30 Apr
  • By Jess Drewett

Bossiedoktor Freedom

This penultimate blog in our ‘Livelihood Struggles’ series was researched and written by Nabeel Petersen, a previous SLF staff member and now an independent facilitator, researcher and consultant. In writing this blog, he collaborated with Rastafarian Elder Neville, a long-time friend and former employee of SLF. All photographs and quotations are Neville’s.




“Being a bossiedokter is not just about taking that bunch of herbs and selling it to the next person. It is about the connection between you, the healing powers of the herbs and the person wanting healing or knowledge. So it is more a connection of 3. This connection is so important because you can heal that person before you give the herbs. It’s not because healing is in the mind. It’s because of this connection between the 3.” – Elder Neville


Rastafarian bossiedokters are an institution that performs an important psycho-social-physiological role in the Western Cape, most notably to the poor. They are a group of healers that understand local communities and rely on natural indigenous herbal remedies to heal these communities. Herbal remedies or ‘bossies’ cost a fraction of the price of Western medication, are harvested from local areas, protected or not, and are traded directly on the streets, often in makeshift street stalls or on the sidewalk floors.  The self-governing nature of the bossiedokters positions these individuals as agents that operate in opposition to the the formal economy and its practices, as well as in opposition to the dominant bio-medical model and its practices.


“Being a bossiedokter, it is prophecy. It is something that needs to be done. If we weren’t there, many people would have died now already. So we play an important role in society. We save such a lot of people through our interaction with them and selling them herbs.” – Elder Neville


The informal economy or informality is defined by exclusion, structural or voluntary. Whereas most economic enterprises within the informal economy aspire to formality or to formal support structures to secure economic growth, inclusion and business development, certain sub-communities choose to operate and  define themselves in opposition to the formal economy and its principles. One such community is the Rastafarian bossiedokters.


Central to Rastafarian ideology is the notion of freedom. In this instance freedom stands in stark contrast to formalized economic activity. Rastafarians actively and consciously condemn ‘Babylonian’ or formal authoritarian structures, including the state. It is their collective aspiration for exclusion from the formal economy and its governance structures (freedom), that actively creates and reproduces the bossiedokter community, its economic practices, desires for self-governance, and, in turn, its value to society. The bossiedokters subscription to informality as opposed to, and in condemnation of, formal structures is firmly entrenched in being a bossiedokter, from harvesting, spaces for economic activity, community, social interaction and economic aspiration.


“Being free is more important than anything else. It means nothing can hold you back from what you do, what you think, what you feel and having the freedom to make the decisions around your life. Also where you want to pick herbs, why you want to pick herbs and who the herbs are going to. Freedom to go into the mountains and harvest is a kind of rebellion against the system.” – Elder Neville


It is not hard to understand why this economically active community defines itself by informality and operates informally, in rebellion to the state and the imposition of formal governance. Their enterprises and the manner in which they operate are an extension of their religious and socio-political doctrine and their devotion to healing local communities.


This creates an interesting dynamic for this community as they’re perceived as either healers, or herbal poachers and trespassers who venture into restricted and protected areas to harvest medicinal and often protected flora. Whereas bossiedokters express a desire for freedom to harvest and trade, this very freedom to harvest criminalizes them and most, if not all, bossiedokters have stories of persecution and discrimination to tell in relation to their professions. SLF has worked with bossiedokters since 2013 and has recently captured these stories in a digital storytelling process exploring the experience of being ‘free or unfree as a bossiedokter’, as part of the Making All Voices Count Imitative. Elder Neville’s story can be viewed here.


This re-iterating conundrum is best expressed by Elder Neville (who has more than 30 years’ experience as a bossiedokter), who stated that the work of the bossiedokter is:


“…very much connected to being free. What we desire is to harvest in nature without having a permit. It is every man’s right to go into the mountain and harvest herbs for free… and we as bossiedokters still exercise that right even though we know it is a problem. When you get caught in the mountain, you go to jail. I have experienced this twice from picking Buchu…This is basically the most important reason why we don’t look at permits as a kind of solution to our problem. The solution should be that the idea of a permit shouldn’t exist at all especially when it comes to nature. It’s natural.” – Elder Neville


The issue, according to this Elder, is that the state and the public have scant knowledge on Rastafarianism, its ideology and the bossiedokter who are perceived of as “dirty, unclean and ignorant”. Elder Neville claims that conversations around the informal versus formal economy would not exist if not for institutional coercion, imposition and a willingness to accept those that actively do not want to participate in more formalized structures, especially those who actively work to serve the community. As such, the manner in which these herbal experts operate will remain, voluntarily, free and informal as aligned to this collective ideology and its resistance to the state (which they call Babylon).


“We will always be separate. There will always be that distance …because of ignorance, not knowing and not understanding who we are and what we do.” – Elder Neville


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