SA has come long way in embracing ubungoma

Our hard-won freedom also ushered in spiritual liberation

Traditional medicine on display for customers at Kwa Mai Mai in downtown Johannesburg.
Traditional medicine on display for customers at Kwa Mai Mai in downtown Johannesburg.


What a wonderful time to be a South African!

The advent of the constitution and democracy (27 and 30 years ago, respectively) has no doubt drastically shaped and shifted the realities of black South Africans.

The constitution sought to ensure equal rights and freedoms for South Africans of all races, cultures and ethnicities, making discrimination based on religious and spiritual grounds unconstitutional.

March marks the month where we must jointly commemorate the progression of human rights and reflect honestly about some of the ways those rights have or have not been supported.  

A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of writing a script for Gogo, Have I Been scammed? for a TimesLIVE Podcast.

At the time, I wanted to bring the spotlight on the ways in which our constitution makes way for our right to observe and practice African spirituality.

I preluded the discussion with an anecdote about the development of ubungoma in a now-free SA.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa is said to be one of the best in the world.
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa is said to be one of the best in the world.
Image: Thulani Mbele

I recalled the fact that pre-democracy, African spirituality was grossly misunderstood and relegated to witchcraft status. Legislation banned African spiritual practices, making their observation punishable by law.

Izangoma were forced to operate in the shadows in fear of persecution.

Today, the landscape is different, but it is not ideal either. Izangoma still face some persecution because there is still a misunderstanding of what it is that they do.

As holistic healers, izangoma operate in a multidimensional school of thought, which holds integral teachings on ways of life, etiologies of illness, medicine and psychology. Izangoma are still mostly operating in spaces designed as stalls often located in and around taxi ranks.

The locations of traditional doctors led to the historical critique of their environments and treatments as ineffective, unhygienic and non-ideal relative to those of western doctors.

There also is a claim of a lack of knowledge on the efficacy of African traditional medicine, with specific concerns around toxicology. 

I have so many obvious rebuttals. Many South Africans (nearly 80% black) rely on African traditional medicine for arguments against it to be so flimsy.

This is not to say that 80% of black South Africans reject western medicine, rather they rely on the plurality of medicine (using both western and traditional medicines).

Surely, this calls for a more active study and integration of African medicine into the national public health system.   

Thirty years into our democracy, there has been a slow progression towards this said integration. I find this ironic given that I have lived through two pandemics and each time there was a lack of understanding on treatments. I think we need to do better.

In the next 30 years, I think it will be our duty as practitioners to petition this integration. It will continue to disadvantage our people by further thwarting advancements within African medicine if we do not take it seriously.

I cannot end this off by negating the positives that have emerged because of our democracy and constitution.

For example, I can use a public platform to advocate for traditional medicine and izangoma without fear of imprisonment. As contemporary healers, we can wear our regalia proudly and practice our spiritualities openly and honestly.

It is heartwarming to see people embrace their spirituality without fear.

Yes, I know you’re thinking “there’s so many of them these days”, but do consider why this was impossible in our historical context before concluding the invalidity of ubungoma solely based on numbers.

As spiritualists today, we reclaim our cultural and spiritual identities in ways unimaginable in the past.

We can curate and disseminate African spiritual knowledge through content while connecting with others. We really just might be our “ancestors’ wildest dreams”.

As a spiritualist, how do you imagine the next 30 years?

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