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South Africa
Culture - Arts | Society | Health

Traditional healers recognised by South African lawmakers

afrol News, 9 September - South Africa's Parliament today approved a bill that formally recognises the trade of an estimated 200,000 traditional healers in the country. Healers are obliged to register with authorities and the new law will give patients protection from mistreatment and malpractice. The recognition however raises concern in the formal health system.

Both representatives from the ruling ANC and the South African opposition today massively voted in favour of the controversial Traditional Health Practitioners Bill that will recognise and regulate this vast sector. Only South Africa's provinces or President Thabo Mbeki can now stop the bill from becoming law.

The bill will make a legal medical trade out of the estimated 200,000 traditional healers in South Africa. Registered healers may prescribe a sick leave and offer cures for a long number of diseases using widely differing methods. They may offer however not under any circumstances offer patients a treatment or a cure for AIDS or other fatal diseases, the bill emphasises.

South African traditional healers use very different methods in addressing diseases and other misfits. The majority of healers use spiritual healing - mostly based on traditional African religion - in combination with herbal treatments. Some healers have priest-like functions while others are more dedicated to the very old and ample herbalists tradition. The healers' role also varies strongly between South Africa's many nationalities.

This wide spectre and unscientific approach of South Africa's healers has caused the organisation Doctors For Life (DFL) - representing a large numbers of medical doctors, dentists, veterinaries and other professionals - to protest the bill. Traditional healers should be kept "out of South Africa's health care system" because traditional medicines were potentially harmful to patients. The government's aim of controlling the healers was "doomed to failure," DFL holds.

DFL also warns that the reform may provoke more so-called "muthi" murders, made to provide human body parts for traditional healers. Many healers share the belief that "human tissue can make powerful medicine," the doctors' organisation warns. Although recent "muthi" murders made big headlines in South Africa, healers strongly condemned these ritual killings, saying it was not representative for the trade.

Despite the warnings from some Western medicine scholars, South Africans at large are happy to welcome traditional healers into the fold of approved health services. According to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Some 70 percent of South Africans regularly consult healers.

- This practice has suffered degradation during years of colonisation in Africa, but traditional medicine has sustained many families for centuries in this continent, the Minister said during today's parliamentary hearing. She went on calling the reform an "important bill for national health care" as healers could complement mainstream health practice.

The bill is also seen as a logical consequence of the large growth within the traditional medicines industry. The industry is estimated to have an annual turnover of about Rand 250 million and has emerged a major employer during the last years. Further, most drugs prescribed by traditional healers are produced locally and not imported.

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