JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Like any good poet, Sithembile Mlanjeni says his inspiration comes from deep inside, surging up to fill his brain and voice with the rolling rhythm and kinetic cadence of Xhosa verse.
Unlike most bards, however, Mlanjeni performs barefoot and bare-chested. He waves a cow-tail whisk in one hand and a burl-topped club called a knobkerrie in the other. He wears a jackal skin cap, an intricate bead necklace and a gleaming smile.
And he doesn't recite his poetry so much as bellow it out, unscripted and unrehearsed, with the approximate volume of a jet engine.
"It comes from within me," he explained. "From my heart. From my ancestors. They tell me what to say."
Mostly they tell him to sing the praises of Nelson Mandela.
Mlanjeni is an \o7 imbongi\f7 , or traditional praise singer. And as befits Mandela's role as a chief of the Thembu tribe of Transkei, Mlanjeni has bawled the glories of the new president and his royal ancestors at most of Mandela's major ceremonies, from the opening of the new Parliament to Mandela's formal inauguration in Pretoria last month.
The troubadour's rap-like riffs and roars, and those of a deputy praise singer, drew open-mouthed stares at Mandela's swearing-in from a crowd that included Vice President Al Gore, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Mlanjeni's presence is not the only sign that the new South Africa is embracing ancient African traditions as well as modern Western democracy as it seeks solutions for the legacy of poverty and injustice left by apartheid.
In many ways, the young nation is writing its own rules.
Before the first weeklong session of the new, all-race Parliament adjourned last month, for example, the new members had created their own dress code. Gray suits gave way to African robes, Indian saris and Doc Marten shoes.
Some speeches began, "Comrades," or were uttered in the Zulu or Xhosa languages. One member refused to give his "maiden speech," saying the term was sexist. And members applauded one another for the first time, instead of muttering in British style, an event reported in the Citizen, a Johannesburg newspaper under the dramatic headline, "Clap in Parliament."
Elsewhere, a local Monopoly-style board game called Oppression that featured segregated jails and other vestiges of apartheid has been replaced by a game called Democracy. Players each control a political party and must deal with such vagaries of public life as an assassin, call girls and illegal dealing in rhinoceros horns.
Other changes are more significant.
Mandela's government has proposed, for example, that traditional healers called \o7 sangomas \f7 be incorporated into an ambitious new health care plan to "become an integral and recognized part of health care in South Africa."
Dr. Ralph Mgijima, who helped draft the plan for the African National Congress, conceded that "there are obvious problems," chief among them such practices as ritual murder, the use of human organs and alleged witchcraft.
But he said most \o7 sangomas \f7 are benign healers who provide medical and spiritual care to millions of impoverished rural blacks.
"We start from the premise that there are many areas where people have no access to health care except for \o7 sangomas \f7 and traditional healers," he said. "So to restructure health care, you have to include those people. They have the confidence of those communities and are leaders in their own right."
In urban areas, many black families use a doctor for sickness and a \o7 sangoma \f7 for problems such as depression.
\o7 Sangomas \f7 "have a much higher success rate in treating psychiatric illnesses and mental health problems than modern psychiatry," Mgijima said.
\o7 Sangomas \f7 say they communicate with ancestors. Isak Niehaus, an anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, explained that in Western terms.
"When you go to a \o7 sangoma\f7 , he helps you create a myth to reorder the chaotic experience in your life," he said. "If you go because you're depressed, and the \o7 sangoma \f7 says it's because your ancestor is unhappy, you believe it. And it gives you a course of action. And that is very valuable."
The new health minister, Dr. Nkosazana Zuma, wants legislation to register traditional healers, set standards for their training and care, and test the medicines they use. It won't be easy: Much of their practice remains a mystery.
\o7 Sangomas\f7 , for example, usually diagnose a patient's problem by "rolling the bones," or reading portents from a special set of animal bone shards. If medicine is required, they prepare it from roots and herbs.
Treatment may include scarring skin with a razor, or scratching it with porcupine quills.