New South Africa Embraces Rich Traditions : Ceremonial Praise Singers, Native Healers Have Roles in Post-Apartheid Change


Like any good poet, Sithembile Mlanjeni says his inspiration comes from deep inside, surging up to fill his brain and voice with the rolling rhythm and kinetic cadence of Xhosa verse.

Unlike most bards, however, Mlanjeni performs barefoot and bare-chested. He waves a cow-tail whisk in one hand and a burl-topped club called a knobkerrie in the other. He wears a jackal skin cap, an intricate bead necklace and a gleaming smile.

And he doesn’t recite his poetry so much as bellow it out, unscripted and unrehearsed, with the approximate volume of a jet engine.

“It comes from within me,” he explained. “From my heart. From my ancestors. They tell me what to say.”


Mostly they tell him to sing the praises of Nelson Mandela.

Mlanjeni is an imbongi , or traditional praise singer. And as befits Mandela’s role as a chief of the Thembu tribe of Transkei, Mlanjeni has bawled the glories of the new president and his royal ancestors at most of Mandela’s major ceremonies, from the opening of the new Parliament to Mandela’s formal inauguration in Pretoria last month.

The troubadour’s rap-like riffs and roars, and those of a deputy praise singer, drew open-mouthed stares at Mandela’s swearing-in from a crowd that included Vice President Al Gore, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Mlanjeni’s presence is not the only sign that the new South Africa is embracing ancient African traditions as well as modern Western democracy as it seeks solutions for the legacy of poverty and injustice left by apartheid.


In many ways, the young nation is writing its own rules.

Before the first weeklong session of the new, all-race Parliament adjourned last month, for example, the new members had created their own dress code. Gray suits gave way to African robes, Indian saris and Doc Marten shoes.

Some speeches began, “Comrades,” or were uttered in the Zulu or Xhosa languages. One member refused to give his “maiden speech,” saying the term was sexist. And members applauded one another for the first time, instead of muttering in British style, an event reported in the Citizen, a Johannesburg newspaper under the dramatic headline, “Clap in Parliament.”

Elsewhere, a local Monopoly-style board game called Oppression that featured segregated jails and other vestiges of apartheid has been replaced by a game called Democracy. Players each control a political party and must deal with such vagaries of public life as an assassin, call girls and illegal dealing in rhinoceros horns.

Other changes are more significant.

Mandela’s government has proposed, for example, that traditional healers called sangomas be incorporated into an ambitious new health care plan to “become an integral and recognized part of health care in South Africa.”

Dr. Ralph Mgijima, who helped draft the plan for the African National Congress, conceded that “there are obvious problems,” chief among them such practices as ritual murder, the use of human organs and alleged witchcraft.

But he said most sangomas are benign healers who provide medical and spiritual care to millions of impoverished rural blacks.


“We start from the premise that there are many areas where people have no access to health care except for sangomas and traditional healers,” he said. “So to restructure health care, you have to include those people. They have the confidence of those communities and are leaders in their own right.”

In urban areas, many black families use a doctor for sickness and a sangoma for problems such as depression.

Sangomas “have a much higher success rate in treating psychiatric illnesses and mental health problems than modern psychiatry,” Mgijima said.

Sangomas say they communicate with ancestors. Isak Niehaus, an anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, explained that in Western terms.

“When you go to a sangoma , he helps you create a myth to reorder the chaotic experience in your life,” he said. “If you go because you’re depressed, and the sangoma says it’s because your ancestor is unhappy, you believe it. And it gives you a course of action. And that is very valuable.”

The new health minister, Dr. Nkosazana Zuma, wants legislation to register traditional healers, set standards for their training and care, and test the medicines they use. It won’t be easy: Much of their practice remains a mystery.

Sangomas , for example, usually diagnose a patient’s problem by “rolling the bones,” or reading portents from a special set of animal bone shards. If medicine is required, they prepare it from roots and herbs.

Treatment may include scarring skin with a razor, or scratching it with porcupine quills.


Dr. Solomon Mahlaba, a sangoma who heads the Traditional Medical Practitioners’ Assn., estimated that there are 200,000 to 300,000 sangomas nationwide, saying that may include “diviners, herbalists and spiritual healers.” It doesn’t include those Mahlaba called “charlatans.”

Sangomas and praise singers are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and have been for centuries.

But like most of black culture, that heritage was ignored by South African whites during the dark era of racial oligarchy.

No longer. Now others are singing Mlanjeni’s praises.

He was enshrined last month, for example, in “Madame and Eve,” South Africa’s “Doonesbury.”

In one memorable strip, a character named Marge is preceded by an imbongi who hollers, “Marge! She is great! Her ancestors are great! Viva Marge! Queen of the party animals!”

Ari Sitas, a sociologist at the University of Natal in Durban, said praise singers use “vibrant metaphoric power” to highlight the heroic exploits of a local chief and his ancestors.

“It’s a very powerful form of communication,” he said. “It’s a tradition that goes back to the mists of time.”

Mlanjeni, a stocky 33-year-old, got his start at age 13 when his high-decibel interpretation of a Xhosa poem in class had teachers asking for repeat performances.

He later joined the police and became a bodyguard and praise singer for Gen. Bantu Holomisa, who was then president of the Transkei black homeland.

“I used to put on my traditional gear and sing praise,” he recalled. “Then I’d take off my gear, pick up my rifle and be a bodyguard again.”

As his fame spread, he performed at graduations, weddings and soccer games.

Then in February, 1990, he and Holomisa flew to Cape Town to hail Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison. Because they were from the same Transkei hamlet, Qunu, Mlanjeni already knew Mandela’s family history and Thembu tribal lore. He quickly offered his services.

Now a police lieutenant, Mlanjeni considers the inauguration the high point of his life.

He rendered umbongo , a style of poetic praise that combined Mandela’s genealogy with a heavy dose of mythology.

Consonants and clicks cascaded off his tongue as he praised Mandela’s parents and forefathers in a rich, resonant voice that rumbled from the stage and echoed down the hill.

Asked to recount the praise in English, he said Mandela’s rise “from prisoner to president” had “aroused from the graves” deceased leaders of Mandela’s African National Congress.

“He has changed his enemies to be friends, not to take revenge upon them but to collect them in the new South Africa, one nation, one South Africa, one president, one Mandela!”

After it was over, the new president smiled. “He said, ‘Thank you very much. Now you have told the people who I am.’ ”