular apocalypse.
These flyers tell a sad narrative of our society, and of the parlous lives many of our citizens live. I used to think they were a reflection of how dumb people were. Now I realise it’s a picture of how desperate they are.
Chris Roper is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. Follow him on Twitter @chrisroper