Focussing on Traditional African Religions

For some years now I have been trying to better understand alternative and complementary medicine. Part of this school of thought covers Traditional medicines and Traditional healers.

I attended an interesting dialogue presented by UCT Press and the Harold Wolpe Trust at UCT main campus on Tuesday evening, 21 February 2012. The focus was on Traditional African Religions (ATR) in South African Law. It was based on a book edited by Prof T.W.Bennett, one of the panelists at the dialogue meeting.

Panel discussion featured the Facilitator: Prof Alan Rycroft
There were three Panellists namely:-
Prof Tom Bennett – Department of Public Law UCT
Dr Sibusiso Masondo – Department of Religious Studies, UCT
Dr Nokuzola Mndende – Director of the Icamagu Institute.

Prof Tom Bennett, Dept of Public Law , UCT spoke about how the book came to be.

  • Provisions in our SA constitution section 15, 31 mediated by section 9, part 2 speak to freedom around religious beliefs and practices – Bill of Rights.
  • African religion is seen in a different light to “main stream” religions especially those of the West and East. There is a tendency for the term ‘cultural traditions’ to include religious beliefs and rituals. He called for African religion to be treated with the same respect as main stream religions.
  • He stressed the point that ATR covers the full spectrum including traditional healers and medicine, Sangoma’s, ancestral spirits and various rituals.

Dr Sibusiso Masondo, Dept Religious Studies UCT raised the following points:-

  • African religions were discriminated against by Missionaries, European forefathers and also the apartheid beliefs. It was believed that the 1996 Constitution Act would improve matters around ATR.
  • Over the years law and religion have been in conflict many times and this will continue into the future.
  • African religions are common in rural areas but less so in the urban areas.
    House opening rituals started once Africans were allowed to purchase properties in previous white only areas.
  • First-Fruit Ceremonies – Umkhosi (Reed Dance) – are held annually to celebrate the new harvest; have long been part of southern African cultural life and are still proudly celebrated by the Zulu and Swazi nations today. It is a “thank you” which includes the ritual of a killing of a bull.
  • Fertility rituals are very important to African people.
  • The Modjadji or Rain Queen is hereditary and comes down the female line.
  • In Zulu cosmology being a Sangoma is not a gender issue.
  • African traditions have received bad press because of a lack of understanding.

Dr Nokuzola Mndende – Director of the Icamagu Institute in a very entertaining way spoke to the following points:-

  • Vision and the mission of the Icamagu Institute is to revive African Traditional Religion and indigenous spirituality in a post-colonial country
  • In reality there is one African traditional religion. She believes that Christianity and Muslim are not African.
  • Dr Mndende pointed out that witchcraft is found all over the world.
  • Dr Mndende stated that God is not only Abrahamic.
  • ATR is oral doctrine carried down generation to generation and is not and does not have scared documents such as the Koran and Bible in western religions. This should not make it less of a religion
  • Sangomas (Diviners) / Herbalists, Traditional healers are used by most of the population of South Africa. There are about 35,000 western medical doctors and there are at least 200,000 traditional healers/herbalist. This Dr Mndende says supports her view.

During the question time it was clear that the divide between Christian, Judaism and other Western and Eastern religions and African Traditional Religion is large. Some of the questions or issues raised were the following:-

  • If you look at South African Laws how do you balance western law with traditional law?
  • Do we have independence but with another type of religious domination?
  • Many see Colonialism and Apartheid as similar evils.
  • Does SA’s new Democracy and our World class Constitution mean and allow the right to be dominated by Western religions? Thereby imposing on the majority a religious system and belief of a selected minority
  • There is a strong move for bodies to be cremated. This is unacceptable in ATR as it is strongly believed one must be able to talk to the bones.
  • Another strong point raised in the dialogue was that in the South African National calendar for holidays there are no ATR dates for celebration but many for other religions.

As a Christian I have mixed feelings on many of the points raised and discussed. At the same time I have learnt a lot about ATR. I still hold my beliefs as I am sure Dr Nokuzola Mndende will hers. For me it is interesting how people of divergent beliefs, religions and practice talk past each other. My mind tells me that we need to listen with a view to better understand each other for in the end we all live in Africa.

Stephen Covey in his book “Seven Habits” talks about the skill and need of every person to “seek first to understand before being understood”. If we all did this what a better place South Africa could be.

I personally am comfortable with my Christian spirituality but I have gained a better understanding of ATR … albeit a small understanding.

Thank you Dr Sibusiso Masondo, Prof Tom Bennett, Dr Nokuzola Mndende and all those who attended. The evening has greatly enriched my mind and understanding.


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