Yesterday, the 24th of February 2017, the Huffington Post news reported that a 65-year-old Mr Bhekukufa Lindeni Gumede, a ‘traditional healer’ from Northern KwaZulu-Natal was convicted and given a life sentence for the murder of Miss Thandazile Mpunzi who was a person who was Living with Albinism, in the Phelindaba area near Ingwavuma of KwaZulu-Natal North Coast in 2015. This story really bothered me because it is not the 1st time that one reads about this kind of barbaric act that is perpetrated on innocent people who are Living with Albinism.
From a medical science point of view, Albinism is defined as a group of inherited disorders that are characterised by little or no production of the pigment melanin in the skin, and the retina in the eyes. The type and amount of melanin one’s body produce determines the colour/complexion of one’s skin, hair, and eyes.
Most people who have albinism are very sensitive to the sun exposure and are at a higher risk to develop skin cancers like melanoma, because they hardly have melanin-producing ability, which normally offers natural protection to harsh sun rays, especially in harsh sunny parts of the Southern Hemisphere.
The unfortunate thing is that there is no cure for albinism, and therefore the only available tool for people who are living with Albinism is to take steps to protect their skins from UV rays of the sun and to maximise their vision. The latter problem of vision is common with all people who have Albinism.
In a global conference that was held in Tanzania last year in June, a Canadian NGO called Same Sun reported that in recent years, they had documented 161 attacks (including 76 murders) in Tanzania, more than any area in the Southern Africa. They further reported that these kinds of barbaric acts are found across many sub-Saharan countries, with no country that is immune from such dangerous practices.
It has been reported that in Tanzania, Malawi and other Sub-Saharan African countries, Albino body parts are sought after for herbal potions and charms that are wrongly believed to bring ‘luck and wealth’ to those who use them, hence the murders and dismembering of the Albinos bodies, with body parts being sold in the black markets across many of these countries to feed this unfortunate demand for these human body products.
Back to the South African story, it is reported that Mr. Gumede the ‘traditional healer’ placed an order for a body of a female with Albinism because he believed that her body parts would make him rich. He is reported to have had three other accomplices or runners, and one of those accomplices Mr. Siyabonga Gwala was apparently an ex-boyfriend to the deceased young lady. Mr. Gwala and his two accomplices, Mr. Mandla Mabuzo and Mr. Lindokuhle Khumalo, who pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, whilst Mr. Gwala was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.
It is further reported that these men abducted Miss Thandazile Mpunzi, took her to the felt, strangled her to death, dismembered her body, harvested certain specified body parts, and buried the remaining unused body parts, which were later exhumed after they were later arrested for her gruesome murder.
The KwaZulu-Natal Directorate of Public Prosecutions, Ms. Moipone Noko is reported in the news as saying she was happy with the successful prosecution and conviction of all the people who were involved in the gruesome murder of Miss Thandazile Mpunzi. She is reported that she said, “an innocent life was snuffed out due to dangerous beliefs and practices”.
The issue of discrimination and prejudice towards the people with Albinism is quite prevalent in our South African communities, and it has been like that for decades and most probably centuries. There are a lot of myths that I grew up hearing relating to people with Albinism.
In the communities around Mthatha in the former Transkei homeland where I grew up, there was a very popular Myth that people who are living with Albinism never die, but they simply vanish into thin air. There were also those in the community who also wrongly believed in the myth that their body parts had healing medicinal properties for a variety of ‘cultural illnesses’.
It is only in recent times that I have learned that the families of the deceased people with Albinism usually choose to conduct secret burials to avoid the desecration of their graves, due to those in the community who would want to exhume their bodies to harvest their body parts for witchcraft purposes.
At this point as a qualified medical professional, and somebody who also has researched a lot about the indigenous or traditional healing systems worldwide, I wish to boldly say that besides the absence of, or low productive capacity of melanin pigment-producing melanocytes in the skins and eyes of people who are living with Albinism, their bodies are no different to yours and mine.
There are no special healing or other properties that are inherent in the body parts of people who are living with Albinism. Therefore, the discrimination, prejudice and even murder of people who are living with Albinism is PURE CRIMINALITY, and it must be treated as such.
As the citizens of South Africa, we ALL have a responsibility to play our constructive part in ensuring that the discrimination of people with Albinism in our communities, and our workplaces is eradicated and that their human rights that are enshrined in the constitution of South Africa are not trampled under any circumstances.
In terms of genuine Traditional Healing practices in line with the Traditional Healing Practitioners Act 22 of 2007, use of human body parts is not part of any recognised traditional healing philosophies. Therefore, anyone who uses human body parts as part of their arsenal of traditional healing tools is not a Traditional Healer, but a criminal (witchdoctor/witch) who should be reported to the law enforcement agencies for the full might of the law to take its course.
To the genuine qualified and registered traditional healers under the Traditional Healing Practitioners Act of South Africa, their voices of condemnation must be louder, because these ‘rotten apples’ are bringing the respected age-old indigenous healing practices or trade into disrepute.