JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Despite an encouraging opening match draw with Mexico, the soothsayers at Johannesburg’s Mai Mai market are worried about the South African national team’s chances at the soccer World Cup.
Even their magic might not be enough to lift them to victory.
“I see Americans winning the World Cup,” predicts Mbobo Zevovo, a “sangoma,” or traditional healer and spiritual medium, who works from a small shop stocked with dried plants and animal bits hanging from the ceiling.
Zevovo foretells the future by listening to her ancestors and “throwing the bones,” a process that involves scattering her pouch of small animal bones, seashells and dice, and interpreting their configuration.
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“But I don’t know if it will be North or South Americans,” she cautions, studying the bones spread across the floor. The clue she divines is that the team will be from a mainly Christian country. “Prayer is a strong component of the winning team,” she says.
According to Zevovo, the South African players need powerful “muti,” or traditional medicine, to protect themselves at the tournament. The Bafana Bafana squad will next play Uruguay on Wednesday.
For the soccer players who regularly visit Zevovo’s shop looking for that extra edge — none of them professional-level players, she admits — she tells them to bathe with her special mixture of plants, to give them luck, make the opposition weak and “make obstacles go away.”
Muti, from the Zulu word for “tree,” is an important traditional practice in southern Africa, with many South Africans seeking out traditional cures for common ailments ranging from rashes to erectile dysfunction, as well as for magical purposes such as bringing good fortune in love and business.
The practice is so widespread that Soweto’s Soccer City, the stadium hosting the World Cup’s most important matches, was blessed in a ceremony last month involving some 300 sangomas and other healers, and the slaughter of a cow.
Some believers think that muti can give South Africa’s national team — an underdog at the World Cup, not expected to make it past the first round — a leg up in the tournament. Other African teams are also reputed to be seeking advice from traditional healers as part of their pre-World Cup match preparations.
Winnie Nsimbi, another sangoma at the market in Johannesburg, is a bit more optimistic with her prediction for South Africa. Her bones predict that the squad will make it through to the second round, but in the end, “the Cup is going overseas.”
Nsimbi has her own secret potion for soccer players. Her mix of 15 different plants takes three days to make, and at a cost of about $30 for a week’s supply, helps you run faster and makes the other players tired, she says. Nsimbi says that even foreign visitors have sought out her mixture, including soccer players from Egypt and England, and shows a photo of an American client on her mobile phone. “They come and buy muti and take it home,” she says.
While most muti involves herbs and plants, some practices threaten endangered plants, birds and animal species. BirdLife South Africa has warned that the muti practice of smoking dried vulture brains to predict game results is putting species such as the Cape vulture at risk.
“Betting on the outcome of World Cup games will be big business and conservationists believe superstition and sorcery will be powerful attractions for gamblers desperate to increase their chances of a big win, placing even more pressure on the Cape vulture, which is already classified as facing global extinction,” warned the conservation group in a statement.
The South African Traditional Healers Association has distanced itself from muti practices involving endangered species, describing it as “witchcraft,” not traditional healing.
Celukwazi Mathonsi, an ingyama — or a dispenser of traditional medicine, different from a sangoma — says that his shop is out of stock of vulture parts, which if he can get them, are popular and sell out quickly. He has other types of birds hanging from the ceiling, as well as snakes and parts of a crocodile.
He too claims to be regularly visited by soccer players seeking muti to improve their performance, including by members of South African professional league teams.
“It makes the players strong,” he says of his medicine, the exact ingredients of which he protects as a trade secret. “And it makes the other team not hold the ball for a long time.”
Mathonsi is convinced that players on South Africa’s team are using muti in preparation for their World Cup matches, despite being under the leadership of a Brazilian coach. “Carlos Alberto Parreira may not believe," he says, "but the players, they believe.”