Whose knowledge is it anyway? Traditional healers, benefit-sharing agreements and the communalism of traditional knowledge of the medicinal uses of plants in South Africa

Authors Emeka Polycrap Amechi

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Senior Lecturer, Bowen University, Iwo, Osun State; Former Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Jurisprudence, College of Law, University of South Africa
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 134 Issue 4, 2017, p. 847 – 869


Traditional knowledge on the medicinal uses of plants (‘TKMUP’) is regarded mostly as a form of communal property in South Africa. This is despite the fact that the use and nurturing of such mostly confidential or specialist knowledge within the traditional knowledge (‘TK’) system is usually the preserve of traditional healers. Understandably, there are socio-cultural reasons for the communality of TKMUP in South Africa. However, the communal nature of TK raises two particular issues that may not augur well for the economic interests of traditional healers in the commercialisation of this knowledge. These are that a traditional healer cannot patent the knowledge, except perhaps with the consent of his or her community; and that the benefits arising from the commercial exploitation or commercialisation of the knowledge will go to the community or, at the very best, that the interests of the traditional healers in profiting from such endeavour will be tied to that of their community. The latter implies that traditional healers would only benefit from such commercialisation when their indigenous communities decide to pass on the externally generated incentives to them. This scenario seems improbable, considering the various complaints about the current state of traditional-leadership structures in South Africa. This article examines this concept of communality of TKMUP, particularly as it relates to the sharing of benefits arising from the commercialisation of indigenous knowledge in South Africa.