Picture by: David Malan

What do you say when a country estate that prides itself on having one of the best wellness spas in Gauteng, plus black economic empowerment (BEE) practices, is so blonde that it sacks a traditional-healer-to-be because she needs unpaid leave to finish her sangoma training in order to be well and bring wellness to others?

As a (white) sangoma, I wonder if anyone has spotted the ironies in last week’s widely publicised case of the “tranquil” and “holistic” Kievits Kroon Country Estate, which was ordered by the Labour Appeal Court to reinstate a long-standing employee and part-time sangoma trainee who was dismissed for taking a month’s unpaid leave to finish her training as healer – in spite of her employer’s refusal to grant leave.

Johanna Mmoledi worked for Kievits Kroon outside Pretoria for eight years as chef de partie – while training as a sangoma, or traditional healer. This training, which in the media and legal documents is described as “Johanna attending a course”, is a (western) euphemism for the physically and mentally demanding, sometimes dangerous, process-oriented psychological training called ukuthwasa.

This African healing-cum-training process, in spite of its familiarity among black people, was never mentioned by its name in court, nor logistically explained as to its dual requirements. Instead, there was a “white” debate around sick notes and leave procedures.

In contrast, in the media, ancestral sangoma training is often derisively referred to in quotation marks. For example, a woman is “tormented by ancestral spirits”. One never sees people with conditions such as diabetes referred to as the “diabetic” woman.

Why was the African process of ukuthwasa not mentioned in court?

Mmoledi’s sangoma, who wrote the “sick note”, tried to be “professional” and comply with the western medical certificate format. She perhaps did not realise how unfamiliar white people are with the training of a sangoma. Or how trivially they treat it. Or that the legacy of the apartheid state’s Suppression of Witchcraft Act 1957 still informs people’s views.

She did not realise that white employers would become confused and recalcitrant when given a sick note with words misspelt. Because they don’t know (and don’t care) that “sangoma training” already implies a certain mental, spiritual or physical illness. And that this “sick note” is a complex request of deep cultural orientation and commitment, coming from a space long before glossy country estates and spas were dreamt of.

She did not know how to say: ukuthwasa, or sangoma training – as a psychological process of integrating “difficult” segments of your personality – is similar to training aspects of western university psychology students who undergo compulsory personal counselling in order to “fix” their personal issues while they are training to become psychologists.

She did not know how to translate that: African methods diagnose these personality segments as “difficult” ancestors in the genetic imprint who have to be communicated to. Which makes sense. This process, by the way, was adapted 30 years ago by the German therapist Bert Hellinger, who, living among the Zulus for 18 years, created the popular, modern-day Family Constellations Therapy. So there, we are not crazy sangomas.

Mmoledi and her training sangoma were not lying or trying to abuse the system. In western educational terms, Mmoledi had to go and finish her African Psychology Honours/ Master’s degree as the last stages of her initiation.

She bravely followed the voice of her soul, heart and ancestral spirit, in the complex space of an upmarket, euro-centric country estate with BEE-hugging policies and a white human resources department. She faced losing her livelihood as a chef to finish one of the most important processes a human being can go through for themselves and others. That is what she needed a month for.

And that is what her co-workers supported her in by indicating to Kievits Kroon’s human resources manager that they did not have a problem with her part-time work schedule due to training.

The HR manager, concerned about a workplace precedent, submitted the issue to the other (black?) employees – not knowing how much people support and respect this process. The term for this is siyavuma sangoma! – we support you!

Mmoledi’s employers refused her a month’s unpaid leave, granting her only a week.

If a training module takes a month, it takes a month, surely? How can you squash yourself, your trainers and the syllabus into a week? This is the kind of ignorance and disrespect shown by too many white people for African practices, despite their fancy human resources departments.

Stephen Walter, the executive chef at Kievits Kroon, unaware of his own condescension, probably thought he was making an objective, logical and clarifying point by saying that he “also won’t give someone a month’s leave for a karate course”. The commissioner pointedly commented: “Those who do not subscribe to other’s cultural beliefs should not trivialise them by, for example, equating them to a karate course.”

The labour law in Tanzania grants people almost unlimited months of unpaid leave for whatever they need to do.

I don’t have to throw the bones to know that Kievits Kroon, in all its super-power glossiness, in spite of being situated in or near the African bush, does not “get” this – and perhaps never will. There is some irony in that both parties – sangoma and Kievits Kroon, with its famous spa – are practitioners of bringing well-being and health. They even perform corresponding therapeutic applications.

Perhaps Mmoledi’s sub-conscious (her ancestors) realised this on some level – and thus she got the calling to train in her own people’s wellness methods, to maintain balance amid the well-to-do-ness of such a proud establishment “resembling the Cape winelands”, inundated with black receptionists, chefs, cleaners and what nots. I don’t think Kievits Kroon has trained a black masseur yet?

Perhaps Mmoledi’s ancestors simply became fed-up with the overbearing euro-centrism of Kievits Kroon’s wellness practices for well-off people.

Perhaps her ancestors wanted to remind her and make her proud of corresponding traditional healing practices, such as the African futha, or steam bath, which is still a regular health practice among millions of black people in villages and townships – who cannot afford the luxury of a place such as Kievits Kroon’s spa. As a trainee she would have had to do this mini-African sauna several times a week. How does it work?

In villages without electricity a big pot of water with fresh plants is boiled over a fire. At boiling point it is removed and the patient (or thwasa) steams his/her body over the pot or container, enclosed with blankets, like a mini-sauna. It is hot as hell, you sweat like mad – and afterwards you add cold water and wash yourself thoroughly in the freshness of the morning or evening air. In townships with electricity it is done in an enclosed reed mat with an electrical boiling device.

You feel divine after a futha. It soothes, heals and relaxes. It cleans people up, energises them. It clears them of many oppressive thoughts and feelings. You would swear you had had a week’s expensive pampering at Kievits Kroon.

Perhaps it was these vexing correspondences and alarming disparities that “tormented” Mmoledi’s ancestors. She simply had to find a spiritual settlement between the disinfected gentrification of a place such as Kievits Kroon and her own people’s long-standing spiritual relationship with unbounded nature.

The African spiritual experience which once was outlawed in this country, suppressed, denied and vilified, is still mocked today by most whites with boorish ignorance. The African spiritual experience which is still drumming over hills and in ghettoes. Camagu, thokoza, amadlozi, amakhosi.

Perhaps Mmoledi had to dig the thwasa mud pack clay from the river to put on her face to ground herself in the face of all the expensive spa face masks and the two faces she had to face, and the two faces she had to wear in order not to lose her African face.

Does Kievits Kroon realise how much it, unknowingly, may have contributed to Mmoledi’s sickness and resultant ancestral calling?

Kievits Kroon has not reinstated Mmoledi. The manager, Chris Schutte, said the next step was with its lawyers and he did not know what it was. He did not want to confirm or deny the speculation that it may take the case to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

If Kievits Kroon had had any sense, it would have become involved as much as possible in Mmoledi’s training, and incorporated her as a healing module in their spa. -The Sunday Independent

De Wet is a Pondo and Swazi-trained sangoma living in Cape Town. She is also a freelance writer.