An army of fake sangomas using a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, romance scams, and promises of spiritual encounters with departed ancestors is spreading across the country.
The scam is so alarming that the South African Police Service (SAPS) Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation has set up a special task team to investigate and hunt down perpetrators.
A warrant of arrest is out for Ugandan national Joash Senfuma, who skipped bail in July 2022, having been charged with fleecing a Centurion woman of R5.5 million. The charge sheet shows she was introduced to the fake sangoma by a friend, who is now a suspect in the case.
The ‘sangoma’ convinced her to cash in her pension, sell her house and cars, and hand over the proceeds in cash. The victim now lives in a shack on the outskirts of Pretoria, while Senfuma is on the run.
Another case involving two Ugandans in custody since 2020 is due for a court hearing in October. This involves what has become known as the ‘ancestry scam’, where fake sangomas supposedly channel the voices of departed ancestors.
The victims are usually those in financial or familial distress and are looking to ancestral spirits to guide them out of trouble.
They are drugged up and supposedly hear the voices of their ancestors. The voices come from behind a partition in the ndumba (place of traditional healing), as shown in the picture below.
The real purpose is to fleece the victims of all they have.
Some are instructed to resign from their jobs, sell their houses, cash out their pensions and borrow money any way they can – on the promise that the fake sangoma will double or triple their money for them.
The set-up involves what is known as the ‘black dollar’ scam. The fake sangoma shows the drugged-up victim a bag containing black dollars, as shown below. By sleight of hand in a dark room, the black dollars magically transform into rands. The victims are then instructed to return with a large amount of cash that can be multiplied in the same way.
“Scam artists are abusing cultural belief systems and are taking advantage of the believers’ financial desperation to scam them for everything they have,” says Nazia Karrim, head of product development at the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS).
Fake pastors and healers
Moosa Kumbe has spent years investigating the fake sangoma scam, a journey that has taken him to Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique and elsewhere on the continent. He is a Muslim scholar with an interest in religious and African traditional healing methods. This brought him into contact with both genuine and fake healers across Africa.
“In 1999, I first came into contact with fake pastors, prophets and doctors arriving in South Africa from countries to the north. Some claimed to be doctors, but their certificates were fake. They still managed to convince enough people that they could heal them, but they would be inserting drugs and hypnotics into drinks to disable the victims and manipulate them emotionally.”
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“In 2001, I rented rooms in two houses in Germiston and Vanderbijlpark to various foreign nationals who came from Congo, Cameroon, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Lesotho. I started to notice that many were fake healers, but this was the first time I witnessed the ancestry scam. They would drug the victims and make them believe they were hearing the voices of their ancestors.”
Not surprisingly, the ‘ancestors’ instructed the victims to sell their houses, cash in their pensions and hand over everything they owned to the fake sangomas, promising to turn this into a massive windfall.
To make it more authentic, the fake sangomas rope in South Africans to provide ancestral guidance in indigenous languages. Sometimes, they don’t even bother with that.
The victims are so drugged up that they don’t seem to notice that their supposed ancestors speak to them in English.
“This should be a red flag,” says an investigator for the SAPS who asked not to be named. “No ancestor would speak in English.”
The theatrics of the ancestry scam, combined with hypnotic-inducing drugs, are essential to the scam. The show can be quite impressive.
The victim is offered a cannabis-filled sweet, and the sulphur-coated paper wrapping magically burns before their eyes. The date-rape drug Rohypnol is widely used, as are traditional herbs such as incotho and sewasho. These are served in a tea, which causes the victim to hallucinate. They believe the voices they are hearing are actually those of their ancestors.
The consequences go far beyond financial ruin and embarrassment.
Kumbe says he is aware of two victims committing suicide after being taken in by fake sangomas, while several other people have simply gone missing. That’s quite apart from the ruined lives and mental stress of losing everything.
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“The scammers profile their victims,” says the police investigator. “They know how much they are worth, where they live, how many children they have and whether they attend church.
“They understand the conflict between Christianity and traditional beliefs, so they will lure their victims with a Bible in one hand and bones in the other.”
Adds Kumbe: “It’s not just blacks who are victims. Indians are also roped into this. If you’re white, you’re more likely to be a victim of the romance scam.”
How the ancestry scam works
Scammers will profile their victims and then select an opportune time to approach them, saying they have been sent by a sangoma with an urgent message from their ancestors.
A second member of the syndicate poses as the sangoma, who is channelling the ancestor’s messages. The victims will be told they need to be cleansed to either improve their financial situation, remove an ominous black cloud surrounding them, or remove their children from imminent danger.
“The victim is told to bring a set amount of cash in a bag when visiting the sangoma, which will be cleansed and blessed by the ancestors,” says Karrim.
The ritual healing requires the victim to drink a cleansing herbal remedy containing hallucinogens where they reportedly hear the voices of their ancestors, prompting them to hand over the bag full of cash to the sangoma.
“The sangoma blesses the money, which miraculously doubles in value. The scammers, unbeknown to the intoxicated victim, add the additional cash into the bag during the ritual, leading the victim to believe the ruse,” says Karrim.
For the next part of the scam, the victim is told to return with even more money so that it too can be blessed and miraculously multiplied.
At the next meeting, the victim is again drugged, and the money blessed. This time, the bag of money is substituted with paper or counterfeit notes, with the sangoma warning the victim not to open the bag for two or three days so as to allow it time to grow in value three or four times. By this time, the scammers have made off with the cash.
Shame and embarrassment
It’s a vastly under-reported crime because of embarrassment, shame and, in some cases, sexually compromising material that keeps the victims silent.
The scammers get new customers from compromised or brainwashed victims or from advertising. Friends and family are also used to canvass for new victims for a cut of the takings.
“The problem we have when we bring these cases to court is the scammers deal only in cash, so there is no paper trail. It ends up being the victim’s word against the scammer’s,” says the police investigator.
“My message to South Africans is don’t respond to these advertisements for penis enlargement or consultations with a doctor – usually fake – who promises to win back your lost lover. These are the way they groom their victims.”
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A typical fee for a consultation with a genuine sangoma ranges from R50 to R200. When you are asked to sell your house and cash in your pension fund, it’s time to run – and report the matter to the police, says the police investigator.
How it starts
It often starts with a romance scam, where single or lonely women are the primary targets.
The victim logs onto a dating site and meets what appears to be a charming and generous man. He showers her with compliments and gifts, softening her up for the big shake-down. This leads to intimacy and assurances of eternal love from the scammer. In several cases, the victim is drugged and photographed during a sexual liaison, which can then be used as a kompromat to prevent her from approaching the police or making too much noise about the shake-down.
The ‘lover’ broaches the subject of sangomas with the victim, with stories of incredible healing powers and their ability to turn a small bag of money into a bigger one.
The scammers have learnt enough of the methods and language of local sangomas to put on an impressive show and will usually have a South African on board to make it more authentic.
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It’s not just the police and victims who are outraged at the audacity of the ancestry scams.
Several South African sangomas, perhaps concerned about the threat to their craft and the insult to their traditional healing methods, have chased many of these scammers out of local communities, say the police.
Kumbe says several of his tenants were also involved in gold and other scams, such as the infamous 419 fraud, where the victim is promised a large sum of money in return for a small up-front payment. This ‘419’ refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud.
Scams can be reported at the SAFPS website.