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South African "muti" used for luck at World Cup

Herbal potions by traditional healers promise potency to players and teams.

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.”