Thokozani! Dancing with the Ancestors


In early 1993, almost thirty years ago now, having just arrived in South Africa several months previously (and permanently, as it turned out), I became active promoting music in the predominantly black townships of Atteridgeville and Mamelodi, to the west/east of Pretoria (now called Tshwane) respectively. This was about one year before the election of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as the first democratically-elected President of the Republic of South Africa, and to be frank, people were still shooting.


In the course of my activities I became aware of and fascinated by the music and dance of the various South African indigenous communities who had settled there, for one reason or another having to do with Apartheid, from all parts of the country over the last 40/50 years. These were available and on display at any given time on any given weekend in any given open space.


Among these was the music, but far more interesting from a cultural and social perspective, the rituals and history of the sangomas, the traditional healers, the witch doctors, the shamans, if you will.


Gradually, I was privileged to be exposed to this world. Even more, I was honoured to be invited into this world, and I have had many truly extraordinary experiences in this world. I am bestowed with an ancestral name: Mahlasela (see the chapter on ancestral names) - The Insistent One, the Pusher, the Attacker. This is because I never stopped asking questions, and if I promised something, it happened.


The accounts contained in these memoirs are my personal experiences, acutely recorded, reflections of my observations and perceptions of what was going on in this world, no matter how strange or bizarre it may seem.


With knowledge gained of thirty years’ worth of pondering and hindsight, some aspects of my original accounts have been edited for accuracy, as I realize that my initial impressions may have been wrong. On the whole, however, the initial impressions have borne themselves out, and this is a source of great satisfaction to me.


The manuscript is divided into two parts. In the first part, I present my personal experiences and interpretations over the course of about seventeen years. But this is me, a Ukrainian/American expat since 1974, schooled in western art, music, and philosophy since goodness-knows-when, exposed to something completely other in South Africa. Jungian.


As I essentially told everyone who asked if I was also a sangoma,
“I am the one who knows, but does not do. I write about it.” They always wanted me to “throw the bones” and heal them, but I declined. I needed to know what it felt like from the inside. I found this in the young man Gabaza, whose story is told in Part 2.


Gabaza was in his late teens when I met him in the early 2000’s, an apprentice to Manyambozi, who figures conspicuously in the entire narrative. I asked him to tell me the story of how he came to be a sangoma. And from his stalwart effort to write in English, which text I have edited for “readability”, we gain insight into what it must have been like to be possessed by ancestral spirits at a young age, and to have been given over by one’s family into the care of the Gobda, the master, for training and initiation into this very “elite” community of ancestral spirits.


With this in mind, I commend these stories/accounts to my readership. Question everything if you like. The Introduction below is just a small aperitif.


Emilozini, Mnandi, July, 2022

Robert Maxym