Talking with the white: sharing the experiences of white sangoma in contemporary South Africa

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Centre for Social Science Research

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University of Cape Town

The phenomenon of whites who have graduated as sangoma - the ancestrally guided spiritual healing system of South Africa - has become a contemporary cause celebre, a matter for academic and popular debate (de Bruyn 2004; Dowson 2001; Wreford in progress). In some circles the idea is dismissed as inconceivable (Masiba 2001): Other sangoma optimistically embrace the introduction of whites to their ranks as a natural and positive innovation. Biomedicine meanwhile generally dismisses sangoma healing ideas and practice and thus ignores the potential advantages of co-operation with this parallel healing system on which between 60 and 80% of the majority population still depend (Pretorius 1999). This paper examines white sangoma in the context of the social and political conditions of contemporary urban South Africa. Sources for the paper include my personal experience of training and graduation as a sangoma, as well as material gathered from black African sangoma, and, more recently, from white initiates and graduates. The paper examines whether these healers represent a hybrid phenomenon, a development of tradition as a 'changing same' (Clifford 2003: 113) or, as their critics allege, yet another version of colonial exploitation (Mndende 2001), and asks how white sangoma see themselves, how their supporters, mentors and clients view them, and how they respond to their critics. Finally, the paper suggests that whatever their categorisation, there may be a fruitful role for white sangoma in effecting a more collaborative relationship between biomedicine and traditional healers in South Africa, particularly in the face of the AIDS pandemic ravaging the country.