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Introduction What Is “Traditional” about Traditional Healers and Medicines? mr. mafavuke ngcobo and the case of the not-so-traditional healer 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, Mr. Ngcobo practiced medicine in ways uncomfortably familiar to white urbanites. Not only did Ngcobo use the title “doctor” (until reprimanded by the court), but he advertised himself in pamphlets as a “native medical scientist.” Reverend Qandiyane Cele, who wrote a supporting letter to the Chief Native Commissioner, emphasized Ngcobo’s credibility by pointing out that his “chemist” shops operated along “a European system.”1 By 1934, Ngcobo owned five muthi (African medicine) shops in and around the city of Durban, as well as a lucrative mail-order business that sold bottled medicinal remedies labeled in both Zulu and English. His remedies contained local herbs, some Indian remedies, and, more controversially , chemist drugs and patent medicines. In addition, in 1928 Ngcobo helped establish the Natal Native Medical Association, a professional organization of African herbalists that tested dues-paying members on their knowledge of “native curatives.” This organization (albeit a small one) lobbied the government for “native medical rights,” hired lawyers to defend its members in court, and became quite adept at capturing media attention. Such 1 You are reading copyrighted material published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Unauthorized posting, copying, or distributing of this work except as permitted under U.S. copyright law is illegal and injures the author and publisher. seemingly “untraditional” behavior troubled the local white medical establishment , and in 1940 Ngcobo went on trial for “carrying on the business of a chemist or druggist.”2 “Traditional” healers, of which there were many types, specialized according to their talents and calling. Historically they performed a variety of functions for African communities; these included bringing rain, detecting witches and criminals, “doctoring” armies, negotiating with ancestors, and using herbs and surgical procedures to cure and mend the body. Ngcobo’s very success as a “not-so-traditional” healer, however, represented larger transformations in African healing practices that occurred between the 1820s and 1940s, particularly in the areas of Natal and Zululand (the former Zulu kingdom ). This period saw healers transform themselves from politically powerful men and women who threatened to undermine colonial rule and law in nineteenth-century Natal into successful venture capitalists who competed for turf and patients with white biomedical (Western and allopathic) doctors and pharmacists in the early twentieth century.3 Healers not only adjusted to the political, social, and economic factors that accompanied British colonial rule, but found their status dramatically affected by provincial legislation. Beginning in the 1860s, white legislators criminalized all types of healers, but in 1891 made the unique decision to license African midwives and inyangas. Not all traditional healers adopted Ngcobo’s practices or competed with whites in the same manner, yet in a budding multitherapeutic society many rural and urban healers had begun to incorporate and experiment with medical and nonmedical substances associated with South Africa’s other population groups. This blurring of medical as well as cultural boundaries made white medical practitioners and government authorities quite uncomfortable and raised important questions regarding the very nature of so-called traditional medicine and the role of licensed inyangas. Ngcobo’s trial not only brought many of these particular issues to light but also demonstrated the difficulty in trying to characterize exactly what was “traditional ” about “traditional medicine.” On one side, white administrators, doctors , and chemists argued that “native medicines” were static and unchanging and should be defined largely as the absence of what was considered “white,” that is, exclusive rights to biomedical ingredients, titles, tools, practices, scientific methods, and white patients. Conversely, the Natal Native Medical Association, Ngcobo, and his lawyer argued that African therapeutics were dynamic and experimental and changed with the times. Problems encountered in legally codifying this medical tradition, however, resulted largely from the ambiguity of past legislation, particularly the 1891 Natal Native Code, which had originally legalized and licensed the practices of African midwives and 2 w Introduction You are reading copyrighted material published by Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Unauthorized posting, copying, or distributing of this work except as permitted...


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