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Traditional healers want economic backing for traditional medicines

Trading in indigenous plants is good business, it’s worth an estimated R270-million a year with a consumer base of more than 26-million.

From SABC News by Lerato Fekisi May 23 2021

Trading in traditional medicine is a multi-million rand business in South Africa. However, the practice is still very much informal, despite the rapid growth of this industry and its potential spinoffs.

Traditional healers are calling for recognition of the industry and demand economic backing. Traditional medicine is also the primary source for treatment for millions of South Africans and is not deemed inferior to western medicines.

The use of and trading in traditional medicine is also not confined to traditional healers anymore as entrepreneurs are also exploring opportunities that the trade brings.

Phunyezwa Gomomo has been a traditional healer for more than 20 years and together with her late husband, they spent the better part of their lives making traditional medicines.

She has something for most ailments, from headache treatments to something for stomach cramps and even high blood pressure. She believes her skills are a gift.

“We need to be recognized including our herbs because we know them and there’s something that I hate which is a stereotype, whereby it is said that we don’t even know our measurements, they are not fresh, or so, we know exactly what we are doing, we know our measurements. There were no spoons before, there were no cups before, there were no milliliters, but we know what we doing.”

She initially opened a herbal shop in Uitenhage. The first of many now operating in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.

“If the government can recognize the use of these medicines by the people who understand that. I have mentioned that I put bread on the table by using them. It’s easy for you to have helpers, if you go to the forest for instances, or to the bush to go and dig, you have got someone you can employ and you give that person money to dig for you. Again if you have a shop, they know they must pack for you, others are selling for you, you have staff around you who will have salaries from the herbs, which is something that must continue because it can help in this unemployment.”

On the other side of town, we meet Chief Cecil Alexander, a traditional healer himself. He shares some insights into his craft: “These herbs around here on this side is for high blood and sugar, diabetics, so that is dagga and that is klip dagga, that brew in the field, this is periplus, that is Vyn Dryk you use in medicine.”

Trading in indigenous plants is good business, it’s worth an estimated R270-million a year with a consumer base of more than 26-million.

It also employs 133 000 people, mainly women in rural areas. It is believed the sector has so much more potential.

Cultural activist Nokuzola Mdende says, “There is just a problem, we are still working on uneven ground. And also the problem of terminology, anything indigenous is still defined from a western perspective, because if we are talking about traditional medicine, what is traditional medicine in the first place because we are talking about plants, plants they grow everywhere, they grow from the soil. Why is the plant from Africa called traditional medicine and the plant from Europe and America it’s not called traditional medicine. For instance in India it’s called natural medicine, so that is the problem.”

One of the country’s best-known medicinal plants, cannabis or dagga, is also on the economic radar of the provincial government.

Cannabis growers in Lusisiki, the dagga-belt of South Africa, know the economic value the plant holds. They want to grow it legally to unlock its true agricultural value. Growing and selling dagga is the livelihood of many in the area.

Cannabis farmer Given Bengu says government should give them licenses to sell cannabis legally.

“We would love for government to give us licenses so that we can use this cannabis legally. We have land that the government can help us in and cultivate for us so that we can plant our cannabis. We plough what we can, but we don’t plant all the stuff we want to plant because we don’t have sufficient land. If they legalize the trading of cannabis we would be doing so much better financially.”

Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane says government is working on supporting cannabis farmers.

“We are working within those laws and we are really looking at the current laws because we want to affirm the ordinary people who have been cultivating this in these areas so that we give them the proper support as government.”

Professor Fikile Nomvete, Specialist Physician and Gastrenologist, says the recognition of traditional medicines that healers are looking for should be attainable through scientific study and regulation.

“The medicines should be on the same level, but it should be then equally regulated. I think this is where the issue lies. And when you regulate a drug or a medicine you look at its efficacy, as in how does it really work and obviously there needs to be studies and trials that speak into that and also is it safe, and there again there need to be studied to make sure the safety profile is up to par and obviously then you have got to look into issues of accessibility and those are more on a lower scale, but it must work and it must be safe, hence we have a regulatory board called SAPRA, so if we are going to take any drug or any medication and say it must be easily accessible and used it must go through those regulations. So if our herbal practitioners want to be on the same level or same recognition level as the drugs that are made in the labs then they must be subjected as well to the same regulatory and safety checks as well.”

The formula of many herbal remedies is a closely guarded secret. It’s also intertwined with a philosophy in which health is inextricably linked with spirituality. The recipes and remedies are also transferred verbally without written texts.

There is little record of how the medicines were made and used hundreds of years ago. This makes scientific scrutiny a difficult affair.

Traditional medicine practitioners call for recognition of their industry:

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