Institutionalisation of African traditional medicine in South Africa: healing powers of the law?

25 October 2012

In line with global trends in law and domestic realities the South African government has been one of the few “new” nations to make significant progress in including traditional health practice in the mainstream healthcare system by using the law as a tool for formal integration. The integration process gained momentum with the enactment of the Traditional Health Practitioners Act 22 of 2007, which provides a legal framework for traditional health practitioners (also known as traditional healers). The Act gives formal recognition to traditional practitioners and establishes an interim Traditional Health Practitioners’ Council of South Africa with wide powers to ensure that health care services provided by traditional practitioners are efficient, safe and of a high quality. Logically the next step for the South African government, and also the main focus of this contribution, is the creation of a legal framework for traditional medicine. Currently traditional medicine is not regulated although it is used by traditional practitioners on a daily basis. This contribution deals with two themes, namely law and medicine, and more specifically the interaction between law and medicine in the circumstances where the law is used to provide for the formal regulation of traditional medicine. Three matters are dealt with in this context – and it is by no means implied that these are the only issues involved. Firstly, the meaning of the concept “African traditional medicine” in a South African context is discussed. Secondly, the reasons as to why the South African government is considering institutionalising African traditional medicine are dealt with and, lastly, a few comments regarding the government’s plan of action for the effective integration of traditional medicine into the South African health care system receive attention. The contribution concludes with some thoughts on what the author perceives to be the symbolic link between law and medicine to be, a link which she calls the “healing powers of the law and medicine”.