Mai Mai: muti capital of Jo’burg


29 April 2003

It’s the oldest market in Johannesburg – dedicated to traditional healing. Apart perhaps, from the Faraday market, no other complex in the country can boast such a rich concentration of traditional herbs and healers.

The sickly of the city flock here to have their ills, physical and spiritual, divined and treated by traditional healers.

Now, following years of neglect, the Mai Mai bazaar has begun to generate. Moves are under way to restore the market to its pristine beauty and promote it as a prime tourist destination in the city. The market has now been brought under the management of the Metropolitan Trading Company, a council-owned company dedicated to the construction and maintenance of markets throughout the city, and already, signs of improvement are beginning to show.

Dubbed “Ezinyangeni” – the place of healers, the Mai Mai is nestled on the eastern wing of the city centre. Jabu Vilakazi, manager of the market, describes it as “Afrocentric”, catering for indigenous needs and practices, and indeed, it is here that some spiritual and cultural elements of indigenous South African knowledge have been reworked and preserved.

Many consider it to be the “muti” (traditional medicine) capital of Johannesburg, with most of its 176 units dedicated to traditional healing.

Mai Mai is also home to some 600 people, many of whom have lived in the complex for decades, evolving into a close-knit, self-contained community. Dance competitions featuring dancing troupes from hostels across the city are a regular feature of the complex.

“What sets the Mai Mai apart is its unique product, the presence of an established community in the premises and, of course, its cultural richness,” says Nhlanhla Ndovela of the Metropolitan Trading Company.

Tourist attraction
Tourists fascinated by its exotic offerings stream to the market. “They come here to buy traditional artefacts, including Zulu attire, clothes made from animal skins and feathers, walking sticks, knobkerries, shields, sandals, beaded items. Some also visit the place to have their ills diagnosed,” says young shop assistant Nkosinathi Mkhwanazi, who mans perhaps the biggest and most elaborate of the muti stalls in the market.

As you approach his shop in the complex, you are greeted by various animal parts hung out to dry on the verandah. This is not biltong, but medicine reputed to cure various ills – medicine, according to Mkhwanazi, that is capable of getting a patient acquitted from a serious legal case, or of staving off bad luck or nightmares, or of making a person popular with people.

“You prepare this by first burning then grinding it,” explains Mkhwanazi, pointing at the remains of a porcupine which, he says, “mixed with the right choice of herbs and grinded tree bucks, renders you invincible before your enemies. You become strong and immune to bad spells and general misfortunes.”

The presence of coffins in the store just opposite, where they are manufactured, lends an eerie feel to the place.

Desmond Sweke, managing director of Setplan, a development planning company which was contracted by the city council to survey, profile and register city hawkers in the mid-1990s, describes Mai Mai as a “treasure chest waiting to be discovered – an oasis of African culture in the city”.

Yet the culture you encounter here is not fossilised – or packaged to meet the expectations of visiting tourists – but is part of a lived experience capturing the interface between South Africa’s urban landscape and traditional beliefs and cultural forms of expression.

Sweke expresses confidence that the market can be developed into a lucrative trading area, a thriving community and premier tourist destination in the city.

The trajectory of the Mai Mai is closely linked to the influx of first-generation migrants to Joburg, who have remained insulated from local communities since the 1950s.

From a stable to a community
The site was first used as a stable to accommodate horses which were used to pull soil carts back in the 1940s. It was subsequently converted into a market and became an entry point for newly arrived migrants, under the custodianship of the old Johannesburg city council.

In 1994, the market was taken over by the newly established Southern Metropolitan Local Council (SMLC) which, working in conjunction with Setplan, set about upgrading the facilities in the complex.

Being located in but not of the city, residents of Mai Mai retain links to the countryside and continue practising traditional forms of treating ailments. Some of the traders initially moved in as healers but ended up setting up home in the complex, bringing their wives and kids to stay with them and, in the process, putting pressure on the infrastructure of the market.

“The sewerage and storm water drainage were blocked and generally the infrastructure began to cave in under pressure,” says Li Pernegger, the former manager of economic empowerment and business support for the SMLC, and now project manager for economic development in the corporate planning unit.

Today, families, including children, stay in the complex, much to the irritation of some traders. Wilfred Sithole who owns a furniture manufacturing plant in the complex and has been attached to the market for over 50 years, says the presence of people on the premises has led to its decay.

“The place was not properly maintained and, over time, the presence of people on the premises created social problems like excessive drinking and theft, which are not good for business. We would like to see it turned into a purely trading area and the residents being relocated somewhere else.”

But Sweke says such a move would be ill-advised as it is precisely the presence of residents which gives the market its colourful character.

According to Perneger, some industries, such as panel beating, may be thriving at Mai Mai, “but are not complementary to tourism”. Such industries, Sweke agrees, should be removed from the market to make it more dedicated to products which enhance its appeal to tourists.

Meanwhile, the city forges ahead with plans to give the market a facelift. The MTC has set out to upgrade the market by cleaning it up, removing the rubble which has accumulated over the years and fixing ablution facilities.

Cultural appeal
The company has also come out in support of moves to promote the market’s cultural appeal. Last year, the city provided funding for the training of tour guides. The open space which was previously occupied is now being cleared for use as a dancing ground.

The MTC will, in the near future, register and issue licences to all the traders operating from the market. Children will also not be allowed on the premises after 8pm.

Back at Mkhwanazi’s practice, despite its collection of tree and animal parts, it is refreshingly neat and tidy, like the grounds of the complex.

A python skin competes for space with a dead vulture and a baboon on the ceiling. Other concoctions of an indeterminate nature are placed inside labelled bottles. “Isende lehashi” (horse penis) “Zamafufunyane” (for nightmares and hysteria), “Owobusoka” (guaranteed to improve the romantic fortunes of a bachelor), “Zikatokoloshe” (to ward off an imaginary evil goblin said to spread terror at night).

Some of the potions are reputed to cure common ailments such as pubic lice, persistent headaches and stomach aches, skin rashes and other identifiable illnesses of a physical nature.

According to Bhekabantu Ngema, a 58-year old “inyanga” (traditional doctor) who has lived in Mai Mai since 1967, patients should ideally come to inyangas with the knowledge of what muti they want. “Otherwise,” says Ngema, “they should start by consulting sangomas (spiritual healers and traditional seers) who can determine the nature of the problem. Only then can we as healers help with the appropriate medicine, or help establish contact with your ancestors.”

Sangomas, says Mkhwanazi, normally detect two kinds of bad luck. One is inflicted through witchcraft, usually by a jealous rival, the other is caused by unhappy ancestors. It is here that patients are counselled to slaughter a beast to appease and rekindle relations with the ancestors.

“In other words, sangomas diagnose and prescribe, while we inyangas generally heal, although we can also prescribe, depending on the nature of the problem or whether our ancestors give us the power to help a patient,” explains Ngema.

Hence some of the stores double up as consulting rooms. This is where one’s fortunes and misfortunes are read and a possible cure suggested. Mai Mai also serves as a training ground for sangomas.

Once the muti is obtained, it can be taken in various ways, depending on its form and nature. While some muti is just good for washing with, smearing on one’s body, or for burning and inhaling, other muti is designed for elaborate uses like ukuphalaza (regurgitating), ukuchatha (applying by means of an enema), or nokugquma (steaming).

In the MTC, the council hopes to have come up with a potion to heal the ills which have afflicted Mai Mai over time.

Source: City of Johannesburg website