An eclectic and symmetrical display of enchantments inside narrow, myriad and maze-like hallways welcomes every visitor here. Each stall is packed to capacity with dried animal hides, woody shrubs, crushed and bottled herbs, and many other products you might find at a herbal store. This is the Herb Market in Durban’s Warwick Junction.
The market is one of the largest informal herb markets in South Africa. It is open every day and provides a steady supply of herbal medicine. It is an especially important corner for many healers who sell their herbs here or buy them for medicine-making. There are wholesale vendors and herb-mixture shops in the space.
The market is busy, though, and not without its problems.
Site manager Lamulani Majozi says the market houses about 700 traders, who “fulfil a valuable role and generally operate in niche markets around KwaZulu-Natal”.
As Majozi speaks inside his cramped cubicle, two sangomas, upset about something, enter and ask for him. They immediately complain about one of the market’s traders, alleging that he sold them expired herbs.
Majozi quickly resolves the conflict. He calls for the trader then facilitates a conversation with the healers. The pair eventually get their money back. Majozi seems to have developed a work culture that encourages a unified and participatory approach to the market’s day-to-day management.
The market is a hive of activity. If it’s not conflict resolution in hushed tones, it is loud chit-chat. And herb traders are not alone in the space. Next to them are herb grinders with the music of their hammers. Each carry long, iron hammers with which they pound, grind and process different plant parts. They handle roots, barks, bulbs, leaves and stems. And the stomps create a rhythmic vibrancy, almost musical. From afar, it appears to be a simple task even as it requires intensity and draws sweat from those doing the work.
Problems in the sector
The South African government gazetted the Traditional Health Practitioners Act in 2007 to officially recognise the practice of traditional medicine. Traders say this legislative recognition has been nothing but a hollow victory.
Despite the adoption of the act, research to develop guidelines for the spaces of traditional healers has not been done. This is especially so for spaces in urban areas. Many herb markets in the country’s towns and cities are located in questionable places, where traders are crammed together in small spaces with hardly room to breathe.
Majozi says the government does not treat traditional healers with the respect they deserve. “For a long time, traditional medicine was regarded as an unnecessary art which had to be tolerated as one of the peculiarities of the African community. To be officially recognised gave us hope that we would become respected, with infrastructure designed with that in mind.
“We’ve been waiting for progress and development in this market for years now. We don’t know if it will ever change. We depend on ourselves now. We have created alternatives and solutions on our own because if we wait for the municipality to do it, we will wait until we retire. From collecting R20 from each table each day, we are able to pay for more security and sanitisers for the market.
“The government’s approach needs to focus more now on developing an African-based system that will be on par with the conventional healthcare system and in accordance with the local realities pertaining to traditional medicine, especially in urban areas such as Durban.”
The traditional medicine trade is deeply rooted in African culture and spiritual healing, and provides primary healthcare for “about 80% of the people in Africa”, according to the World Health Organization.
Sector regulation inadequate
The Medicines and Related Substances Act of 1965 and its various amendments does not adequately provide for the regulation, registration and control of complementary medicines. It does not cater for African traditional medicines. This is despite the fact that South Africans continue to rely on them.
For example, in a 2007 study conducted in KwaZulu-Natal on the economics of the traditional medicine trade, health research organisation Health Systems Trust reported that indigenous medicine was worth at least R2 billion per year. The trade in medicinal plants continues to peak.
Traditional healthcare practices are largely informal and unregulated. According to a Cape Peninsula University of Technology comparative review on the informal sector and economic growth in South Africa and Nigeria, many are driven into “informality” because of poor regulations.
“The basic factors or constructs that influence the growth and resilience of the informal sector could be grouped as the strain on economic activities, ineffectual policies and regulations, taxation aversion, absence of sustainable business ecosystems, moral laxity/flaws and social tension within the society,” reads part of the review.
The culprit in South Africa’s case, especially Durban, is the eThekwini municipality. It regulates and issues permits for traders in public spaces. Yet there continues to be spatial inadequacy in the city. Healers and traders have to contend with poor working conditions to make a living. The City has not responded to a request for comment.
Nonhlanhla Madonsela, 50, started trading in herbs in the Warwick triangle when she was 19 years old. She has passed on some of the knowledge to her oldest daughter, Nomzamo.
Madonsela is among the more than 1.8 million street traders in the country, according to Statistics South Africa. Millions more depend on the earnings of these vendors and millions still buy herbs, food and goods from them every day.
Madonsela says this form of trading is often overlooked and undermined, but this is how she has survived for more than 30 years.
She is highly critical of the governing party’s hesitance to embrace traditional medicine. “The South African health sector, and especially the pharmaceutical industry, is against poor, Black people,” she said.
‘In the shadows’
Ntombembi Gumede’s workspace faces the scorching sun every day. Without shelter, she and her wares are exposed to the Durban heat. She sits huddled by her door in a shaded spot. Gumede sells crushed herbs in bulk and boasts of her ability to provide a steady income for her family of eight.
“In a way, we’re just merely existing. We serve the demand, we heal and treat people, but we must remain in the shadows because our work is still deemed bogus and never enough to be formalised and recognised as [legitimate] by the South African government. Such perceptions are delaying the progress and advancement of the traditional medicine industry.
“Our government needs to embrace the influence of traditional medicine, in its honest form. We are key players in health and spirituality as well as the economy. But just look at the spaces we are operating under. The stalls have completely deteriorated, and most traders here have to stand in the sun or the rain because they need to feed their families.”
Brian Phaaloh of the South African Informal Traders Forum says critical policies need to be challenged to create a sustainable and dignified work environment for street traders. He says poor management propels the struggle for recognition and adequate working conditions.
“The government continues to fail to appreciate the need to set regulations that are not overly burdensome so that entrepreneurs will be aided and not hindered in their business. It is important that we note the fundamental economic role informal trade contributes … Informal trading is no longer a temporary alternative as it was before.
“Now, people’s livelihoods and businesses depend on the income from the streets. Informal trade should no longer be viewed as a poor man’s job, but as a job and as a business. The lack of resources – from water, shelter and ablution – indicate that the government has no interest in developing the trade as a formal and dignified form of business. Street traders are merely surviving amidst the poor working conditions because they have become accustomed to them,” says Phaaloh.
Echoing Phaaloh’s sentiments, Verushka Memdutt, a street-trader activist and general secretary of the Market Users Committee, says irregularities in the allocation of stalls coupled with poor management is detrimental to the herb market’s survival.
“The City is failing to protect and serve traders who are legitimately there and continue to pay for their permits. Many of the women in these markets do not even own the stalls in which they trade. They pay rent to opportunists who have monopolised their way into the market. And, again, in the end it is the poor that feel it the most. We don’t want traders to live for a mere survival, they need to be respected and included as part of the city’s economy.
“They have not come forward to support and assist informal traders in the midst of Covid-19. Traders in the Warwick Junction work without any sanitisers or water. The traders at the herb market have registered cooperatives which the City could be supporting to better manage the trade. The municipality seems unfazed by the informality attached to street trade. The narrative is still that street traders are property of the City … When they want to close the market, without any explanations or considerations, they close it,” says Memdutt.