In May 2020, two months into South Africa’s strict Covid-19 lockdown, Makhosi Keagile Kamo Malatji decided to purchase a ring light and a second smartphone. She needed them for her online consultations, conducted over WhatsApp video calls from her shrine at home in east Johannesburg.
“Obviously, we were forced not to work, but that didn’t take away from people needing spiritual help or guidance,” Malatji, a sangoma — or a traditional healer believed to have access to the spirit world — told Rest of World. “At that point, I felt I needed to make it work for me, so I started doing online consultations.”
Nearly three years on, just as remote working has become the norm in the corporate world, online consultations have become common practice among South African sangomas.
Traditional healers like Malatji are important to South African culture, and the country legally recognizes them under its Traditional Health Practitioners Act 22 of 2007. Typically, sangomas are consulted for the treatment of physical illnesses using herbal remedies or for spiritual insights.
Malatji said that during video consultations, healers like her use the same protocols that they would have used in face-to-face meetings, provided they have sufficient information about the client, such as their full name and facial appearance. While she still prefers to conduct her first meeting with a new client in person, Malatji said she is fully equipped for the online model, with her practice registered as a private company and a corporate bank account that allows her to receive payments.
Sdumo Viwe, a sangoma in Cape Town, told Rest of World that videoconferencing allowed him access to clients he previously could not have reached, especially those in other cities. “I think technology is already playing a huge role,” Viwe said. “The fact that we are not face-to-face, you [the reporter] are in Johannesburg, and I’m in Cape Town. So, it’s already a huge platform because you are able to access many people in different places.”
Viwe told Rest of World he gets several clients from other parts of the country as his patients recommend him to their friends and family. He said he also hosts Facebook Live sessions to educate his followers about the different types of physical or spiritual ailments and how to cure them.
According to 6Wresearch, a New Delhi-based market research firm, South Africa’s videoconferencing market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 11.8% between 2021 and 2027. The internet penetration rate in the country was 68.2% at the start of 2022.
For Malatji, the current trajectory of her profession brings together the old and the new. But some within the traditional healing industry are reluctant to embrace videoconferencing.
68.2% The internet penetration rate for South Africa at the beginning of 2022.6Wresearch
“We [are] not saying it is wrong. What we are saying is it must be limited. Eye contact is very important,” Gogo Molahlehi, a member of the Traditional Healers Organization (THO), told the South African Broadcasting Corporation in September 2021. The organization — a nonprofit collective working on behalf of traditional healers, including sangomas, in South Africa — did not condone the practice, she added. Rhulani Manganyi, a THO spokesperson, also told Rest of World that their views on digital consultations remain unchanged.
Malatji disagrees with this view, stating that technology has helped her access clients from other parts of the world. Her most recent international consultation was with someone from Sri Lanka. “It’s people from all walks of life, people who are trying to find themselves [or] need medium services,” she said. Malatji’s clients find her on social media platforms and Gogo Online, an internet directory for sangomas (the website is currently inactive).
“We have always evolved as a human race,” she said. “If we want everything to remain [traditional], then we all have to just go back to living in caves. So there has to be [progression], whether we like it or not. You will always have people who are hesitant and people who will gradually get used to the new ways of doing things.”
A Johannesburg resident who frequently speaks to sangomas via videoconferencing told Rest of World that the convenience it offers clients like her is indispensable. “You don’t have to move from home or hire a car,” she said, asking to remain anonymous to protect her privacy and reasons for consulting with a sangoma.
Despite having embraced technology, Malatji stresses that digital conferencing will never overtake in-person consultations in importance. Instead, it will provide balance. “It will remain as a part of the future of the practice, and we will always have a hybrid system,” Malatji said.