Khotso: Legendary Herbalist
© Hirst, M. 2001 Imvubu 13:3, 1,6-7.
As befits a powerful healer, ‘shaman’ or intermediary with the spirits, Khotso Sethuntsa (1898-1972),1 the famous Transkeian herbalist, was a man about whom many incredible stories were told. He was a legend in his own lifetime and the inspiration of a number of popular magazine and newspaper articles.
Following his death, it was said that “he offered people ‘eternal life’ for amounts of up to R2 million” maintaining “it was infallible” because “it had twice brought him back from the dead.”2 Apart from claiming to be “the richest and most successful medicine man in the world,” with an estimated personal fortune “between R6 … and R12 million,” he apparently also claimed to know “the secret of the Kruger millions.”
Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal Boer Republic, is reputed to have buried millions in money and gold before fleeing South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. Apparently, under Khotso’s “gaudy mansion” were “secret dungeons” in which most of his money was hidden. But it was also rumoured that Kruger’s treasure was buried in a cave on the coast.3 Khotso apparently knew of its location and “over the years sold off bullion and other valuables” during his visits there. In another version of the tale, “Khotso believed his father was present when [Kruger’s] money was hidden and was shot and buried with it.”4 He became a herbalist after “he found the secret of conversing with the spirits” and “was believed by many to be extremely clairvoyant.” In a magazine article published in 1966, a cutting of which is in the archives of the Amathole Museum, the caption alongside the photograph of him states: “the diamonds in Khotso’s outstretched hand are reputed to be worth R2 million.”5 In the same article, the caption next to a photograph of one of his cars reads: “cars are Khotso Sethuntsa’s only diversion – he likes them big, shiny and expensive.” And in the accompanying article, we read: “Christ rode a donkey; Khotso drives in a Cadillac, no less.”
Khotso, his followers and servants maintained they were not Christians.6 Khotso was uneducated and, apart from a few generalities about the weather and his favourite expression, “Good luck, Chief,.”spoke little English.7 He certainly had gold sovereigns, some of which are shown in the magazine photograph mentioned above in connection with the ‘diamonds’, and after his death, a few were left as part of his estate.8 Whether Khotso’s wealth was linked to the “Kruger millions”, a collection of gold sovereigns, success as a herbalist – “when he peddled his magic he dealt only in hard cash” – or the proceeds from farming, he appears to have been a relatively wealthy man when he died. Although it is not clear whether in fact Khotso “could match fortunes with even the wealthiest of Europeans in the Transkei,” as the Daily Dispatch asserted in 1954, he nevertheless left an estate worth more than R329 176,9 twenty-three wives and about 200 children.10 Among those who paid tribute to him at his funeral were the South African Government, the Transkei Government and the Paramount Chief of Eastern Pondoland, Chief Botha Sigcawu. The service was conducted in Xhosa, Sotho, English and Afrikaans for the estimated twenty thousand mourners who attended. Speaking on behalf of the South African Government, the Commissioner-General of the Xhosa National Unit, Mr J. H. Abraham, told the silent crowd that Mr Sethuntsa was well-known throughout South Africa and “in the highest government circles.” Taking the opportunity to promote the constitutional development of Transkei, the Commissioner-General noted that, among other things, Khotso was, as his name implied, “a man of peace.” Summing up Khotso, Hans Abraham concluded, “I would say he was a very shrewd judge of character.”11
After Khotso’s death, a former Kokstad woman, Mrs S. E. Lamb, of Riverside, Macleantown, told the press the following story. As a boy of 10 or 12, Khotso had worked for her late husband’s aunt in Kokstad, doing odd-jobs, such as polishing shoes. After he was circumcised, at about the age of 18 or 20, he went to work for a local farmer. “One morning the farmer sacked him for insolence. Khotso was disgusted and told his fellows he was a strong medicine man and they should see what happened to the farm. It so happened a cyclone hit the farm that afternoon and that established Khotso as a medicine man.”12 Although its authenticity is impossible to establish, the tale is interesting. For, according to Xhosa belief, a powerful herbalist (ixhwele) is associated with the whirlwind (inkhanyamba), which is produced by the coiling movements of a huge glowing python, called uGqoloma, the sacred animal of the forest (isilo sasehlathini) associated with the ancestors (iminyanya) and a manifestation of the herbalist’s power (amandla).13
An insight into the spiritual and experiential world of Khotso, the wealthy herbalist, emerges in an interview with him published by the Daily Dispatch in July 1954, some 18 years before his death. The story appeared under bold, even sensational, headlines: “He Prays to Kruger…And Gets Results – Transkei’s Richest Native – The Incredible Dr. Khotso.”14
At the time of the interview, Khotso was 56 and had only three wives. In the interview he addressed his uninvited European guests in Xhosa.15 He was amiable and polite, even though he had just finished shaving and was still in his plaid dressing-gown. He explained that his father, Speelman, was the devoted servant of President Paul Kruger. Speelman had impressed upon his family “a great veneration” of the Boer President and gave them photographs and mementoes of him which “they were to treasure with their lives” if necessary. Khotso went on to ascribe his wealth to betting on horses and in this, Paul Kruger was his guide and adviser. “It was on Kruger’s advice, for instance, that the only horse he backed in the Durban July Handicap was C’est Si Bon.” An incredulous expression came over the interpreter’s face as Khotso went on to say that not only did Paul Kruger live in the house, but, at that very moment, was supervising his servants washing his car. Khotso led his guests outside, where two servants were energetically washing a big brown, 1954 model Packard. On a chair nearby was a bust of Paul Kruger. Round the shoulders of the bust was a Voortrekker Monument scarf clasped with a brooch made from a Kruger sovereign. Lying on the chair in front of the bust were a handsome pair of walking sticks, which Khotso had presented to the President after he told Khotso he wanted them. Next to the bust was a packet of high quality sweets, which “would be given to the servants by the President,” through Khotso of course, “if they completed the job [of washing the car] properly.”
Back in the sitting-room, Khotso explained to his visitors how Kruger had advised him to back C’est Si Bon, which, incidentally, was the race favourite. At the time, Khotso had two houses in Kokstad. On the Friday night before the race, he was in the lower of the two houses, when he received an urgent summons from Kruger, namely the bust which was normally located on the dining-room table of the top house, to present himself at the top house. A few moments after relaxing on the settee in the lounge of the top house, the words “C’est Si Bon – C’est Si Bon” appeared luminously before him. He retired to the dining-room, where “he prayed to Paul Kruger” – the bust on the table. After retiring to the lounge and having tea, he shortly again saw “the luminous words floating before him.” The next morning he placed a bet on C’est Si Bon and won nearly £400. Neatly enclosed in a small brass frame was the bookmaker’s chit of the transaction. Khotso said that Kruger helped him in many things and always accompanied him on his travels. “Dr. Khotso…prays to Paul Kruger,” his domestic servant confirmed in Xhosa, ” and he always gets what he wants.” Apparently, for Khotso, the bust of Paul Kruger was a “living entity” responsible for his continued good fortune.
Khotso pointed out that he had no business interests in trading, but owned seven farms. He mentioned that until lately he had owned three late model Packards. He had recently traded one in for £1 330, however, when he bought a £2 300 diesel lorry for one of his farms. He mentioned, too, that he had recently bought a farm near Lusikisiki for £3 000 and was building a house there. He was also building a house for one of his wives near Mount Frere. Throughout Transkei and Ciskei, Khotso was noted for paying cash in all transactions. Furthermore, when Khotso had recently purchased a farm near King William’s Town, he hauled out a suitcase and to the amazement of those present, counted out thousands of pounds. Khotso said he used to have many gold sovereigns, but as his visitors always wanted one as a memento he had few left. Khotso produced his visitor’s book and in it the reporter saw addresses in Beverly Hills, Minneapolis, Broadway, Pasadena, New York, Chicago and about 50 other places in the United States. Khotso said he thought that Americans, who visited him, passed on his address to other Americans, who visited him when they passed through Transkei. Apparently, his American visitors usually stayed over for a day or two, during which a member of his staff was always present to interpret since his knowledge of English was limited.
1. After Khotso died in Shifa Hospital, Durban, on the night of 25 July 1972, following a heart attack that occurred ten days previously, the Eastern Province Herald (26/07/1972)reported that he had been born in Transkei on 7 January 1883 and was 92. However, a spokesman for the family at Lusikisiki later confirmed that, according to Khotso’s baptismal certificate, he was born on 7 January 1898 (Eastern Province Herald, 04/08/1972) making him 74, and not 63 as Mrs S. E. Lamb incorrectly claimed, when he died.
2. Eastern Province Herald, 26/07/1972.
3. Eastern Province Herald, 04/08/1972.
4. Eastern Province Herald, 26/07/1972.
5. A former director of the Amathole Museum wrote the following note beside the photograph: “models of diamonds made of glass were stolen from [a display at] the museum.” The explanation of how the stolen glass replicas came into Khotso’s possession, if indeed they were the same as those shown in the photograph published in Personality (14 April 1966, p. 101), would undoubtedly rest with one or more of the herbalist’s clients.
6. Daily Dispatch, 17/07/1954.
7. Personality, 14/03/1966 (p. 101).
8. Eastern Province Herald 15/03/1974.
9. According to a Lusikisiki attorney, Mr J. J. Swartz, who was appointed by the magistrate as the executor of the estate, although the deceased had drawn up a will which was in the custody of Barclays Bank, he had removed it and signed a receipt for it. Swartz’s breakdown of the estimate of the estate was as follows (Eastern Province Herald, 15/03/1974). Immovable property, taking local authority valuations and sworn appraisements – R248 910; movable property of household furniture and motor vehicle at Mount Nelson, Lusikisiki, (movable property of the deceased at other residences not taken into account) – R4 864, 10; livestock – R5 870; farm equipment – R1 000; moneys invested and cash at home in Mount Nelson – R68 532, 35; a few gold coins, value undetermined, in the custody of the Standard Bank. The will was never found resulting in legal proceedings in April 1974 to determine Khotso Sethuntsa’s legitimate heir (Eastern Province Herald, 15/03/1974; Daily Dispatch, 16/03/1974). Following a two-day inquiry, the court awarded Khotso’s estate to his son, Mr Lange Lase-Afrika Sethuntsa, aged 25, according to African custom. A Coloured woman, Miss E. Jones, the mother of Langa Lase-Afrika, told the inquiry she accompanied her mother who went to consult Khotso about her eye trouble. While her mother was receiving treatment from Khotso, Miss Jones stayed at his house, where he had intercourse with her. She later gave birth to Langa Lase-Afrika, whose birth was registered at Kokstad. Khotso paid her father R100 lobola (bridewealth) and she stayed with him for three years before going to work in East London. Mrs Nomalizo Bethinja Sethuntsa, Khotso’s favourite wife, told the court her adopted son, Fourboy, was considered heir to the estate. Fo
Editor’s Note (Imvubu, April 2002): The well-known South African anthropologist, W. D. Hammond-Tooke, formerly professor of anthropology at Witwatersrand University, supplied the following interesting excerpt in response to the article on the herbalist Khotso that appeared in the December 2002 edition of Imvubu.
“Thanks for your detailed (and fascinating) piece on the remarkable Khotso. I remember him well. I first saw him buying his annual Cadillac at the garage opposite Umtata Cathedral. Later I visited him at his Lusikisiki pad and was intrigued by the dormitory that housed his bevy of wives. Two rows of neat little single beds, each with identical bedspreads – all very spick and span (like a girls’ school dormitory).
“You ask how I would ‘classify’ Khotso. This is difficult: in a sense he was sui generis. My impression is that there was little explicit evidence of either Christianity or indigenous religion in his general approach. It seems much more like 19th century Spiritualism, especially the idea of a guardian spirit (spiritual guide), typically in the form of a befeathered Native American (often identified as ‘White Feather’). Oom Paul Kruger would then function as a spirit guide and Khotso himself as a medium. There certainly does not seem to be much drawing on ancestors, alien spirits, or even witch beliefs. I don’t think he (i.e. Kruger) was ever thought of as a foreign ancestor – a total confusion of categories: rather a unique, personal construction of Khotso’s fertile brain, undoubted ‘psychic’ gifts and wonderful business acumen. The gift of ‘intuition’ in the spiritual realm can take many forms – sometimes idiosyncratic.”