Does the traditional healer have a modern medical identity in South Africa?

Andre Duvenhage, Gabriel Louw


Research supports the view that the South African traditional healer does not hold a modern medical identity, but developed from the traditional African religions and cultural environment as a kind of caregiver. The name healer with a medical connotation arose from early colonists and missionaries misunderstanding the role of a traditional healer in Africa, especially in early South Africa. There is even a misunderstanding today about the African meaning of spiritual healing. As such, the traditional healer is a remnant from a previous, pre-modern time.

Traditional healers were forced to the foreground recently in South Africa by the Traditional Health Practitioners Act No 22 (2007). This act makes the traditional healer an exclusive healthcare practitioner with statutory status under the name traditional health practitioner. Such a healer can practice in the formal healthcare sector, including the public hospitals. The Act gives the healer the right to diagnose, treat and make, and prescribe pre-modern health products to his/hers clients unhindered. It is clear that the various resolutions and implementations of the Traditional Health Practitioners Act No 22 (2007) intend to bring the South African traditional healer into the practice domain of the South African medical doctor.

The study aimed to determine if the traditional healer has a medical identity in modern South Africa.

This is an exploratory and descriptive study that makes use of an historical approach by means of investigation and a literature review. The emphasis is on using current documentation like articles, books and newspapers as primary sources to reflect on the traditional healer’s medical identity in modern South Africa. The findings are offered in narrative form.

The New South Africa did not start changing socially, economically and politically after 1994. They have started to move into new cultural and life domains centuries ago. Some left behind many of the pre-modern beliefs, like the traditional healer and his supernatural activities and practices.

The present-day political and cultural pressure from politicians (with outdated thoughts) by means of things like the Traditional Health Practitioners Act No 22 (2007), are being met more and more with resistance by the broad population.

It is therefore important to research on the changes in cultural values and styles, economical positions and the medical needs of the country’s population to understand if the traditional healer has a truly medical identity in modern South Africa.

The Traditional Health Practitioners Act (No 22, 2007) has failed to include the outdated traditional healer into the modern South African society and formal healthcare sector as a specific medical entity. The foundations of South African society had changed too dramatically to allow space for a pre-modern cult practitioner.
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