Bundle the accumulated, mostly illicit, annual plant harvest from Cape Town's wilderness environment and, according to research, you'd get a giant bale larger than the largest whale.




Nick Ashby


Cape Town's R35 million medicinal plant trade is driven by a network of herbalists that stretches up the east coast into the Transkei. It has roots in Khoi traditions and African Nationalist ideology. Some harvesters talk about their work with a missionary zeal - of wanting to heal the nation of its overuse of chemicals.


Fat chance it succeeds. Were it to, though, it would strain the Western Cape's ecological balance. As it is, the trade in locally harvested herbal and animal-derived medicine is already a threat to the unique experiment that is the re-wilding of Table Mountain.  


This struck me one afternoon having pedaled up to Signal Hill to see the flora rejuvenating after a recent fire. I heard the two young men at work before I saw them; the clink and scrape of tools on earth.


In the Lord's eyes they are doing no wrong. There are, they told me, many old people in need who cannot come to the mountain. 


And compared to the increasing acreage of wine farms and the urban creep of the wealthy, local plant gatherers appear to leave relatively little trace. Once these bare-footed men had moved off, only a smallish patch of scarred earth was defaced on the part of Signal Hill I'd photographed them on. Conservationists, however, say that up to seventy percent of wild harvested plants are either killed outright, or rendered reproductively disabled. 


sack-cloth herb gatherers of a Rastafarian bent on Signal Hill, Cape Town

Once they'd posed, I realized this photo could get them into trouble. Probably they knew it too. Arrests were made a few years ago by Cape Nature when confiscating 16 000 recently-harvested wild garlic bulbs. But my subjects' restated belief in divine guidance drives them on. Their demeanour is guardedly defiant and determined; it's in the look in their eyes. ( Their faces are a blur in the above pic.)


The renosterbos they were hacking and stuffing into large canvas backpacks is a hot seller down at sea level amongst the five thousand traditional healers said to be working in Cape Town's townships. The bush is used to treat TB, cancer, and restoring strength in the bones. 

A herbalist sits selling traditional medicine Near Cape Town Station.

It is sold on Darling Street and Adderly, and on the Grand Parade, along with a personal favourite - Buchu - which makes an interesting tea. Or chuck some leaves in a water bottle and let it steep a while to lend it a minty, slightly turpsy taste.


Traditional doctors prescribe Buchu as a general tonic, or as a diuretic for urinary tract infections, as well as for TB. I've rarely seen it growing in the wild. Some bushes exist in crazy-to-get-to Table Mountain nooks, and in deep Boland gorges; while overnighting in one we dropped a sprig or two into a brandy flask. After a hard day's trek the next night, its funky tang added to the unique experience.    


Local traditional remedies are used for many common ailments. They also aid spiritual quests: African Dream Root helps get in touch with ancestors.



The Rastafarians I spoke to learn from their ancients, and books, the Church of Garvey, and certain festivals, as they travel town-to-town, city-to-city. Some may also delve into manuals of worldwide snake-oil-manship: one Rasta in the market, in tones of clairvoyant sympathy, offered me a root that would remedy premature ejaculation. I bought the Buchu.

Buchu sold as a traditional medicine by a Rastafarian herbalist in Cape Town.
Buchu sold on Darling Street
Rastafarian plant medicine seller displays red carrot
Red Carrot

What isn't sold on the streets is bought by traditional healers in the townships, or sent up-country. Wild medicine plants are also imported from other parts of South Africa.


Also included are 198 animal species. The Rastafarians, who eat what they refer to as a clean diet from the fire, are however mainly vegetarian, and don't seem to sell dead creatures. 


As to how many people consume all of this? Some say about 40 percent of South Africans visit traditional doctors every year. Others claim a far smaller percentage.


In total, approximately R170 million worth of traditional medicines are traded each year in Cape Town. And beyond the direct benefits of taking these medicines, their trade is a vital informal sector providing livelihoods to thousands of economically marginalized people.  And the mountains' bounty gives not only medicine. Firewood, building material, and flowers come from it too.   


Cape Town's population is growing. One hundred and fifty thousand people a year move here from the Eastern Cape. Mainly from rural backgrounds, they have a comparatively stronger preference for traditional medicine. This places further demands on the ecosystem.

How can it hold up?

The Lord-will-provide say the Rastafarians. Local abalone harvesters I've spoken to share similar faith. How's it possible, they say, that the vastness of the ocean and Allah's benevolence will ever dry up?


Traditional Remedies that were harvested in the wilderness, on display in a Cape Town Street market

I asked the Rastafarians whether anyone was farming the material they need. They looked unconvinced and waved vaguely in the direction of Table Mountain. Some project was set up, but ...


There are many unused parks around the city's suburbs that remain locked to keep vagrants out. One such piece of public land on High Level Road is being sold off by the City of Cape Town at market rates. It is a disturbing trend. Why not create medicinal plant gardens in these places?  


One NGO, Herbanization, already runs a garden for this purpose. It claims to do more than just grow plants. It allows interaction between conservationists, and the harvesters.


This seems vital. I'll look into this further soon.