Sangomas battle for labour law recognition 14 years after Act passed

Despite being the cornerstone of many African societies, the practitioners are yet to attain legal coverage allowing them to freely attend their training and issue sick notes to patients.

FILE: Traditional healer. Picture: Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG - Traditional health practitioners, or sangomas as they're more commonly known, have decried their lack of representation in the country’s labour laws 14 years after the Traditional Healers Practitioners’ Act was signed into law.

Traditional healers rely on indigenous knowledge and practices to diagnose, prevent and treat physical, spiritual, and mental illnesses.

However, despite being the cornerstone of many African societies, the practitioners are yet to attain legal coverage allowing them to freely attend their training and issue sick notes to patients.

"It was a very weird transition. I don’t wish anybody to go through that thing, but if you have to, you have to," Gogo Kgabo Mphelo said.

Mphelo, who works as a structural draftsman, has been juggling her job with her traditional healing practice for five years now.

She tells Eyewitness News that accepting “the calling” and following through with her training was difficult.

Now a gobela or teacher herself, she said that she had it better than most as her bosses were much more understanding than those of some of her trainees.

"Most of the people, the ones that thwasa, I know half of them stopped working, literally for four months, and they had to look for another job when they finished," Mphelo said.

This is because despite their prominence and illustrated need in society, employers are not obliged to extend leave to people who have to pause some parts of their lives to undergo the sacred training it takes to become a sangoma.

The Department of Employment and Labour’s chief director for labour relations, Thembinkosi Mkhaliphi: "It will depend on your employer. Companies sometimes don’t give time off but you can take unpaid leave, therefore it will depend on whether the company is willing to release you for that long period."

Gogo Kgabo and other sangomas who spoke to Eyewitness News have called on the government to review the gaps in law which have forced many with the spiritual gift to choose between their livelihoods and saving lives.

SICK NOTES NOT RECOGNISED

Despite being recognised by an act of Parliament, traditional health practitioners say they still struggle for recognition with medical certificates issued to their clients often rejected by employers.

The South African Basic Conditions of Employment Act extends sick leave to all workers in the country, however, these can only be issued by registered health practitioners.

However, as the government struggles to set up a regulatory body for sangomas and other spiritual healers in the country, this means that hundreds of people are starved of their right to bodily and psychological integrity as enshrined in the Constitution.

"In South Africa, we may say we are in a democratic country, accommodating all religions and so forth but that is practically not the case," Mkhulu Majola said.

Majola, who is also known as Dr Mvoko, is a spiritualist and spokesperson for the African National Healers Association.

She told Eyewitness News that sick notes issued by sangomas after consultations with clients were often rejected by employers, a problem that she lays squarely at the door of the government.

"There were engagements with the government going back and forth to say please recognise us, we are also an essential service," Majola said.

The Department of Employment and Labour’s Mkhaliphi said that it was all a question of whether the practitioners were registered with the right bodies.

"It's not a labour law issue that one… but labour law says if you are booked off by a practitioner, it says a medical practitioner registered by any law of Parliament, it doesn't say by a medical council," Mkhaliphi said.

After the law recognising the traditional healers was passed in 2008, a statutory council was supposed to be formed to allow practitioners to register for their sick notes to be recognised by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

But this is yet to materialise.

REINSTITUTING TRADITIONAL HEALTH PRACTITIONERS COUNCIL

The Health Department said that it was working on reinstituting the Council for Traditional Health Practitioners in the country amid an outcry from sangomas and other specialists who feel marginalised by the law.

Once set up, the statutory council will enable the African traditional healers to issue widely recognised medical certificates to consulting clients.

Currently, many rely on the goodwill of employers when seeking assistance from the practitioners for spiritual, mental or physical illnesses.

Nompumelelo Mbatha and others’ paper on traditional health practitioners and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act published in the South African Medical Journal noted that the delay in the formation of the council which dates as far back as former President Thabo Mbeki’s tenure could be blamed on changes in government.

It said that even when former President Jacob Zuma, a self-proclaimed traditionalist, took to office, the interim council was not prioritised, forcing scores of traditional healers to lead a protest to the Union Buildings in 2011.

The council is meant to cover inyangas, herbalists or traditional doctors, sangomas who are diviners, lingcibis, traditional surgeons and traditional birth attendants.

The Health Department’s spokesperson, Foster Mohale, explained where the current stage of the process to establish the council was:

"The national Department of Health has initiated a process to appoint an interim National Traditional Healers Council of South Africa, while at the same time the legislative process to amend the act is under way," Mohale said.

Meanwhile, provisions are made for medical certificates issued by professionals registered with the Allied Health Service Professions Council, including Chinese and Indian traditional medicine, African traditional health practitioners remain excluded, with their sick notes unrecognised by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Africans. Some employers such as mining houses, the University of Pretoria, the SAPS and Sun International have entered into agreements with unions to allow workers a set amount of days a year for consultations with their practitioners.