SA’s muthi markets: The sad ‘dereliction of duty’

Cape Town – South Africa is one of the world’s most iconic wildlife destinations, recently hosting the vitally important CITES 17th Conference of Parties at the beginning of October this year.

While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was undoubtedly meant to be a sharpened arrow in the bow against global illegal wildlife trade and hunting, a rather unfortunate blow has been dealt with this video shared with Traveller24, filmed just down the road from the Sandton Convention Centre where more than 3 500 delegates from 183 member state countries got together to discuss ‘game-changing’ policies to protect the world’s most endangered species.

But the historical and cultural traditions of muthi medicine is not a game and there appears to be no real urgency to try and change the way it is managed or regulated by those mandated to do so in South Africa.

raditional medicine has been described globally by the World Health Orgnisation as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”

And while traditional medicine in South Africa has for a long time been seen as “marginalised”, SA law and policy has attempted to recognise and regulate it to ensure “all medicines – regardless of their source – are safe and effective.”

The video clearly shows leopard skins (with each skin requiring a department issued possession and trade permit), pangolin (uplisted to the CITES I for seriously endangered species at C0P17), vulture heads and lion bones on sale at the Faraday market, according to the source of the footage who asked to remain anonymous.

So it stands to reason that if you know traditional healing or muthi markets exist and there is a need to create awareness and regulate it, this would be the obvious place to start to making a change.

That’s what the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) apparently thought too, following a precedent-setting criminal court case dating back to 2009, against traders of the Mai Mai market for trading in illegal items confiscated during an inspection conducted at the muthi market by GDARD.

The court ruled in favour of the traders, saying “the State had not done enough awareness to the muthi traders on the then new NEMBA 10 of 2004 and TOPS regulations“, according to information shared with Traveller24 by GDARD.

This National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act requires all wildlife traders to be registered and to apply for possession permits related to endangered species with restricted trade. As a result the state was ordered to create an integrated awareness programme and thereafter an extensive enforcement plan.

Yet almost seven years later, there is no awareness programme, nor an enforcement plan and all ground patrol monitoring has stopped, patrols at the likes of Faraday or Mai Mai, two of the oldest known traditional healer or muthi markets in South Africa.

Why is there no plan?

The burning question is why has the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) not put a plan together as yet, especially in light of the momentous hosting of CITES CoP17 and the subsequent rulings related to items on sale at the market, expedited in SA just two short weeks ago?

According to the department’s spokesperson Albi Modise the DEA was “not party to the criminal case initiated by GDARD because this was a case that fell within the mandate of the provincial department”.

However the management and enforcement, as well as the issuing of permits fall within the mandate of the DEA.

Modisa says, “An integrated awareness programme is a new project that has been initiated by the Environmental Management inspectorate.”

Modisa confirmed this has only just been conceptualized in 2016.

“There is a planned awareness campaign for Mai Mai and Faraday muthi markets that is part of the process. This will be a joint project with GDARD. It is a project that will be shared with other stakeholders which includes the Interim Traditional Health Practitioners Council of South Africa (ITHPCSA) and the department national department of Health.”

Delayed awareness and dereliction of duty

However, a date for this has “not yet been finalised”.

As a result the DEA could not supply Traveller24 with specifics for the programme, stating it “will only be available once the development of the project has been finalised and approved by the Inspectorate for implementation”.

“The project is currently at consultation phase with the affected stakeholders such as the Interim Traditional Health Practitioners Council of South Africa and the National department of Health. This council that is being engaged is established by the National Department of Health in terms of the Traditional Health Practitioners Act. This is a council entrusted with, among other things, the responsibility to regulate the health practitioners, herbalist and the muthi traders.”

The registering and regulation of the traditional health sector of South Africa is not without its own red tape. The Traditional Health Council set up by Parliament in itself has battled to establish the necessary code of conduct and regulatory frame work required of the tradition health practitioners Act – in order to separate legitimate sangomas from the bogus ones.

Law vs tradition

For a country like South Africa, rooted in cultural traditions that associates spiritual powers with certain animals, how and where does one draw the line between right and wrong? In principle South Africa’s laws are meant to protect the likes of leopard, requiring a permit for every skin in a trader’s possession as it is a CITES I listed species and subject to stringent, restricted trade measures. Pangolin continue to be one of the most trafficked animals worldwide and its recently uplisted status cannot be ignored.

But like the belief that rhino horn has special medicinal properties which has been disproved, in some cases traditional medicine gets it wrong and it doesn’t shy away from the legal requirements of wildlife traders or traditional health practitioners alike.

Yet markets like Faraday highlight the many loopholes and disregard of these laws, not to mention the failure to implement measures to protect these animals and create awareness of its endangered status.

According to Ian Michler, the investigative conservationist behind the Blood Lions documentary, “It is all good and well for the stakeholders to hold intellectual discussions on the endangered species, but this highlights how little is actually being done on the ground and exactly why these species are in trouble.”

“It is one thing to accord them protection in writing but it is another to enforce those laws entirely which CITES needs to be aware of. It is the greatest irony and sadness in actual fact,” says Michler.

‘Authorities have no idea about what is taking place’

Michler deems the lack of plan to educate and regulate traders at Mai Mai and Faraday as nothing short of a “dereliction of duty”.

“It is startling that the last time the Gauteng government undertook any form of enforcement at the Mai Mai market was in 2009. At both provincial and national level, there are a range of mandates that obligate the authorities to ensure the protection of the country’s wildlife.”

“It is clear from the activity levels in the market as well as the responses from the Gauteng Government and Green Scorpions that the authorities have no idea about what is taking place. Or they don’t particularly care.”

“There has to be a solution and this expose will hopefully expedite that.

“We call on the authorities to treat the awareness campaigns they speak about as a matter of urgency, and to involve all the relevant parties that can assist with protecting our endangered species. In the meantime, CITES regulations are law and the police need to enforce that.”