It was a flawless Cape Town Saturday, the kind of day people gravitate to beaches and picnic spots, and Ras Benjamin stepped on to the mountain.
He wore tracksuit pants, a short-sleeved collared shirt and a tall black turban wound tightly around his dreadlocks. Unlike many other Rastafarian herbalists, who choose to remain barefoot, he wore shoes – sneakers, with neon green laces. He also carried a frayed brown rucksack.
Together we climbed the path. Boyes Drive and the wide arc of False Bay fell away beneath us, and Benjamin scanned the slope for medicinal plants.
“Bloublomsalie,” he said, brushing his hands over a grey shrub. “For chest ailments. It’s one of the best.”
He snapped another twig and handed it to me. It had cylindrical leaves and fluffy seedpods, like cotton wool. “Good for headaches,” he explained, “and for focus, like if you’re doing matric. You drink it in a tea.”
A minute later he bent to dig up a root – kaneelbol, a type of pelargonium, used to treat piles and bladder problems, he said – and carefully filled the hole with stones, leaving a section of the plant intact.
“I never take the whole thing,” he explained. “Now, next time I come, there will be more.” He clipped his bag shut. “But people don’t want to believe that. They want to keep us off the mountain. They don’t understand what we do.”
I was hiking with Benjamin to better understand his role in Cape Town’s medicinal herb trade. Partially grounded in healing traditions that reach back to the Khoisan, the trade is sustained by powerful economic and cultural forces, filling an important niche in marginalised areas across the city.
But traditional healing, which relies on wild plants and is almost entirely unregulated, places self-proclaimed bossiedoktors (“bush doctors”) like Benjamin at odds with environmental legislation and the state.
Bounded to the north by the Karoo and extending into the winter rainfall areas of the Eastern Cape, the Cape Floristic Region in which bush doctors operate is internationally famed as a biodiversity hot ?spot, home to more than 9?500 plant species – about 70% of which are found nowhere else on earth – and recognised by the United Nations World Heritage Committee as “one of the richest areas for plants in the world”.
To preserve this, the government has created a comprehensive network of protected areas that includes national and provincial parks, botanical gardens and private nature reserves, functioning as an important refuge for plant communities threatened by urban sprawl, habitat transformation, invasive alien species and direct use.
But the concentration of indigenous vegetation into these areas had an unintended effect. Herbalists, whose numbers are thought to be increasing as a consequence of population growth in the Western Cape, as well as the spread of Rastafari beliefs, are drawn ever more frequently into breaking the law.
With his long blonde hair and a hoop earring, Leif Peterson looks more like a renegade game ranger than an academic. He arrived in Cape Town 14 years ago to complete a master’s degree in savanna ecology. Living here ever since has done little to blunt his Queensland accent.
Now the managing director of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, a nonprofit research and advocacy organisation he jointly launched in 2010, he has become something of an expert on the local wild medicine trade, which he studied for his PhD.
He estimates that there are more than 5?100 traditional healers operating in the Cape Town area, split evenly between African amagqirha (sangomas) and amaxwhele (herbalists), whose practice draws heavily on plants and medicinal knowledge from the Eastern Cape, and Rastafarian bush doctors who, through their appropriation of Khoisan identity, have inherited an ancient healing tradition gleaned from Cape floral landscapes.
All three groups rely on wild herbs, he says, collectively harvesting about 262 tonnes of vegetation a year. But it is the bush doctors – who deal predominantly in local plant species – that account for an estimated 94% of this total, trading with African herbalists who obtain their stocks from elsewhere in the country. While the effect is cumulatively large, individual harvests are small, averaging less than 1kg a week. Herbalists can face severe punishment – fines of up to R5?000 and jail time – if caught.
I met Peterson at his offices in Wynberg.
“We’re facing a conundrum,” he said. “You’ve got this amazing biodiversity, a very entrenched cultural need for medicinal plants, strong economic drivers because there’s so much poverty, and then you’ve got the law. And law, particularly in South Africa, is based on very middle-class thinking, which is that nature conservation is a critical thing.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “Conservation is crucial, but we need to balance our priorities. We live in a society where protected areas often don’t align with people’s day-to-day needs. We need to find ways of changing that.”
A core focus of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation is to get to grips with South Africa’s informal economy. Through investigating the intricate business world of grocers, shipping container salons and street mechanics, Peterson encountered the medicinal herb trade.
Peterson’s doctoral research, based on surveys and interviews conducted in five working-class areas, profiled the scale, value and dynamics of the trade, illustrating its complex ties to economics, culture and conservation.
Traditional healing in Cape Town was worth about R150-million a year, he estimated, with the direct capital contribution from locally harvested herbs at R31-million. Nearly two-thirds of consumers he surveyed reported using traditional medicine during the previous year, preferring it to Western medical treatment for many ailments. Wild harvested plants were considered more powerful by healers and patients.
Meanwhile, about a quarter of the 129 local plants harvested for medicinal purposes were listed as “of concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the authoritative database for threatened species.
I asked Peterson: “Does this mean conservationists are fighting a losing battle?” “No,” he said. “It means we need to try a different approach.”
Until recently, Benjamin sold herbs at Wynberg station from Monday to Saturday, his stall wedged between fruit sellers, hair-braiding stands and fried chicken outlets. He earns an average of R700 a week.
Born Andrew Overmeyer in 1988, he grew up in Lavender Hill, where he fell in with the wrong crowd before becoming a Rasta at the age of 16. “I would have been a gangster by now, probably in jail or dead,” he said.
He changed his name in accordance with the laws of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the lineage of the Rastafari movement he follows. Benjamin is the name given to men born in March. He abstains from alcohol and avoids meat, vinegar, canned foods and tobacco.
Midway through our hike, he unwound his turban to show me his dreadlocks. “Keeping locks like this is a sacrifice,” he said, “and shows people I’m serious about what I do.”
Like many other Cape Rastas, Benjamin claims Khoisan heritage, a local twist on the movement’s back-to-Africa ethos forged in colonial-era Jamaica. With this came a renewed interest in medicinal herbs.”It’s what we do,” Benjamin said, crouching to drink from a stream. “We help people. That’s our job.”
It was raining hard the Saturday that “Herbanisation” took place. Raindrops exploded against the window, leaking thin rivulets to the floor. Peterson collected me at Steenberg station.
“It’s been awesome,” he said, hair plastered to his forehead, khaki trousers soaked. “We’ve planted all morning. Great turnout. Just sucks the weather’s so shit.”
He invited me to an open day at a community herb garden near Vrygrond, part of a longer-term project to build better relationships between bush doctors and conservationists.
“Both groups care deeply about plants,” he explained. “They have so much in common. There’s just so much mistrust and misunderstanding. We’re trying to change that.”
Partnering with Neville van Schalkwyk, Benjamin’s mentor and the owner of a thriving indigenous nursery, the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation is piloting an open-access medicinal herb garden, planting out 600 seedlings on public land surrounding Van Schalkwyk’s small plot. They’ve enlisted the help of Cape Nature and South African National Parks’ employees.
The herb garden is near the end of a road that separates the small houses of Hillview, a predominantly working-class coloured suburb, from Overcome Heights, a crowded informal settlement that was established on City-owned land a decade ago.
We pulled up beside rows of bagged seedlings. On a narrow strip of ground between the street and a sharp fence, which encircles a water treatment plant and flooded football fields, muddy volunteers were busy with shovels and rakes.
Peterson showed me the garden, a lush plot opposite the planting site. At our feet, he explained, was phase one of the herbanisation experiment, which was planted two years ago: calloused knee-high succulents, wild dagga shrubs, kankerbos and imphepho, rooted in shallow sandy soil next to the pavement.
All the plants appear to be thriving.
“What’s happening behind the fence is fantastic,” Peterson said, “but it’s essentially the old conservation model of keeping people out. Here, people can do what they want. They’re using the stuff and the plants are surviving. It’s taking nature back to the community. It’s great.
“We’ll never stop wild harvesting: there’s a market preference for wild herbs and a religious calling for bush doctors to return to nature. But we think it’s possible to ease pressure on natural resources with street gardens like this one, and to create opportunities for people living nearby.”
Inside I met Van Schalkwyk. With his knee-length dreadlocks and a knotted black beard interspersed with yellow streaks, he told me the plot was a dump eight years ago, and that he dreamed of creating a place people could visit to learn about and experience indigenous herbs.
“It took a lot of work,” he said, “but today I can say I succeeded.”
New generation of herbalists
A bush doctor for more than 30 years, Van Schalkwyk has been a mentor for generations of younger herbalists, including Benjamin. “There’s so much violence and drugs in communities like this,” Van Schalkwyk said. “I introduce the guys to healing to keep them off the streets.”
After lunch a man with a remote-controlled drone arrived to film the garden from above. He set up a screen next to the road and we crowded around to watch. The camera rose quickly, taking in the nursery, the flooded fields, the small grey houses, the haphazard structures of Overcome Heights.
“It’s like an oasis in the desert,” Van Schalkwyk said, as if looking at his garden for the first time.
By the end of our hike, Benjamin’s bag was stuffed with plants, nine species in all. He had returned his rusty secateurs to his back pocket.
We turned and were walking back towards the stairs, the Cape Flats a mosaic of hard edges and glittering surfaces below us. I asked if he ever worried about wild herbs running out. “Brother,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “this stuff is free. It’s growing everywhere. Just look around you and tell me how that’s ever going to happen.”
I asked: “And will anything prevent you from harvesting?”
“Not the nature conservation people. They just make our will stronger. People are getting sick all the time and they’ve forgotten how to heal themselves. We remind them that the answers are in nature.”
Common medicinal herbs
Some 129 plant species are harvested for medicinal purposes in the Cape Town area, with about 50 in common use, according to the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation. Here are six popular species.
Imphepho: A member of the daisy family, imphepho (Helichrysum patulum) is widely used for ceremonial purposes, with the dried leaves burned for their fragrant smoke. It can be consumed in tea form and smoked.
Wild garlic: Wild garlic (Tulbaghia capensis), a hardy bulb, is used to treat chest infections and colds. Its strong flavour makes it suitable for ?cooking. It also functions as an effective insect repellent.
Buchu: Some 140 species make up the genus Agathosma, which loosely translates to “good fragrance”. All are colloquially referred to as buchu. Two Western Cape endemics in particular, A betulina and A crenulata, are prized for their medicinal properties, which include treating gastrointestinal and urinary tract infections, chest ailments, skin problems and indigestion. Its purported antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties make it a popular general health tonic.
Bloublomsalie: Also known as wild sage, bloublomsalie (Salvia africana-caerulea), a blue-flowered shrub, is used to treat chest ailments and uterine infections.
Kapokbos: With thin, cylindrical leaves that smell like Vicks when crushed, kapokbos (Eriocephalus africanus) – also called wild rosemary or Cape snowbush – is commonly used to treat coughs and colds. Like many other medical herbs it has diuretic properties.
Kankerbos: One of South Africa’s better-known medicinal plants, kankerbos (Sutherlandia frutescens) is reputed to cure cancer, although to date clinical trials have failed to support this claim. Healers use this to wash wounds and treat diseases like chicken pox, flu and rheumatism. – Kimon de Greef