Healers’ legal limbo feels ‘disrespectful’
● Even as a child, Anita “Nomalanga” Sikhutshwa knew she was different. While friends played happily in her Transkei village, she was a loner with disturbing visions and premonitory dreams.
“Nobody understood the dreams and the revelations that I had. I also didn’t understand what I was going through,” she said.
It was only a year ago, at the age of 29, having obtained a diploma in public relations and communication, that Sikhutshwa accepted her ubizo (calling) to be an igqirha (traditional doctor/healer).
She gave up her well-paid job and found herself alienated by family members to follow her calling but, as she celebrated her intwaso (spiritual emergence) in Cape Town this week, Sikhutshwa faced a depressing reality: four years after the department of health established a statutory body to regulate traditional healers, it has yet to sign up even one of SA’s 200,000-plus practitioners.
Sikhutshwa said the department’s failure showed “blatant disrespect”.
“The lack of urgency is a direct reflection of how they view the matter as an institution,” she said. “If the government was truly for the people it would deal with such matters with urgency.”
Department of health spokesperson Popo Maja said the interim Traditional Health Practitioners Council, established by parliament in 2014, was still finalising institutional arrangements. “Registering traditional health practitioners as part of regulating the practice needs to be preceded by development and adoption of tools such as a code of conduct and ethics, and scope of practice for each category [of practitioner],” he said.
One of the proposed regulations will require healers to undergo training at an accredited institution. Prospective trainers will also be required to register with the council.
Thobeka Kentane, deputy general secretary of the National Unitary Professional Association for Traditional Health Practitioners of SA, described the approach being taken as Eurocentric.
“Unlike Western medicine … traditional healing looks at social, cultural and spiritual aspects. So far, the regulations deal with the physical healing only … and we disagree with that approach.”
Maja said the council’s committees and registrar, Kgereshi Peter Mokwena, were engaging with traditional healers before final regulations were proclaimed. So far, healers in the North West, Free State and Mpumalanga have been consulted.
Up to now traditional healers — who include birth attendants, surgeons who perform circumcisions, diviners and herbalists — have operated relatively free from government interference and have organised themselves under umbrella structures.
Research has estimated that between 60% and 80% of South Africans try traditional healing before turning to Western medicine.
A study in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal found at least 41% of TB patients had used traditional healers before Western medicine; 84% would rather have a traditional healer than a public health supervisor monitor their treatment; and 40% had seen a healer at some point before their diagnosis.
Christa Rautenbach, a professor of law at
Nobody understood the dreams and the revelations that I had. I also didn’t understand what I was going through Anita Sikhutshwa
North-West University who has researched customary law and traditional healers for 20 years, said concerns about having to study and obtain qualifications were understandable, since healers received their calling from their ancestors.
“On the other hand, there seems to be no other practical way to ensure the monitoring of [healers] and the consequent protection of the public.”
Phephisile Maseko, national co-ordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation, criticised the make-up of the regulatory body, saying that with nine healers among its 22 members “there are more scientists, pharmacists, lawyers and department staff than traditional healers”.