Home Institution

Washington University in St. Louis

Publication Date

Fall 2018

Program Name

South Africa: Community Health and Social Policy


Despite playing essential and parallel roles in the lives of patients, there exists a frictional, imbalanced relationship between traditional healers and Western doctors in South Africa. While national policy encourages a seamless system rooted in both Western science and indigenous knowledge, biomedical institutions are hesitant to accept traditional medical practices, which are based on less tangible and more spiritually-oriented elements. This research project turns to these two ideologically different entities to assess their perspectives on the roles of themselves and the other within the context of the South African health system.

Responses from semi-structured interviews with seven health practitioners from KwaZulu-Natal – izangoma and doctors—were the primary sources used for the knowledge acquisition process. Given that I was the lens through which these participant stories were told, my own narrative and perspectives on the subject were interwoven throughout this report.

Participant narratives suggest that there is no consensus within either biomedical or traditional health domains about perceptions of the other, save for the agreement that the South African health system is disconnected with both modalities working in parallel. However, there are five overarching points of engagement throughout the practitioner-patient healing process through which the modalities directly or indirectly interact with one another and form cross-disciplinary opinions. These serve as points of discussion in this report. Elements keeping the domains separated include miscommunication, suspicion, and adherence to cultural paradigms. However, doctors and traditional healers alike expressed varying degrees of interest in facilitating a working a working relationship, since the South African public healthcare system relies extensively on both domains of healing. These findings have reinforced my personal sentiments about the importance of medical pluralism in systems operating under two distinct healing paradigms.


African Studies | Family, Life Course, and Society | Medicine and Health | Sociology of Culture


Article Location