Healing: Changing Outdated Approaches

The power of Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Our heritage is underpinned by the wealth of our Indigenous Knowledge Systems. The remarkable Professor Mongane Wally Serote – poet, politician, former MK Commander and Sangoma – is in the forefront of dynamic initiatives to raise awareness and change the outdated approaches to healing. This is an extract from a recent conference address as well as a position paper from this iARi African Renaissance organisation.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) has become an industry in South Africa, worth millions. The success of IKS illustrates that there is great potential to transform Eurocentric discourse, within South Africa and the continent, to one that indigenous people founded through their spirituality, their beliefs, experiments and research.

A platform will emerge that sets the poor free to participate in the lifting of the economy and therefore of society. This means that the rural areas and urban centres will generate and contribute to a cultural expression in different countries.

While it is important to engage and participate in sputnik science, it is most imperative that we focus on the terrible life we have lived as Africans because we believed what Europeans said about us. We believed that we are primitive and pagan, that we are uncivilised, that we are inferior. A technology exists within IKS to cleanse and to heal this terrible psychic and spiritual wound.


[We must] create an environment that allows and encourages free and constructive flow of dialogue. The truth is that IKS practitioners do not trust conventional practitioners and conventional practitioners create a chauvinistic climate in their interaction with IKS. A fresh dialogue must begin to liberate minds on both sides. The imposition of colonial imperialist culture in Africa has failed. It is this very fact that must influence conventional intellectuals to seek programmes and processes which must transform the conventional institutions to become African.

Traditional Healer

A humane and sustainable environment can only be realised in a society that has a set of values that sees the person as an end not a means and also one that sees ‘a person as one of us that deserves the same’ since Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons. I am because we are). Therefore there is a need to develop a communitarian culture in order to build a sense of trust, work ethic, responsibility, accountability and answerability which are so crucially needed in order to be ‘humanable’ among not only African societies but also in the corporate world where it is desperately needed. These values should groom and capacitate our societies not only in their social life but also in their businesses and various enterprises in order to make them successful global competitors.


Bongaka is not only an old IKS healing system, but it is also current and most dynamic. It is not supposed to be the opposite of biomedics. The relationship between both of them must be that of complementarity. This needs a major paradigm shift from within organisations, institutions and government departments related to the health sector. That is where we must begin. Bongaka is the institution of Traditional Healers and Dingaka are the practitioners.

It is now almost 15 years since the issue of IKS was put on the national agenda in South Africa by Parliament. In that time, our country has made major strides in locating this very important subject as one of the major priorities, to the extent that several departments of Government, Science Councils and even the Private sector – that until then had handled it as if it were an underground subject – have come out in the open to announce their engagement with it. For example pharmaceuticals, bioprospecting, biopiracy, biodiversity and biotechnology… are all issues of IKS in which various private sector entities are involved.

The global ecosystem services are an industry of between $16 to $24-trillion. That industry was developed from the experience of indigenous people. Our fore mothers and fathers.

IKS is a national treasure and heritage and Bongaka is part of that. Have we then in the past 15 years of national work in this area put in place the foundation for this important institution, to rise from the underground where it was put by western culture and religion, which regarded it not only as being primitive and pagan, but that it is witch craft?

I do not disregard the fact that … there is a lot of work that has been done by institutions that are outside of the institution of Bongaka: Parliament has put a Bill on the national agenda, various conferences and expos have been held, there exists several Bongaka organisations and certainly, there are various projects, within parastatals and the private sector, doing all kinds of laboratory experiments with regards to medicinal plants.

What About the Workers?

We have also put the issue of intellectual property protection related to IKS and medicinal plants on the agenda, nationally and internationally. All of this is most relevant, most important and is very appropriate that it is on the national planning table and perhaps it is a foundation. However, where has all this put the Bongaka workers?
Bongaka is an IKS institution that comes from the grassroots. Even as in recent times, more and more middle class individuals are becoming part of this institution… it is at the service of the grassroots in large measure and consists largely of people from that sector.

It is important to emphasise this fact because we need a paradigm shift for us to be able to locate this institution. Grassroots consists of rural and urban people, including youth. In the rural areas, the majority of people there are women. Bongaka has women in the majority. To empower this institution would then be to empower women. But also important is that to empower it means to increase health facilities and possibilities to intervene and find solutions to some of the most challenging diseases and to increase possibilities for improved quality of life.


It is very important and significant that the middle class is getting involved in this institution, as academics, doctors, government officials, businessmen and women etc. Their involvement increases the potential for the institution to create the qualitative leap that the institution needs to locate itself where it becomes relevant to address the great health challenges that face our country, our Continent and the world at large in the 21st Century.

The challenge lies in our ability to define the relationship between the grassroots and the middle class. If we focus on Bongaka, the relationship between the organic and conventional intellectuals must be examined. The power relations between these categories are unequal to say the least. Conventional Knowledge is extremely empowered, and therefore, conventional intellectuals assume immense power and exercise it when they interact with organic intellectuals. The example here, that tends to be overlooked, is that as a people we tend to think that a person who speaks in English is an intellectual and is highly learned. Another example is that colonised people believe that science is a prerogative of the west and that all other knowledge must be subsumed and subjected to western cultural thought.

Key Bongaka Issue

Basically, as with Biomedics, the key issue for Bongaka is the knowledge that is inherent in this institution… scientific and systemic to the point of it being in the position to do an accurate diagnosis when it is so required? Does this depend on knowledge or on belief? Are there standard methods that can be relied upon, not only for diagnosis but also, either for prevention or management of diseases? These are the two very fundamental processes that eventually must define the quality of the two institutions. It is these issues that are capable of bringing a turnabout point with regard to for quality of life or lack of it in a nation.

The evidence of the effectiveness of the institution is the fact of the survival, and presence of Africans, emanating from time immemorial to date. This is the most affordable institution, when conducted by reasonable practitioners. It remains the health institution of the grassroots.

Research states that 80% of South Africans consult Bongaka. There are 200 000 Dingaka in the country with the majority in the rural areas. Bongaka does refer its patients to the hospitals and although not absolutely based on official policy, some biomedics and hospitals do refer their patients to Bongaka.

The implication is that a large percentage of the South African population visits both Bongaka and biomedics and use prescriptions from both institutions. Whether the health impact of the dual prescription is known, is another story. The challenge for the two institutions existing side by side is that regulatory systems must be put in place to ensure that they complement each other.

There are two juxtaposed positions regarding IKS and the institution of Bongaka. On the one hand the nation has, within the new dispensation, seemingly put in place a foundation for the transformation of the state of IKS and Bongaka. But even as there are processes, programmes and possibly projects, and resources in place the institution itself and Dingaka remain in the same space, untransformed.

The reason for this is because the point of reference and paradigm for the transformation is incorrect. Where are the transformation institutions that are deliberately and systematically put in place that are run by Dingaka. The idea for the accreditation and certification of Dingaka is very important as it will empower Dingaka intellectually but it will also empower the Dingaka materially.

It is the responsibility of Government, but I do say it is the responsibility of the nation through policy implementation and passed legislation. The health of the nation is and must be top priority. Are there systems to ensure this? It is clear that there are dual systems of health facilities, where one is elevated through recognition and empowerment and the other is neglected, exploited and exposed to skepticism and cynicism?

Cynical & Primitive

We may be cynical or regard some experimental processes within IKS and Bongaka as primitive, but that does not change the fact that an experiment was carried out and results, whether positive or negative were a result. Therefore that knowledge has been acquired, ordered and organised for further knowledge. Also, our standoffish attitudes toward these processes do not change the fact that the institution exists, functions, and has clients. We are by so doing, putting Government, National institutions, and so forth, in an ignorant position while endangering the state of the nation.

IKS and Bongaka are both based on heritage and culture as well as science. It also involves technology. Given this state of affairs, and the fact that both belong to a social cluster, has the political will of the country contextualised both within this milieu? How must this be applied? Is the Department of Arts and Culture orientated towards the engagement of these issues, and has it evolved processes, programmes and projects that address the heritage and cultural context of both?

We all know that, the basis of success in these processes is shoring up further need, interests, and therefore challenges and contradictions, that is the condition for development of people and things.