Academic journal article Africa

The Transmission of Knowledge in South African Traditional Healing

Academic journal article Africa

The Transmission of Knowledge in South African Traditional Healing

Article excerpt


'Traditional healers' (sangomas) in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, are organized into 'schools' around a senior teacher (gobela). Healing is understood by its practioners to be a profession, not a religion or even a spiritual exercise. Healers actively assess the effectiveness of their healing methods, transmit their knowledge to each other, and evaluate each others' performances in ways that stray far from the mere transmission of 'tradition'. Clients are likely to pay sangomas as much as they would medical doctors for their services, which are not limited to the medical. Their practices can be divided into roughly six 'disciplines': divination, herbs, control of ancestral spirits, the cult of foreign ndzawe spirits, drumming and dancing, and training of new sangomas. The status of sangoma is achieved through an arduous process of teaching and learning through which the student or initiate is simultaneously 'healed' and educated to become a member of the profession that coheres around these knowledge practices.


Les << guerisseurs traditionnels >> (sangomas) de la province du Mpumalanga, en Afrique du Sud, sont organises en << ecoles >> autour d'un enseignant principal (gobela). L'activite de guerisseur est consideree par ses praticiens comme une profession et non comme une religion, ni meme un exercice spirituel. Les guerisseurs evaluent activement l'efficacite de leurs methodes de guerison, se transmettent des connaissances et evaluent leurs performances entre eux de facons tres eloignees d'une simple transmission de << tradition >>. Les clients payent souvent les sangomas autant que les medecins pour leurs services, qui ne se limitent pas au domaine medical. Leurs pratiques se divisent en six grandes << disciplines >> : la divination, les plantes, la maitrise des esprits ancestraux, le culte des esprits ndzawe etrangers, les percussions et la danse, et la formation des nouveaux sangomas. Le statut de sangoma est obtenu au terme d'un processus ardu d'enseignement et d'apprentissage au cours duquel l'etudiant ou l'initie est simultanement << gueri >> et forme a devenir membre d'une profession qui rassemble autour de ces pratiques de connaissance.


Since the promulgation of the new South African constitution by the ANC government in 1994, traditional healing has become very prominent in public discourse. Increasing numbers of people today become traditional healers or sangomas. Both clientele and practitioners come from all 'races', including South Africans of European ancestry. For many, sangomas appear to preserve a sense of a distinctive 'African' identity in an increasingly globalized and 'Westernized' country. Conservative African Christians, on the other hand, revile them as 'primitive', dirty and spiritually dangerous. They remain outside the experience of many South Africans but are fully part of South African life and consciousness. Their traditional beliefs and practices have been well described over the years (for example Junod 1962 [1912]; Sundlder 1948: 220-37; Hammond-Tooke 1975, 1978, 1985, 1989; Ngubane 1977, 1981; Du Toit 1980; Cumes 2004), but these practices, or 'cults', are fast changing.

Indeed, the term 'traditional healers' is a misnomer if by 'tradition' we mean an unchanging conservation of past beliefs and practices, and by 'healer' someone who practises some version of physiological therapy aimed at organic disease. The sangoma tradition has multiple roots that extend across time, cultures and languages, and derives partly from pre-colonial African systems of belief. While its appeal is broadening, it is also changing as sangomas are exposed to a wide range of other healing traditions and religious views. Today many of their practices scarcely resemble the older traditions reported in the early ethnographies, though some, like divination, remain (Jones 2006). …

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