Monday, August 1, 2011

A Famous Grouse: July 15

Weekend Argus column, as submitted for publication. -- AD

THE inexorable slide ubuntuwards and the obdurate embrace of mumbo-jumbo continued apace this week with the department of science and technology -- no less! -- now urging the citizenry to embrace “traditional medicine” so that, in the words of one news report, “it finds expression through combating diseases”.

Well, excuse me, but what do you call “traditional medicine” that works or, if you will, “finds expression through combating diseases”?

That’s right. “Medicine.”

But jokes aside, the notion that a government department claiming to represent science and rational inquiry should truck with charlatans and peddlers of superstition in our name beggars belief.

It is folly of the worst order, coming as it does on the heels of the opprobrium and scorn heaped on our healthcare courtesy of the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

You’d have thought we’d have learned something and moved on suitably chastened from that grisly episode, what with the drunk health minister, the monstrous Frankenmanto, lurching through the charnel houses of public health and throwing vegetables and bottles of dodgy vitamins at those living with HIV and Aids.

But no. Here, in the 21st century, is the dst’s director general Molapo Qhobela suggesting at an African traditional medicine and “intellectual property workshop” -- no sniggering at the back there, please -- that we should learn from countries like China which had “effectively” integrated “traditional medicine” into their health systems.

These, of course, wouldn’t be those same countries whose “traditional healers” had effectively integrated rhino horns, tiger penises, bear claws and the parts of other slaughtered endangered species into the various foul concoctions they’d prepared for their gullible victims?

On this point, I must stress that I am utterly dismayed by news reports on the upsurge in rhino poaching, particularly as they invariably state -- rather matter-of-factly -- that the horns are used in “traditional medicine” in Asian countries and thereby imply or reinforce a belief that the stuff works.

It doesn’t. Rhino horn has no medical properties whatsoever -- that’s the cold, cold truth of it -- and newspapers would be doing their readers a service if they suggested instead that the horns were used in traditional quackery.

But back to Qhobela and the gang of snake-oil and bunkum hawkers he was courting in Pretoria, the Traditional Healers Organisation.

It is perhaps a good thing, as Qhobela suggested, that the department planned to conduct research on plants that are supposed to have medicinal qualities. South Africa has, according to the figures blithely bandied about, about 3 000 such species and it would seem that much work is needed to sort out which plants work and which don’t.

And who knows, maybe they’ll find something really useful, like aspirin, which comes from plant extracts, including willow bark and spiraea, known for centuries to alleviate headaches, pains and fevers.

But it is worrying that the THO wanted to be involved in that research. Judging by the remarks from their spokeswoman, Phephisile Maseko, the process would, at best, be quite colourful with the “traditional healers” poking about the laboratories. Hopefully, they may even learn something from the process.

Maseko was full of the usual guff about how the large international companies had exploited “traditional medicine” for years now, and, as if this wasn’t bad enough, practitioners had been demonised by Christianity and the media. Shame, you may think, the indigenous cultures just can’t win, can they? Especially against the white man’s magic.

There is hope, though -- and this is the touching part. Maseko believes that, by interacting with government, the abuse from the foreigners and the alien cultures will stop, and there will huge rewards for “traditional healers”.

However, the quacks are doing rather well as it is without government assistance. According to Maseko herself, a staggering 72 percent of South Africans made use of “traditional medicine” -- which suggests that there are a great many people out there who believe their bladder infections or diabetes may be better treated by those whose apothecary skills came to them in dreams and visions rather than those who went to medical school.

Until they get proper training, the THO and its members should be barred from treating people. Seriously, if government really wants to be of help here, then it must take steps to ensure that “traditional healers” stay well and truly away from the sick and the poor. Traditional doctors, that’s what we need. Practitioners who know what they’re doing -- because they learnt the traditional way, at university.

In the meantime, perhaps the “traditional healers” can make themselves useful wherever tourists gather. Visitors from the northern hemisphere may be delighted in having the witchdoctors throw the bones for them.

This could be a most lucrative business.

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