How SA sangomas' ancient healing work is going digital

Because of coronavirus, a growing number of ailing customers have started seeking advice from sangomas digitally.

FILE: Sangoma Agnes Gaobepe explains her work. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Incense burned gently in the corner of a sunlit room as sangoma Makhosi Malatji fixed her smartphone into a tripod and reached for a small bag of divination bones.

A young female face on the screen watched Malatji shake the pouch and scatter its contents across the floor of her Johannesburg home.

She angled the phone to make sure her client could follow and began interpreting the bone pattern, finding cues that prompted the woman to open up about a distressing family feud.

Like traditional healers across the country, Malatji (37) took an ancient practice online last year to continue offering consultations under strict coronavirus restrictions.

The shift has fired a budding pre-pandemic trend of younger traditional healers already engaging clients through social media and video calls.

"Before COVID I had never used a phone or laptop to do a consultation," said Malatji, who trained over a decade ago.

"It was a bit of an adjustment," she laughed, describing her first Skype session as "a mess".

Skeptical at first, Malatji now has professional profiles on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube.

A ring light stood at the back of her brightly coloured consultation room lined with traditional printed fabric and carpeted in animal skin.

Despite the easing of coronavirus restrictions, Malatji still sees half of her clients remotely.

"I actually enjoy the online ones more now because it saves time," she admitted, noting that she also acquired new overseas customers in countries like Dubai, Italy and Sri Lanka.

- New age sangomas -

Sangomas, also known as traditional healers, are qualified herbalists, counsellors and mediators as well as diviners. Many South Africans consult them for illnesses, dream interpretations and conflict resolution.

Shrouded in misconception, sangomas were banned in 1957 under the "Witchcraft Suppression Act" and only legally recognised decades later as "traditional health practitioners". Knowledge transmission skipped a generation as a result, with grandparents training millenial grandchildren more inclined to break with tradition.

Five years after she became a traditional healer in 2012, Nomfundo Dhlamini branched out into the digital space as a self-proclaimed "new age sangoma".

The 30-year-old uses social media platforms to "advocate for African spirituality", particularly among young people.

As lockdown boosted demand for impersonal healing, Dhlamini distilled traditional herbs into soaps and tea bags she sold online.

A growing number of ailing customers have started discussing symptoms and remedies with her via WhatsApp message.

Previously, "the only way to speak to a traditional healer was to go to their place," Dhlamini explained. "Now there are new ways of doing things."

But the digital presence of sangomas remains limited, she added, pointing to a backlash from traditionalists opposed to modernising the practice.

The generational gap can sometimes complicate dialogue.

There is "a little bit of tension", Dhlamini noted.

"It's not really easy for an elderly healer to ask a younger healer for help (with technology)."

- 'Throwing bones cannot change' -

Xhanti Madolo (39) spotted an information gap about sangomas when he moved to Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape province in 2002.

"A lot of the people who move from rural to more urban areas... don't know where to consult," he explained.

Last year, Madolo and his former classmate Siphiwo Lindi set up South Africa's first online directory, "Gogo Online" for traditional healers.

"We went into a very traditional space where technology is frowned upon... thinking that people might be averse," Lindi said.

But more than 200 healers have signed up to the platform since its launch last November.

Lockdown "has been a great help", said Madolo, as "traditional healers are starting to move" online.

Yet after struggling with months of telephonic consultations, 66-year-old Gogo Molahlegi was somewhat relieved when authorities allowed traditional healers to resume face-to-face sessions.

The great-grandmother still feels less constrained by face masks and hand sanitiser than a screen.

"At my age... I prefer to see someone here," Molahlegi told AFP, removing her sandals before stepping into a small back yard room lined with jars of herbs and bottles of sacred river water.

A younger trainee took notes as Molahlegi lit a candle and sniffed tobacco -- rituals that mark the start of a traditional reading.

"Throwing bones cannot change," she argued. "You cannot do that digitally... the person has to be here with you."

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device.