The use of plants, herbs, animals and other natural substances is a practice as old as humanity itself. Known variously as ‘traditional medicine’, ‘herbal medicine’, ‘herbalism’, ‘natural medicine’, ‘phytomedicine’, and by many other names in English, the practice is much older than modern pharmaceutical medicine. It has often provided useful knowledge to pharmacological researchers looking to produce new cures and treatments. In South Africa herbal medicine has long been conflated with notions of savagery, superstition, and backwardness despite the depth and breadth of traditional medicinal knowledge in the country. Traditional medicine users in South Africa, known as ‘izinyanga’, ‘izangoma’ among many other names, often do practice divination and spiritual healing alongside herbal medicine, and this contributes to many people’s dismissal of southern African healing practices on the assumption of ‘witchcraft’.

Traditional medicine today, however, is still a thriving practice, and is the source of the majority of South Africans’ medicine and healing, in large part due to access and affordability. Many people also make use of both traditional medicines as well as so-called ‘western’ medicines. In many cases, traditional healers will refer their patients to general practitioners (GPs) in cases that they feel are better treated by them, including TB, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, etc. Though this referral does not occur in the inverse direction yet, there are still increasing levels of co-operation between traditional and western medicine practitioners.

All major cities in the country are host to many traditional medicine practitioners, and often they are to be found in a single complex or compound, as is the case with Durban’s Victoria Street Market where all manner of medicines and healers can be found and consulted. The Victoria Street ‘Muthi Market’ also makes up a complex of 9 markets in Durban CBD known as Warwick Triangle. The market is also built on an abandoned overpass bridge, repurposing unused city space to promote local traders and indigenous knowledge to the benefit of its practitioners and consumers.

KwaMuhle, a museum in Durban focused on the legacy of apartheid in the city and its effects on black people and migrant labourers, has its own ‘Muthi garden’ where traditional medicinal plants are grown and explained by the tour guides. This is one of the few places in the country where traditional medicine is so embraced by a formal municipal or government institution and where the public can be educated about the subject in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the harmful myths and stereotypes about traditional healing and its practitioners. The Durban Botanic Gardens also has many traditional medicine garden of indigenous plants.

KwaMuhle museum was once the headquarters of the Native Administration Department and oversaw the implementation of the apartheid labour system that effectively tore black families and lives apart. For this building to now house an exhibit about the horrors of apartheid, and within that, about traditional medicine, speaks to a symbolic transformation from Eurocentricism to Afrocentricism.

This symbolic transformation, however, did not come without its own faults. Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS denialism, and insistence on herbal medicines instead of antiretrovirals and other medicines supported by scientific study, was a step backwards in terms of South Africa’s public health projects, as well as in terms of the acceptance of herbal treatments. The stance in that period was to discount pharmaceutical medicines on the basis of ‘western-ness’, and put forward herbal medicines considered superior simply because they were ‘natural’ and not manufactured. But this has since changed, and now we see increasing collaboration between traditional medicine and pharmaceutical medicine. KwaMuhle Museum’s ‘Muthi Garden’, the Victoria Street Market, and and other prominent displays of traditional medicine inevitably have a role in this. In keeping traditional medicine alive in a way that is based on collaboration and knowledge, places like these define a future path for traditional medicine in South Africa.

Images courtesy of:

Durban History Museums
Open City Projects

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