In a new wave of reverence for traditional healing, a growing number of South African business executives of all races are consulting African diviners to help resolve business problems, define career paths and make crucial organisational decisions.
Solutions are sought for interpersonal workplace conflict. Guidance is required by managers who have to retrench or recruit staff. Advice is asked before business partnerships are concluded. Ancestors are consulted prior to signing contracts or accepting promotion. In essence, there is little in business about which the bones cannot be thrown.
Interestingly, while their techniques may literally be worlds apart, there are some striking similarities between the work of sangomas and coaches. In some cases, it seems, semantics is all that differentiates the two. Traditional healers, for example, help patients “unblock channels”, while coaches assist clients to “identify and eliminate blind spots”.
Nicky Robins, who trained at the Ngwenyama School for Traditional Healers in Botswana, says that companies “seek greater awareness of the interaction between individuals, organisation and stakeholders”. She believes that the holistic approach of the sangoma can effectively help develop, integrate and sustain the value of human, social, cultural and natural capital for both the company and individual involved.
“A growing number of executives and major corporations are acknowledging the impact sangomas can have on their business and are accepting how lucky we are, on this continent, to have rich African traditions and tools to guide us,” says Robins, referring to the bone throwing, dancing, meditation, singing and other rituals performed by sangomas.
Similarities aside, coaches and most sangomas have different approaches to diagnosis. The key for the coach is to listen while client describes in minute detail what he or she believes to be his or her strong and weak points, ultimately reaching a point of self-diagnosis.
Consult a sangoma however, and you should not reveal anything about yourself.
“It is for the sangoma to divine the problem, its mental, emotional and physical causes, and the appropriate treatment. This way, the healer’s authenticity can be established,” explains fully qualified Swazi sangoma, Makosi Umfundise.
Authenticity, says Makosi, is a matter of grave concern in the sangoma fraternity, particularly in urban areas where a growing number of charlatans simulate healers and make a living from the vulnerable and uninformed.
“A family member or objective friend should accompany the patient to the sangoma to verify the diagnosis, to confirm the legitimacy of the healer and to ensure that the patient does not agree to anything that is said just to get at the medicine or the solution,” he adds.
Traditionally, sangomas are only paid once the patient is cured or the solution found. Nowadays however, patients must “expect to be billed at rates commensurate with the diviner’s professional status”, says sangoma Johannes Sibanda, who offers online consultation via his own website.
Western influence on sangoma practice is unmistakable and indeed, in recent years there has been a proliferation of white sangomas in South Africa.
Makosi, who was ordained after years of training in Soweto in 1982, says there were always white sangomas. There is no cultural or racial exclusivity among the healers. He attributes the recent increase in the number of Caucasian sangomas to “a new climate of acceptance” and “an attraction among some groups to what they perceive to be an interesting new age-type activity”.
Robins believes that some black executives prefer to consult white sangomas with business and career problems because they perceive the healers to be more understanding of the nature of their increasingly Western-type problems.
“There is often a sense of straddling cultures and I think that some clients feel that a white sangoma is more in tune with the transition they are going through than perhaps a healer with more traditional roots might be,” she says.
Makosi disagrees: “If a black person chooses to go to a white sangoma rather than a black sangoma, I think it is because they are more convinced of the white’s authenticity. They realise how difficult it is to accept the calling to become a sangoma, particularly if you are white.”
Sangomas in action
RICHARD is the CEO of medium-sized company in the media industry. Late last year, the organisation experienced months of what he describes as “mysterious discord”.
“Things were just not right. Managers were disagreeing on everything, staff were unsettled and nothing was falling into place. Regardless of what interventions we introduced, the situation did not improve,” he explains.
“I first met a sangoma in a township during my youth and remember how impressed I was by her incredible intuition and the deep faith that her people had in her. I have long thought that it is a tragedy that South African managers are generally so dismissive of techniques other than those developed and used by Western organisations. So, when my fellow directors and I could not put a finger on the dissension in our company and other interventions had failed to make a difference, I followed my instinct and went, together with a colleague, to see a sangoma.”
Richard and his colleague were astonished at how quickly and accurately the diviner identified their problem and recommended a solution.
“We were not led in anyway and, hardly spoke to her before she followed a number of rituals, threw the bones and essentially put everything into perspective for us.”
He concedes that once the diviner had communicated with his ancestors and discussed their recommendations, he and his colleague realised that the solution to their problem was obvious.
“What she did was essentially help us see the problem from a completely different perspective, which confirmed what we may already have known in our subconscious and enabled us to immediately see what actions were required to sort it out. Who knows how long it would have taken us to see this if we had not consulted the sangoma.”
Richard says that he and his colleagues plan to make regular visits to the sangoma to help keep business running smoothly.
Other companies too, have seen the benefits of introducing traditional African rituals. Cleansing rituals, which involve the slaughtering of goats or cattle, are known to be held by corporations in a number of parts of SA.
“The most remarkable outcome of this,” explains the managing director of a company that regularly holds cleansing ceremonies, “is how it opens the gates for communication between people of different cultures within the company. We find that as long we discuss everything openly and with sensitivity, the response to these traditional rites is good. The ceremonies have assisted us to achieve diversity objectives that have not been realised by implementing other interventions that are used successfully by companies in other countries.”
(These two articles first appeared in Business Day’s Management Review.)