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Voices features in the Herald
4th September 2012

When Muti Imparts Reassurance of One's Culture, by Guy Rogers, The Herald 04/09/2012 (download PDF here)

 AS THE fall-out from the Marikana shooting continues to smoulder, beneath the wreckage of dubious politics, policing and labour action, there is this extraordinary matter of culture. As has been widely reported - in preparation for their protest, the Lonmin miners smeared themselves with muti to ward off police bullets.

 I talked to Grahamstown ethnobotanist Dr Tony Dold about these reports and he noted this is not just modern day mumbo-jumbo. It's got a long history to it.  One dramatic example, as he records in his brilliant book Voices from the Forest, just published and co-authored with his wife, anthropologist. Dr Michelle Cocks is the case of Mlanjeni. The book quotes historian Prof Jeff Peires' account of how, as the 1850 8th Frontier War loomed near Kat River, this young prophet was recruited as "war doctor" by Chief Sandile. In return, Mlanjeni (riverman) promised to render the warriors of the united amaXhosa, abaThembu and Khoekhoen invulnerable to the bullets of the British, and fill the soldiers' guns with water. 

 He instructed the warriors to rub the juices from the root of a charm plant ikhubalo likaMlajeni (pelargonium) on their bodies. In addition, when attacking the enemy, they were instructed to chew on short sticks of umthi kaMlanjeni (powdered leaf plumbago), to spit out the fibres and call on the ancestors to bless them. "Tragedy followed, and hundreds were killed when the riverman's protection was found to be non-existent. The guns of the imperial troops did not shoot water, nor did the amaXhosa warriors prove invulnerable to shot and shell....The battlefields were strewn with Mlanjeni's charm sticks dyed with the blood of the true believers."

 One hundred and sixty-two years later, 18 years into our new democracy, the echoes and the irony collide. As Dold notes, all these years later, both powdered leaf pelargonium and plumbago are still widely known by their Mlanjeni monikers, and are still considered to have the same charm properties.

 Beyond the awfulness of Marikana, what intrigued me was that, as we know now, 28 of the 32 miners killed there were from the Eastern Cape. Far from home and their familiar bounty of Albany thicket , ihlathi lesiXhosa ( Xhosa Forest) - it is interesting to work out how they sourced their muti.  In most towns in South Africa, as Dold describes in his book, there is a multi-layered system of traditional healers, herbalists, likhemesti and street hawkers all part of a multi-million rand traditional medicine industry.

 In this case, according to reports, the men were visited by a traditional healer from Mbizana, on the far north-eastern Wild Coast, and his prescription included something they had to drink as well as something they smeared into cuts on their bodies. Just who paid for the healer's visit could be pertinent, it seems to me. But it is important to realise that these charms are not always used in relation to anticipated violence. They can be used at any point of vulnerability in one's life. Dold recalls growing up in the old Transkei under apartheid and how the buses of Teba (The Employment Bureau of Africa) used to come around each year to pick up young recruits for the mines. In preparation for this journey into the unknown, the men would treat themselves with a similar charm. It gave them a sense of security, he says, "the feeling that, my culture's got my back." The point is not whether we think these charms work or not. The point is - the wearer does.

 Also what is significant, as Dold and Cocks argue, is what an amazingly strong relationship so many of our people still have with this eco-based culture, despite the passing of time, and the incision of modernity. The strength of this bond can present problems.  It seems to be a key driver behind the Vietnamese demand for our rhino horn. But it also presents a great opportunity: to drive a new, more equitable and more sustainable conservation system that celebrates our environmental heritage.

See more on "war charms" in Inkcubeko Contributes to Freedom Park and Mlaneni's War Charms