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Unfulfilled Promises: 16 Years Without Regulatory Authority for South Africa’s Traditional Healers


Written by Anthony Rees
National Chairman – TNHA

In the vibrant tapestry of South Africa’s history, a poignant narrative unfolds – one that speaks of betrayal and unfulfilled assurances from the very government that promised liberation. In an era where Western health practices have been embraced without reservation, the ancestral wisdom and cultural heritage of the nation have seemingly been forsaken.

This story resonates deeply with tens of millions of proud South Africans who find solace and strength in the steadfast practice of their African traditional belief systems. These sacred customs passed down through generations, are intertwined with the spirits of amadlozi or izinyanya, the revered ancestors who dwell in the spirit realm and watch over us and communicate through sangomas (diviners).

For over a decade and a half, the Traditional Health Practitioners Act (Act No. 22 of 2007) was signed into law, raising hopes for a new statutory regulatory authority to oversee the rich tapestry of ancient healing traditions and customs practiced by over two hundred thousand traditional healers.

However, as the sands of time passed, the promised regulatory body remained elusive, leaving these healers in a state of uncertainty and frustration.

The disappointment is palpable, as the government’s apparent shift towards Western health standards has left many feeling estranged from their African roots. As modernity takes center stage, the essence of centuries-old practices risks fading into obscurity, a prospect that deeply troubles those who cherish the connection to their ancestral heritage.

The sentiments of betrayal and heartache echo through the stories of these traditional healers, who have faithfully upheld the customs and beliefs of their ancestors. Their resilience in the face of adversity should serve as a testament to the profound significance of these traditions.

In the pursuit of progress, it is essential not to forget the foundations on which a nation’s identity is built. The path towards cultural integration should not come at the cost of forsaking heritage; rather, it should be a harmonious blend of old and new, a celebration of the diverse threads that weave the fabric of South African society.

This is a story that calls for reflection, understanding, and a renewed commitment to preserving the beauty and wisdom of African traditions. The ancestral spirits continue to watch over their descendants, and the hope remains that one day, the promises made to these cherished healers will be honored, and the bonds between past and present will be reaffirmed.

Defined as individuals possessing a unique ability to cure ailments or address specific afflictions, these healers often gain recognition within their communities and beyond. With an estimated count exceeding 200,000, traditional healers play an integral role in the nation’s health and well-being, with a substantial 70% to 80% of the population seeking their guidance and remedies.

Although official statistics remain elusive, it is widely believed that a significant majority of these healers are female, exemplifying the powerful influence of women in traditional healing practices. However, the absence of formal recognition has placed them outside the realm of a structured regulatory framework. Despite this, many traditional healers operate under the guidance of informal, voluntary associations, or independently, relying on centuries of ancestral knowledge and community trust.

The unique healing modalities offered by these practitioners encompass a wide spectrum of methods, ranging from preparing and dispensing herbal remedies, conducting spiritual rituals, and conducting traditional surgery that addresses physical, emotional, spiritual, and customary needs. Passed down through generations through an oral tradition and apprenticeship, their healing prowess intertwines with cultural beliefs and the guiding spirits of ancestors, creating a rich tapestry of ancient practices.

While the numbers of those seeking Western medical care continue to rise, the enduring reverence for traditional healers showcases the unyielding faith in their abilities to bring relief and restoration to those in need. For many South Africans, the allure of these time-tested methods lies not only in their effectiveness but also in the deep-rooted connection to their cultural heritage.

Despite their significant role in the nation’s health landscape, traditional healers face the ongoing challenge of navigating a world without official recognition. The lack of a formal regulatory framework can lead to varying practices and standards, raising concerns about safety and accountability. However, the dedication and genuine care of many traditional healers have earned them the respect and loyalty of their communities.

As South Africa journeys towards a more integrated healthcare system under the mooted National Health Insurance scheme, it becomes imperative to acknowledge the valuable contributions of these healers and provide a platform for dialogue between traditional and modern medical practices. Striking a balance between preserving ancient wisdom and embracing advancements in healthcare is crucial in ensuring the well-being of the nation’s diverse population.  A fully functioning regulatory authority will ensure that African Traditional Medicines are properly regulated by experts in African Traditional Medicine. This will create a trustworthy market for consumer products that the public can rely on, and even open up exciting export opportunities. These products will enjoy parity with conventional medicines (over-the-counter drugs) and other complementary medicines from non-indigenous traditions.


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