Much of the story of Khotso Sethuntsa – the legendary South African millionaire medicine man who died in 1971 – remains shrouded in an aura of mystery. How did a man from an impoverished village in the mountains of Lesotho transform himself into the prodigiously wealthy owner of palatial houses and luxury Cadillacs?
How much truth is there in the widespread belief that he controlled wealth-giving magical snakes and other supernatural presences, such as the mamlambo, an alluring but destructive mermaid, or the inkanyamba, a perilous tornado spirit? What are we to make of his purported spiritual connection with Paul Kruger, or about the fact that politicians such as Hendrik Verwoerd and J.G. Strijdom sought out his medicines for political power?
Felicity Wood, lecturer in literature and creative writing at the University of Fort Hare, has collaborated with Michael Lewis in an attempt to answer some of these questions in the recently published biography The Extraordinary Khotso: Millionaire Medicine Man of Lusikisiki.
Wood, who for years has conducted research into South African oral narrative accounts of the supernatural, highlights in particular the importance of reclaiming histories which have been lost to the majority of South Africans.
“When I first heard of Khotso’s story I knew that this was a story which had to be told,” she says. “This was a South African life story which was in danger of being lost. So much of South Africa’s history is about areas of mystery, areas of the supernatural which many people don’t know about.
We need to uncover the hidden histories of indigenous spiritual belief systems, of the lives of black South Africans under apartheid and of historical figures, other than politicians, who have been influential in their own ways.”
Working with co-investigator Michael Lewis and research assistant Sylvia Tloti, Wood’s research took her to the mysterious pools of the Mzintlava river near Kokstad, where Khotso purportedly controlled mythical snakes, to his strange palatial homes in the Transkei, and even on a quest to his home village in the mountains of Lesotho.
“I wrote like a mad woman for four years,” she laughs, “Khotso completely dominated my life. My family and friends all deserve a medal for putting up with it!”
Lessons from myhology
Khotso’s alleged magical powers and his association with the supernatural may be dismissed by many as being far-fetched and irrelevant, but Wood insists that modern audiences have a lot to gain from the mythical creatures and legends of indigenous spiritual belief systems. The mamlambo, for example, is an enticing figure which can be closely linked to the dangerous allure of materialism.
“Even if you don’t believe in the supernatural, the mamlambo has a message for us,” Wood explains, “because those who engage with her enter into a long term partnership in which they must make certain sacrifices. This can be seen as symbolic of the pursuit of wealth at the cost of our own lives and our personal relationships.”
Above all, Wood hopes that her talk today will bring to life the lesser known and mystical histories of South Africa, as well as providing insight into the work of medicine men and the importance of oral narratives.
“Researching Khotso’s story has been a process of tremendous discovery,” she says. “It’s been one eye-opener after another. I’ve grown and expanded and the whole process has had some profound effects on how I see things and carry out my work.”
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