Humans are given land to settle even in areas where key muthi plants naturally grow.
Fannie Mashaba, a traditional healer based in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, is worried that healers might run out of medicine as indigenous plants are being destroyed to make way for rural development projects and houses.
Mashaba remembers back in the days when healers had access to all different kinds of indigenous plants used to manufacture traditional medicine.
“Healers who came before us never struggled when it came to traditional medicinal plants because sacred sites used to be respected. But nowadays it is hard to get a place that has many indigenous plants,” said Mashaba.
Mashaba, who is the chairperson of the newly formed traditional healers’ organisation known as Hlanganiphani Indigenous Knowledge, said they were in the process of engaging traditional leaders, environmental advocacy groups and other stakeholders to address the problems associated with the destruction of sacred sites and other areas that have vital indigenous plants.
He said one of their aims was to convince traditional leaders to consult healers before making serious decisions such as the allocation of the land.
“Since our traditional leaders are responsible to allocate the land, we want to ask them to assist us to preserve the areas that are relevant to our healing practices,” he said.
“We also want development to take place and create jobs, but we request that sacred sites must be respected. If we stand aside and fold our arms, this ancient practice will die out,” said Mashaba.
Mashaba complained that the revenue of their practices is slumping because they spend a lot of money on the road going to fetch some of the important medicinal plants in areas where they are still available.
Responding to Mashaba’s allegations, Zolani Mkiva, the spokesperson for the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), said: “We as Contralesa appreciate and respect the role played by traditional healers in society. Therefore, we are appealing to them to let us know as soon as possible if there is a sacred site they have identified, so that we can protect it. We will not know that a particular piece of land has traditional medicinal plants [without the help of healers]”, said Mkiva.
To try to avert this looming crisis, many healers are now planting some of the vital trees, such as the pepperbark tree, at their homes.
However, they fear that they might be arrested by law-enforcement agencies because they don’t have licences that allow them to plant most of the trees, especially those classified as endangered species. According to the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004, a person found in possession of a plant classified as endangered faces arrest.
Mashaba and his organisation also accuses the provincial health department’s African medicine section of neglecting traditional medicine and prioritising Western ones.
Mpumalanga department of health spokesperson Dumisani Malamule defended his department. “Traditional health practitioners were encouraged to establish traditional medicinal gardens and workshops were conducted on how to harvest sparingly.
The challenge is that not all practitioners attend when invited,” said Malamule.
“The department is in the process of finalising a policy on African traditional medicine of South Africa with the purpose of inclusion of African traditional medicine in the South African healthcare system and to facilitate a situation where different disciplines of medicine [conventional and traditional] co-exist in the national healthcare system,” he said.
Spiritual healers being denied access to sacred sites is a national problem. In 2015, Limpopo-based healers got angry after an Australian- based mining company denied them access to the Madimatle Mountain and Gatkop Cave. The mining company was taken to court and lost the case. GeaSphere, an environmental advocacy group, has vowed to support the healers in their fight to preserve indigenous trees and protect the environment.
“It is true that we are interacting with the healers to support them in their fight to protect indigenous trees and plants. As an environmental group, we must support any initiative aimed at protecting nature,” said GeaSphere spokesperson Phillip Owen.