I went to a sangoma the other day.

For those who don’t know, this is a ‘witch-doctor’ – the more acceptable modern term is ‘traditional healer.’ They hold a special place in South African culture, as well as a political one – this is something we owe to Nelson Mandela and will be a curse for eternity because they have far more political power than they deserve, but that’s another story altogether.

Not all sangomas are created equal. Some genuinely attempt to heal ailments with the use of herbs which may or may not be of any use but is rooted (pardon the pun but I’m not removing it) in ancient healing traditions which did, sometimes, work if the ailment was not too severe. But, unfortunately, there are many charlatans who promise all sorts of absurd results such a ‘bring good luck’ , ‘get a job’, ‘get rid of mistress’, and the all-time favourite in this country ‘penile enlargement’. People pay good money for this quackery and some are terrified of the sangoma’s magic power. Many people have been swindled out of their life’s savings by unscrupulous characters, and let’s not even talk about the very very evil ones in remote areas who deal in body parts.

This sangoma, who didn’t give his name, is in Gugulethu, one of the big townships in Cape Town, and I was with a tour guide who needed a French interpreter for his 6 clients. I was thrilled with Marc’s township tour because it’s very interactive and takes in more than one township.  I have warned him that I am going to alter my tour accordingly and he’s happy with that because it’s going to benefit his favourite charitable cause – more of that another day. I just need to build up the courage to drive through suburbs riddled with gangsters. Apparently this is a piece of cake. Manenberg, Heideveld, Bonteheuwel, here we come, with the help of google maps and gps. Okay, maybe not Manenberg.

So, we arrive at No-Name Sangoma who operates out of a tiny smelly shack at the end of a quiet street. The clients had been game for everything until now but the sight of this pitch black and extremely stinky interior really put them to the test. The 7 of us crowded inside (Marc stayed outside, he said he wasn’t needed, yeah right, thanks) only to find a young woman client already there. We tried to retreat but the sangoma chased her away. Euros are better than rands.

He explained that he had been guided by the ancestors from childhood, via dreams, to become a sangoma. He pointed to various bottles and packets and dead animals and told us which was used for what purpose. Simply put, powders and potions are for treatment of physical ailments and animals are used for mental issues, such as good luck, get a job, etc.

He must have been disappointed with our visit because not a single euro changed hands. We came, we listened, we smelled, we left.

exterior sangoma

The entrance. I assume he never uses ‘overhead costs’ to justify his prices.

interior 1

A typical shelf. Stock-taking must be a real bitch.


These animal heads and skins hang all over the place.


Clearly he’s not using his own potions. There was a large number of tickets and many blank forms.


The man himself. He hurriedly donned the skins as we arrived. The previous client didn’t warrant the full costume, obviously.

smirnoff viagra

That very appropriate container, high up on a shelf, is the ‘viagra’ potion.

success potion

This is the ‘success’ potion – it was larger than most others.


My favourite photo and moment of all. This is just inside the entrance. I asked, of course, what purpose it serves and was told it is the equivalent of the tokoloshe and therefore safe-guards the sangoma.
For people who don’t know: this is our president – the man we most love to mock and who gives us plenty of reason to do so.
If you don’t know what is a ‘tokoloshe’ please google it, you won’t regret it.


When was the last time you went into a ‘township’? Have you ever been in one?

Sadly, many South Africans don’t venture into the suburbs and communities known as the townships. These areas were initially created to house people of colour being forcibly removed from where they lived. During the apartheid struggle years they became the hot-spots of human abuse and the residents were stripped of their dignity.

Nowadays townships are different. Many residents are still poor (not everyone is a tenderpreneur or government official) but huge efforts are being made to uplift the communities, teach skills, get the kids of the streets, and make the inhabitants feel as if they belong to the city in which they reside.

Township tours are very popular with tourists but nothing is more crass than voyeurism; the township dwellers do not want to see people driving by. They are not showcasing poverty. The way to visit is to interact, give something back by spending some money, take an interest, walk the streets, visit a shebeen, and have a meal at one of the many restaurants.

My tour ends with a meal in Langa’s famous Harlem Street at Mzanzi’s where a live band plays and teaches visitors to do the pata-pata. The music is among the best I have heard anywhere. On my next visit I’m going to investigate some marvellous things I’ve heard about a bloke who is creating a unusual vegetable garden.

I’ve also had a memorable day at the famous Mzoli’s in Gugulethu but it’s becoming too popular and a bit exhausting to queue for hours to order and then a few more hours to get the food! Maybe if I was a lot younger I’d enjoy the music and the crowds  more.

This collage shows the murals and art at the Guga S’Thebe Arts and Cultural Centre. Its purpose is to empower residents by teaching them to make pottery and other decorative items, there is a music centre (I ‘jammed’ there!), a photographic section (which seems to need some sponsorship as it wasn’t being used the last time I was there), a resource centre and an open air stage for productions.  The pottery items and mosaic mirrors are beautiful but they should consider lowering the prices for the sake of more sales to locals – not many tourists want to buy breakable stuff, but we locals can. Just saying.


A note to all accidental visitors:

I am not a photographer and do not claim to have any particular skills whatsoever in that department. I have enormous respect for those who can see the potential in a scene and can create a great photo. Good photography is an art, in my opinion.

I am just a happy snapper, I have no special lenses or accessories, my camera is very simple and it's usually best to leave the setting on auto.

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