We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Healing Traditions

African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, & Competition in South Africa, 1820-1948

Karen E. Flint

Publication Year: 2008

In August 2004, South Africa officially legalized the practice of traditional healers. Largely in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and limited both by the number of practitioners and by patients’ access to treatment, biomedical practitioners looked toward the country’s traditional healers as important agents in the development of medical education and treatment. This collaboration has not been easy. The two medical cultures embrace different ideas about the body and the origin of illness, but they do share a history of commercial and ideological competition and different relations to state power. Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820–1948 provides a long-overdue historical perspective to these interactions and an understanding that is vital for the development of medical strategies to effectively deal with South Africa’s healthcare challenges.

Between 1820 and 1948 traditional healers in Natal, South Africa, transformed themselves from politically powerful men and women who challenged colonial rule and law into successful entrepreneurs who competed for turf and patients with white biomedical doctors and pharmacists. To understand what is “traditional” about traditional medicine, Flint argues that we must consider the cultural actors not commonly  associated with African therapeutics: white biomedical practitioners, Indian healers, and the implementing of white rule.

Carefully crafted, well written, and powerfully argued, Flint’s analysis of the ways that indigenous medical knowledge and therapeutic practices were forged, contested, and transformed over two centuries is highly illuminating, as is her demonstration that many “traditional” practices changed over time. Her discussion of African and Indian medical encounters opens up a whole new way of thinking about the social basis of health and healing in South Africa. This important book will be core reading for classes and future scholarship on health and healing in South Africa. 

Published by: Ohio University Press

Title Page / Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (212.6 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (164.8 KB)
pp. v


pdf iconDownload PDF (143.3 KB)
pp. vii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (150.4 KB)
pp. ix-xii

This book, which is divided into two parts, begins in the 1820s. This marks both the early years of the Zulu kingdom (1820–79) and sustained interaction between African healers, white traders, and missionaries. The first part of the book examines changes in the medical, social, and political role of healers in the Zulu kingdom, particularly as Zulu kings and chiefs sought political consolidation. The second part investigates...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (146.3 KB)
pp. xiii-xiv

This book has been in the making for a long time, and thus I am indebted to many people and institutions who have helped contribute to its final completion. Much of the original research was conducted in South Africa during 1995 and 1998, with follow-up trips in 2002 and 2005. This project grew out of my experiences living and studying in 1992...

read more

Introduction: What Is “Traditional” about Traditional Healers and Medicines?

pdf iconDownload PDF (396.5 KB)
pp. 1-33

Mafavuke Ngcobo, a licensed African inyanga or “traditional” herbalist (as opposed to diviner or rainmaker) in the province of Natal, South Africa, gained the attention of white chemists and government authorities when he turned his small herbal practice in decidedly “untraditional” directions in the 1930s. In contrast to the colonial stereotype of the “witch doctor” reciting incantations to the dead over a mysterious bubbling brew,...

Part I: Negotiating Tradition in the Zulu Kingdom, 1820–79

pdf iconDownload PDF (95.6 KB)
pp. 35

read more

Chapter 1: Healing the Body: Disease, Knowledge, and Medical Practices in the Zulu Kingdom

pdf iconDownload PDF (274.7 KB)
pp. 37-66

While traveling through the most northern coastal territories of the newly established Zulu kingdom in 1822, Henry Francis Fynn fell ill and “delirious” with fever, the dread of locals and travelers alike. Laid up in a hut and awaiting his ship, Fynn recalls being taken to and treated by a male healer and his two female attendants: “On coming into an open space, they lifted me up and placed me in a pit they had dug...

read more

Chapter 2: Healing the Body Politic: Muthi, Healers, and Nation Building in the Zulu Kingdom

pdf iconDownload PDF (249.2 KB)
pp. 67-89

Communities within the Zulu kingdom maintained a complex system of public health that involved maintaining not only the corporal body but also the body of the nation. Oral histories regarding the role of muthi and healers and the rise of the Zulu kingdom indicate the cross-cultural connections of medicine and power. Healers provided medical, ecological, social, political, and military assistance to the nation. Each...

Part II: Negotiating Tradition and Cultural Encounters in Natal and Zululand, 1830–1948

pdf iconDownload PDF (97.1 KB)
pp. 91

read more

Chapter 3: Early African-White Encounters: Healers, Witchcraft, and Colonial Rule, 1830–91

pdf iconDownload PDF (387.9 KB)
pp. 93-127

In the summer of 1876, fourteen years after the criminalizing of African healers, Lady Barker wrote to her sister about a tea party she had held at her home in Pietermaritzburg. On her invitations she dubbed the party “Tea and Witches.”1 To this event she invited friends as well as the local African isangomas who were to act as entertainment...

read more

Chapter 4: Competition, Race, and Professionalization: African Healers and White Medical Practitioners, 1891–1948

pdf iconDownload PDF (385.4 KB)
pp. 128-157

In April 1938, a Natal magistrate charged renowned African inyanga Bramwell Sikakane with twenty-one counts of practicing as a “native medicine man” or herbalist without a license. Although Mr. Sikakane had been found a competent inyanga by the Natal Native Medical Association in 1936, his application for a government license to practice as an herbalist had been repeatedly refused under the South African Medical, Dental...

read more

Chapter 5: African-Indian Encounters and Their Influence on African Therapeutics, 1860–1948

pdf iconDownload PDF (330.0 KB)
pp. 158-182

In 1905, Parasoo Ramoodoo, an ex-indentured Indian living in Ladysmith, wrote to the Colonial Secretary of Pietermaritzburg to apply for a “native doctor’s” license.1 Ramoodoo’s letter explained that he came from a long line of “native doctors” in India and had been practicing medicine for twenty-two years. He included a list of twenty-five patients, mostly...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (221.5 KB)
pp. 183-196

In August 2004 South Africa officially recognized its “indigenous” medical systems and began the process to legalize the practice of traditional healers. After years of being criminalized under white minority rule and largely condemned by the biomedical community, South Africa’s 350,000 traditional healers must soon obtain a government license to practice. Healers...


pdf iconDownload PDF (337.9 KB)
pp. 197-245


pdf iconDownload PDF (167.6 KB)
pp. 247-250


pdf iconDownload PDF (242.2 KB)
pp. 251-270


pdf iconDownload PDF (151.2 KB)
pp. 271-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443026
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821418505

Publication Year: 2008