Table Mountain's Sackcloth People: the guardians of our ancient knowledge

Going barefoot, wearing only hessian and living off the sale of traditional medicines, this community view themselves as healers of the aliments of modern society

20 September 2020 - 00:04
By Ziyanda Yono
Zebulon, left, and Joseph are Sackcloth People, who wear hessian clothing, live on Table Mountain  and harvest and sell indigenous herbs for a living.
Image: Esa Alexander Zebulon, left, and Joseph are Sackcloth People, who wear hessian clothing, live on Table Mountain and harvest and sell indigenous herbs for a living.

Each group of people has its own cultural heritage - its own values, customs, practices and mores, which are often a source of pride.

One of these is the "Sakmanne" or "Sackcloth People" of Table Mountain. The Sackcloth people walk barefoot and clothe themselves in shirts and pants made from brown hessian bags. They're urged to preserve what they call their "original cultural roots", mostly by refusing to depend on or be a part of what's considered the Western lifestyle.

The Sackcloth People claim to follow the spiritual guidance of their ancestors and elders. They see this as a form of liberty.

They believe in their own spiritual rebirth, symbolised by the hessian cloth, which signifies purity and reminds them of their renunciation of Western ideals. They see themselves as warriors - "hunting knowledge and gathering the herbs that will help them survive".

A 25-year-old member of the Sackcloth people, who asked to be identified only as Juda, lives in the vicinity of Table Mountain, mostly in caves on the mountain itself. He ventures down daily to trade at the city's markets and at the railway station. He's also a street vendor in Bellville, a suburb about 25km from Cape Town's city centre.

Juda explains that as part of the Sackcloth community he embraces his spirituality, seeing it as the natural origin of human life. His beliefs, he says, encourage him to neglect "criminal activities, foolish ways and the wrong peer pressure".

"I was not born into this, but I recognised the peace that comes with being a Sakman," he says. "The sackcloth represents something pure. It made me repent my old ways and forsake unpleasant company. We find peace in the mountains."

Being in the community helped me to identify myself with something important and meaningful
Juda, one of Cape Town's Sackcloth People

The historical origin of the Sackcloth People is rooted in Rastafarianism, but they view their beliefs as more than a culture and religion. They are deeply attached to their way of life.

"Being in the community helped me to identify myself with something important and meaningful," says Juda. "Sometimes we have to choose between a rocky road and a hard road. There are lessons to be learnt from those difficult choices that lead to victory."

The Sakmanne are strictly vegetarian, making their livelihoods by harvesting and selling indigenous medicinal herbs. They also make their own food from vegetation found on the mountains.

They often don't have permits to trade as street vendors and so run-ins with the law are inevitable.

The herbs, they say, aid in the treatment of chronic illnesses, physical ailments and spiritual afflictions. Wild garlic bulbs and renosterbos are used to treat TB, cancer and restore strength to the bones. Buchu is a medicinal herb familiar to clients of traditional healers and sangomas and is prescribed to treat urinary tract infections. African dream roots and sage are used to contact the ancestors.

The Sackcloth community view themselves as healers of the aliments of modern society through the use of indigenous medicines that were discovered in a time before hospitals and modern medicine.

According to research recently carried out by the World Health Organisation, 80% of the emerging world's population relies on traditional medicine for therapy. Over the past 15 years, the developed world has witnessed an increasing trend in the use of herbal medicine, herbal materials and preparations that contain active ingredients.

The use and sale of traditional medicine by the Sackcloth people are informed by extensive training from gatherings on the mountains. The group's knowledge of indigenous plants has been passed down through generations of the Khoi and San people. The elders instruct them where to find the scarce herbs they need to make the medicines.

“Doc” Christopher Nieuwenhyus, 44, with his daughter Evana Nieuwenhuys, 3.
Image: Esa Alexander “Doc” Christopher Nieuwenhyus, 44, with his daughter Evana Nieuwenhuys, 3.

"We have motivational sessions with the elders and we research from libraries on the history of Africa and the use of medicinal plants," says Carlo, a 31-year-old Sakman and street vendor.

"There are many researchers who visit our continent to research these herbs. You need to ask yourself why? I believe they know and understand the importance of the herbs we're selling on the streets - that's why we have an influx of daily customers."

To become herbalists, the Sakmanne have to spend time harvesting herbs, displaying their ability to find the correct ones by "dwelling in the heights" and "treading the slopes" of the mountains, until they know precisely where the plants can be found.

Quoting from the Bible, Juda says: "Herbs are for the service of men and the cattle shall live by the grass, so why should we give monetary value and restrictions to naturally growing herbs?"

He says they live by a motto derived from Rastafarian teachings about the five bleeding wounds of society: "The hungry must be fed. The naked must be clothed. The sick must be nourished. The aged must be protected. And all infants must be taken care of."

The profound knowledge of herbal remedies in traditional cultures is likely to have developed through a process of trial and error, and the transfer of knowledge of important cures is passed down orally from one generation to the next.

Modern allopathic medicine itself originated from ancient medicinal remedies and it's probable that new remedies will be derived from African biodiversity that will be developed and commercialised in future.

"My grandfather was a traditional healer and he taught me about herbs like sage," says Carlo. "Since I was 15 I've read books from the library on indigenous medicinal herbs, each focusing on different remedies for a variety of illnesses."

Immigrants from the East who have settled in Cape Town are some of the biggest consumers of medicinal herbs in a trade that amounts to an estimated R170m. It's so widespread that conservationists are becoming concerned about the extinction of indigenous medicinal plants through overharvesting.

Professor Nceba Gqaleni of the Durban University of Technology says medicinal herbs are a health-care system that's sustained the lives of people all over the world for centuries and remains relevant today.

SA has developed laws to protect our indigenous knowledge from being used without benefits to our people
Professor Nceba Gqaleni 

"Although I'm not a trained healer, I consider traditional healers to be trained professionals on the harvesting, preparation and prescription of herbs. They have immense knowledge," he says.

"Culture and medicinal plants are intertwined. Some of the plants are used during rituals and cultural ceremonies like impepho (also used in churches), and plants are used to bring the spirit of someone who died away from home back to his family.

"South Africa has developed laws to protect our indigenous knowledge from being used without benefits to our people. Any pharmaceutical company that wants to use the knowledge must enter into a benefit sharing agreement with the healers," says Gqaleni.

Many societies have indigenous knowledge based on the plants growing in their geographic areas. The Sackcloth People, though little known by the rest of the country, are guardians of our ancient knowledge passed down through generations.